It is not to the credit of my first teaching experience that I stayed a teacher. I was hired and installed in my own silo. The eighth-grade girls were by turns friendly, motivated, disinterested, and oppositional; these behaviors often manifested in the classroom at the same time. I was tempted to explore another career but decided to follow my passion. As my coffee mug says, “To Teach is to Touch a Life Forever.”

Burnout is real, and as Catherine Zuckerman writes, “burnout rates tend to be higher in people who view their work as a calling.” After more than forty years as an educator, including fourteen years as a day school administrator, I reflect on how I avoided burnout.

  • My experience taught me that being compassionate to myself and others was helpful.
  • I tried to work smarter, not just harder. As Robyn R. Jackson writes, “Never work harder than your students.”
  • I learned to ask for help.
  • I made friends with the office and maintenance staff. They are indispensable.
  • I found a colleague who would answer my questions and forced myself to ask those questions—even if I thought that they were inane.
  • I sought out a mentor among my colleagues, even when one was not appointed for me.
  • I took time to read, learn, and attend workshops and conferences whenever possible. These provided me with new ideas, new skills, and most importantly, collegial affirmation.
  • I avoided the “but I’ve always done it this way” syndrome. That kept me learning and changing and feeling like I was growing.
  • I always came prepared to class – always! I found that that eased much of my stress.
  • I read every piece of paper, every email, and every memo sent by the school and noted relevant information in my plan book. Fewer surprises meant less stress.
  • I protected family time and created set time for work that the family respected.
  • I remembered to take care of myself – to eat, drink, breathe, and go to the bathroom.
  • I made “little parties” for myself: a Starbucks latte, a phone call with a close friend, or a short walk in the park.
  • I mentored others, which provided an amazing sense of satisfaction in being able to share my acquired wisdom to help younger colleagues
  • I regularly reviewed the safety message they give on airplanes before takeoff – if the oxygen masks drop, put yours on first before you help the passenger next to you – or you won’t do any good.

In the decades since my very first day of teaching, I try to follow my own advice. And each time I meet an erstwhile student or colleague who offers positive memories of our time together, it confirms my choice to make a career in education.  The relationships I form and the opportunity to have an impact on my students makes it all worthwhile. School is where I belong.

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Chaye Kohl has been a Jewish day school teacher and educational administrator for more than forty years. She currently teaches English at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (NJ) and is an Adjunct Professor of English at Adelphi University (NY).

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