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Solutions for the Overwhelmed Educator - Part 1

Teachers and school leaders are more exhausted and busy than ever in this crazy school year! Can we make our work sustainable and avoid burnout? Yes!

I recently joined a Facebook Group called “Principal Principles”. The group has an amazingly active community of school leaders willing to offer support and collective wisdom on everything from first day assemblies, to finding a job, to improving Zoom staff meetings. Scanning the posts, I was struck by just how frequently certain words showed up: “exhausted”, “overwhelmed”, “losing sleep”, “anxiety”, “so tired”, “too much”, and “stress” .

Teachers are burned out too. New bell schedules. New technology. New safety protocols. New accountability mandates. Teachers are forced to set aside what they know to be best practices in teaching and learning because students are behind a computer screen, or six feet away behind plexiglas, or both at the same time. And above all else, there’s fear about their own health and safety, and for the ones they love, including students.

Teacher and administrator burnout were serious, worrying issues well before the pandemic (see this great 2013 article in The Atlantic). Now, there’s emerging data that COVID-19 may drive teachers and administrators out of the profession in droves. Surveys released this month showed that forty-five percent of principals (National Association of Secondary School Principals) and over forty percent of veteran teachers (National Education Association) are considering leaving education sooner than they had initially planned because of the pandemic. An exodus of that magnitude would devastate public education.

So, what can you do to prevent exhaustion, overwork, and burnout in this most crazy of school years? I’ve already shared tips about reducing stress and taking brain breaks. Start there. Self-care for educators is essential work right now. It’s not optional.

Here are two additional strategies for staying sane right now. Hopefully, they will even make life as an educator more sustainable, joyful, and fulfilling long term. Next week, I’ll share two more.

#1 - Focus on one thing at a time

I know it seems counter intuitive. As the pressure builds and the to do list grows, it seems like multitasking is the only way to survive. However, research shows that being fully present and focused on just the one thing in front of you makes you more productive and more happy. Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track says:

“Why does the present make us happy? Because we fully experience the things going on around us. Instead of getting caught up in a race to accomplish more things faster, we slow down and are actually with the people we are with, immersed in the ideas being discussed, and fully engaged in our projects.”

When you are only doing one thing at a time, you eliminate the mental switching cost of trying unsuccessfully to keep multiple things in mind at the same time, forgetting where you were, and having to refocus when you get back. Multitasking wastes time which is something nobody has enough of right now.

My major multitasking downfall is checking email constantly. With so many big to do list items pressing, it feels satisfying to at least get even one email out of the way. But caving into that desire left me checking my email at 5 AM, glancing at notifications in the middle of family dinner, and ending the day with little accomplished except a clean inbox.

To change my habit, I put a 30 minute daily limit on my phone’s mail app. I enabled screen time limits on my phone so I couldn’t open mail or other work related apps between 9 PM and 5 AM. I turned off all notifications on my phone and computer except those that were truly essential. I set an alarm for 9 AM “focus time” and minimized every window on my computer except the project I’m working on. And when my work is with another human, I put my phone away or go full screen on video chat in order to be fully present and focused on the person before me.

#2 - Give yourself grace

Ever since I was little I’ve had overachiever, perfectionist tendencies. My parents instilled in me the goal of always doing my best at everything I did. I surrounded myself with other overachievers as I went along, which reinforced that mindset.

At Stanford, my peers and I prided ourselves on being busy and overworked as if it was a badge of honor. “You’re taking 18 units? Well I’m taking 21.” I would never be satisfied with a B when I could do my best and get an A+. In my first year as administrator at Chrysalis I was routinely pulling 60-70+ hour work weeks with a one year old at home. Yesterday there was a post on “Principal Principles” about logging a 14 hour workday. All 89 comments were from other leaders sympathizing and normalizing long hours.

Even at home, it wasn’t enough to have dinner with friends, it had to be a party for 20, then 40, then two back to back 40 person dinners the same weekend as the school graduation (that put me over the edge).

Over the past few years, I’ve begun to realize just how much life I’ve missed out on and just how weary and exhausted I had become. Bigger isn’t always better. Busy isn’t always more productive. Doing more doesn’t bring more joy nor even more recognition. Not everything demands your very best and an A+. To tame my overachiever, I asked myself these questions:

  • Is it truly necessary? I got rid of half the items on my to do list by deleting everything that had sat there for more than two months because it never rose to a high enough priority.

  • Could I delegate? Does it really need my skill set or are there other qualified people who would be willing to help? I enlisted a parent volunteer as newsletter editor then accepted that the newsletter would never be, and never had to be, Pinterest worthy.

  • If I say yes to this, what will I be saying no to? When the team asked for more support with student behavior, I offloaded chasing students that were chronically absent to a committee.

  • What’s more important? I set boundaries, particularly with my family time. I set a reminder on my calendar every day at 5:15 PM: “Irene goes home”. I would not open my computer from then until morning unless there was a true emergency.

I was finally able to bring my 60-70+ hour workweek down to a manageable 50 hour one that achieved the work-life balance I was seeking. When COVID-19 hit, I had to be even more disciplined. Every morning, I would look at what was on my plate and if it wasn’t essential to be done by me, that day, or that week, I would put it into an idea parking lot and forget about it. Yes, there will be occasional 60-70+ hour workweeks like the two weeks following our Governor’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. But it’s no longer the norm.

Putting #1 (focus) and #2 (grace) together

Fast forward to the end of July when a leadership coach introduced me to the 80:20 rule. His rule of thumb is that only twenty percent of the work you do actually needs you to be your very best, the other eighty percent can be good enough. For every task in front of you, which 80:20 bucket does it belong in?

This was hard for me because it directly conflicts with my parents’ directive to always do your best. But the more I look at it, the more I realize I spend far too much time on “good enough” things. I don’t really need to reread that email for typos and grammar twice before sending. The staff handbook doesn’t need to be in hard copy like in years past. I can just skim that 53 page document the business office sent, or call my fiscal analyst for the five minute summary. “Good enough” is good enough for the mountains of paperwork. In fact, there’s a whole lot in the “good enough” bucket that probably doesn’t need to be done at all right now and can just be put in the parking lot for later. If I’m not getting anything from the webinar, then I’ll leave it rather than multitask my way through it and do a poor job on both.

So what twenty percent really needs my full focus, my unique skill set, A+ effort, and is truly necessary right now? In general, I’ve discovered, at least in education, the answer is relationships. Luckily, that also reconnects me with why I was called to this field -- making a difference and helping others. When I give my very best and my undivided attention to the people, I remember why I’m an educator in the first place. That’s energizing rather than draining.

More next week

Want more solutions for the overwhelmed educator? Don’t miss next week’s post. Subscribe to my blog. Here’s a teaser:

#3 - Set up efficient routines and habits.

“We’re half zombie. Research shows that we’re operating in habit mode at least 45% of the time. That means we’re on automatic… So you’ve got to be smart to outsmart your own brain.” - Michael Bungay Stanier

#4 - Create your rainbow.

“After every storm, there is a rainbow. If you have eyes, you will find it. If you have wisdom, you will create it.” - Shannon L. Alder

Read More

I highly recommend Emma Seppälä’s The Happiness Track for all you fellow overachievers and perfectionists out there. And read more about setting boundaries using Michael Bungay Stanier’s Strategy question: “If you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” from his fabulous book, The Coaching Habit.

Finally, remember, self-care is mandatory right now. Try these strategies to reduce stress and take a brain break.

Going Further

If this article resonated with you, I am launching a “Lightning Coaching Call" option for overwhelmed school leaders and teachers that don’t have a moment to spare, can’t stand another minute on Zoom, but need help navigating the huge challenges being thrown your way right now. Imagine a future for yourself where a weekly 20 minute phone call on your commute to or from work could transform your biggest challenge into fresh insight, renewed energy, and rekindled passion for what brought you into education in the first place. I will help shorten your workweek, find time for self-care, and change your habits. Sign up on my calendar for one FREE 60 minute “Initial Chat” to find out more OR try THREE free 20 minute “Lightning Coaching Calls” and experience the difference in your wellbeing.

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