My niece was so starstruck she could barely speak.
“Mommy,” she whispered, tugging on my sister’s shirt as she gazed up in awe. “That’s her!”
This five-year-old was rendered speechless by an unlikely celebrity: her kindergarten teacher. Though my niece started kindergarten on Zoom, Ms. Coyne had ignited in her such a love of school that seeing her in person truly felt like seeing Doc McStuffins herself striding down the hall.
As a former teacher, I witnessed my colleagues inspire this type of love and admiration in their students every year. But I also watched with growing despair as these educators, talented and transformational as they were, were burning out and leaving the profession.
As teachers, we have to learn how to solve seemingly intractable problems with creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. We have to learn from our mistakes, commit to continuous improvement, and push ourselves every day to meet our goals. These happen to be the same skills that entrepreneurs need to launch and sustain their businesses. Armed with that knowledge, I launched — Burn-in Mindset — which aims to help the best educators at risk of burnout reconnect with their passion so that they choose to stay in the job with the same energy and drive that made them so effective in the first place.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with principals nationwide to support their top teachers through an evidence-based coaching program that helps them learn new skills and leverage their existing talents to deepen their teaching practice, improve their wellbeing, and catalyze student achievement.
What helps isn’t rocket science, but it is science. Teachers who routinely share the best part of their day, experience more gratitude. Teachers who treat themselves like elite athletes have the energy to wake up early the next day. And teachers who don’t interpret burnout symptoms as a sign of personal weakness experience less shame.
These shifts have a domino effect in school communities. As school leaders and teachers become re-inspired by their work and their students, kids feel that energy and feed off of it to engage more deeply in their own learning.
Soon enough, the entire culture at the school has shifted. Teachers and kids find more joy throughout the day, and that joy spreads through each and every hallway.
The pandemic, of course, made this infinitely harder. Teachers who were already feeling overwhelmed were suddenly adapting to unprecedented circumstances, scrambling to learn new technology, support their students through trauma, and manage their own anxieties. The principals I worked with feared an exodus of incredible teachers that would devastate their schools.
We must try to stop that from happening. A principal in Camden, New Jersey, focused on socioemotional support immediately, having meals and laptops delivered to students and connecting kids to mental health resources.
In San Jose, another principal feared what would happen if student accountability disappeared and kids lost all the hard-earned progress they’d made throughout the year. She got to work reimagining academics, devising ways to assess reading levels remotely, inspire kids to log on to virtual school each day, and incentivize online goals to keep them engaged.
As the year went on, it turned out that regardless of where each principal started, the schools that had the strongest culture of learning figured out how to prioritize both socioemotional wellness and academics. They did that by thinking creatively and refusing to throw in the towel even on the hardest days.
One teacher invited local celebrities into his “Zoom Room” to showcase his kids’ learning and make them feel special. Another teacher cultivated relationships with her students by emailing them a poem each morning with a personal note explaining how her interpretation applied to the state of the world. A principal turned the daily staff huddle into a crash course on psychological skills to help teachers survive and thrive.
In 2021, the word entrepreneur sparks images of startups and software. But to me, being an entrepreneur means helping educators transform the way they think about their work to ignite an ongoing culture of growth and learning. My favorite entrepreneurs are the teachers who met their students in their driveways to do word problems in sidewalk chalk, who created Zoom lessons so engaging and fun that their five-year-old charges fell in love with school through a screen.
I spent the pandemic combating burnout by cultivating its opposite, helping educators realize that they don’t always need to look to the innovations of others to do their jobs well. Flexibility, resilience, and creativity are what drive the very best teachers I know. When they have the support to tap into those powers, the possibilities for themselves and their students are boundless.
Julia King Pool is a former educator, the 2013 DC Teacher of the Year, and founder of Burn-in Mindset, an organization focused on reducing teacher and leader burnout. The Burn-in Mindset coaching program works with high-performing teachers and school leaders and utilizes components of positive psychology to reignite educators’ passion for their work. Through one-on-one coaching, Burn-in Mindset helps schools retain their top talent, reduce symptoms of burnout, and increase teacher morale.
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