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Solutions for the Overwhelmed Educator - Part 2

Habit Buster Worksheet
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Last week, we explored several solutions for overwhelmed educators to prevent burnout and exhaustion. This week, we discover two more - habits and rainbows.

Quick recap

My mother in law gave me a great piece of advice as I was leaving the hospital with my first child. She said, “There will be times when you want to throw the baby out the window, run out the front door, and quit. That’s perfectly normal and nothing at all to be ashamed of. Every mother feels that way at one point or another. Just don’t quit. It will get better.”

Little did I know how applicable that advice would be to working in public education. My mother in law’s words helped me so much as a middle school teacher, university professor, and school leader. I remember thinking about them last spring after my second week straight of 12 hour days while trying to shepherd my school through the pandemic and school closure.

If you’re a school leader or teacher or professor who has contemplated running out the front door and quitting, first of all, know that we are all secretly feeling that way. Don’t be upset at yourself. Don’t be ashamed. Your feelings are completely normal. It will get better.

Allow me give you some research-backed strategies that you can implement right now to help. If you haven’t read last week’s blog, I encourage you to check it out now. In that post, I discuss:

  1. Self care - Try some brain breaks and start using them regularly. Pick a few other research-backed stress reduction techniques and build those into your life too.

  2. Focus - Although it seems like multitasking is the only way to survive, research shows that being fully present and focused on just the one thing in front of you makes you more productive and more happy.

  3. Grace - Not everything has to be done to perfection, or even done at all. Use five questions to help prioritize your to do list. Give yourself a permission slip to prioritize, say “good enough”, delegate, skip it, and set boundaries.

Now here are two additional solutions!

#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

We aren’t aware of many habits our brains use to simplify our lives. I have a morning tea ritual that runs on automatic every morning. I have a favorite spot in the school parking lot. I always put my purse down in the same bit of carpet next to my desk.

My routines and habits help my brain conserve energy. It’s as if you have a gas tank that fuels your decision making for the day. The more choices you make in a day, the harder each one gets because your fuel tank starts running low. Psychologists call this decision fatigue and there’s fascinating research to back it up. Judges are more likely to deny parole late in the day. Quarterbacks make more mistakes late in a game. If your brain can use a habit or routine instead of actively choosing where to put your purse or which packing spot to pick, then it saves energy for more important decisions down the road.

However, this “new normal” is making decision fatigue worse than ever. Many of our old, pre-pandemic habits don’t work or are even counterproductive. There’s a million choices to make this year that one would never have to make in a normal year. How should I arrange the furniture? Where should I sit for proper distancing? Can kids borrow books from the class library? Do I need to disinfect the copy machine after I use it, and will a bleach wipe damage the machine?

Scroll to the end of this USA Today article for a fabulous set of research-backed strategies to combat COVID-19 decision fatigue. Allow me to offer one more: find a routine that is costing you time and energy, and do something different.

For example, I was chatting with one teacher who was feeling overwhelmed by her email inbox. Her standard email routine involved thinking about the dilemma the parent was having, thoughtfully composing a response, reading it over a few times, and hitting send. Her routine worked well last year, but with so many parent questions, that routine is now overwhelming. My advice to her was to call each parent with a 5 minute timer beside you: “Ms. Young, I’m calling to respond to your email but only have 5 minutes. Let’s see if I can help you at least a little bit before I have to run.” Or create a FAQ Google Doc that all families can refer to. Or keep every response to under three sentences. If you can’t answer in three sentences, then invite the parent to make an appointment. (You’ll be amazed how many parents can answer their own question if they have to make an appointment).

What routines do you have that are not serving you well this year? Everyone has automatic email routines. I bet you check email at a similar time and place each day and scan through your inbox same way. Is your email routine working for you or against you? What about your habits concerning the location of things in your office or classroom? Or the way you plan lessons? Or your Monday newsletter? Or how you keep todos?

This is the year to think critically about the automatic habits and expectations that you have always held yourself to. If any routines are adding your mental or emotional exhaustion, it may be time for a change that will save you from decision fatigue in the long run.

#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

Right now, everyone in education is experiencing their first year all over again. We are all first year teachers or first year administrators or first year professors. It is exhausting. However, there’s also an opportunity for reconnecting with one’s purpose or even creating something bigger and better out of this pandemic that would have been impossible otherwise.

To find your rainbow, reconnect with the central mission that drew you to education in the first place. There’s research to show that people are happier and live longer when they are working and living with a sense of purpose and meaning. If your mission and purpose is to help kids learn, then find a few kids in your room whose life circumstances are such that they wouldn’t thrive without you in their life right now. If your mission and purpose is leadership, then be that incredible leader that can hold your team together through the storm and inspire them to greater heights than they ever thought possible.

Sometimes, rainbows are hard to find. For many educators in distance learning mode, the pandemic and top down mandates are forcing you to teach in a way that goes against everything you know is best for kids in your heart of hearts. How can one find a rainbow in that?

In that case, you might have to create a rainbow. That is, seek an opportunity to learn or create something that would not be possible without distance learning. One teacher at our school had always wanted to master Google Classroom. This is her year. Some homeschool programs are seeing unprecedented demand and interest. There’s opportunity there to show the world how to do homeschooling right, and create a whole new following for years to come.

Sometimes the rainbows you create are less directly tied to your work. For instance, I am creating a rainbow with my kids. I was directed to work from home as much as possible so that I can immediately step in for my co-Administrator should she get sick or need to be quarantined. Initially, I could not see any silver lining in being stuck at home, away from the team, unable to solve on the ground problems, or support them directly. Yet because I’m forced to stay home, I get to have lunch with my kids each day. I can play a quick game with them as a work break. I was there when my daughter lost a tooth. I can help with science homework. I am now actively creating my rainbow by finding little ways to connect meaningfully with them each day. Every time I long to be in the office with my colleagues and the students, I make myself take a brain break and shift to seeing the rainbow I’ve created out of the storm.

Final thought

There’s one final, overarching message I’d like to share. One of my favorite leadership researchers, Nancy Koehn, says “Ride the path, not the jumps.” You are an extraordinary educator, on a path towards making a difference for kids, your team, your school and your community. You started on this path for a reason. Right now, there are huge hurdles and obstacles in the way. If you focus on those challenges and lose sight of the path, you will crash or get stuck or quit. Focus on the path, not the jumps.

Remember what my mother in law said. Your feelings are completely normal and nothing to be ashamed about. Don’t quit. It will get better. Use some or all of these solutions to thrive this year, not just survive.

Read More

Don’t forget about that great USA Today article about COVID-19 decision fatigue.

Charles Duhigg wrote this fantastic article on how habits work and how to break them.

If you want a structured way to change one of your own habits, try this 2 page worksheet (attached as a file above) that I use with my clients based on Duhigg’s work. Email me and I’ll gladly send you a filled in version that I used personally to stop checking email all the time as an example of how to use this worksheet.

To learn more about not just finding the gift in the crisis, but creating a Gift of Opportunity so positive that it will all be worth it, this 6 minute video from Shirzad Chamine breaks it down perfectly.

Going Further

These five simple strategies will help you not just survive but thrive this year. I have launched a “Lightning Coaching Call" option for overwhelmed school leaders and teachers specifically to help you stay on the path and walk by your side as you implement these strategies. This is not yet another zoom meeting and one more thing to do. A weekly 20 minute phone call on your commute to or from work can transform your biggest challenge into fresh insight, renewed energy, and rekindled passion for what brought you into education in the first place. You CAN rekindle your passion for education, AND work normal hours, AND find time for family and the other things that matter in life, AND still be your very best for your school. Don’t believe me? Try it! Sign up on my calendar for a free 60 minute “Initial Chat” OR try THREE free 20 minute “Lightning Coaching Calls”.

Subscribe to my blog for more insights and advice. I plan to take next week off because of Labor Day. See you week after next.

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