Burnout among early childhood educators is at a whole new level within the last couple of years. Administrators, teachers, observers, and staff feel different levels of burnout, and there isn’t a magic cure or quick fix. On this episode of Teaching with CLASS®, our guest Colleen Schmit returns to the podcast to help educators recognize and work through burnout.
Write your why on a sticky note where you will see it, feel it, and remember it. If you didn’t love what you do, or have interest in what you do, you wouldn’t keep showing up, and this job is challenging! Physically, mentally, and emotionally, so being grounded in your why can really help get through the day-to-day.
Find positive people who will support you! Surround yourself with positivity and people who will empathize with you. Be mindful of who you are interacting with and how you’re responding.
One of the biggest perks of working in early childhood education is that you get to work with young children, have fun, and be silly. You get to go and focus on joy and building relationships. Sometimes it is more important to pause your lesson plan and go with what you know works, or what should be addressed at that moment. Relationships impact all of the learning outcomes you’re trying to achieve.
There is no program or regime for self-care, it is different for everyone. It can feel difficult to make time for yourself, but just do your best to be mindful of the things that will take care of your physical and mental health. It all boils down to things that you do to take care of you in a way that makes you feel more like yourself. Also, if you aren’t engaging in self-care, don’t be too hard on yourself. Be gentle with yourself and do what you can to prioritize your needs.
It’s not just about being a voice for the voiceless of your children, but also yourself, the families, your co-workers. It’s a big job, but when you are advocating for everyone but yourself, you will burn out.
Colleen Schmit: The biggest perk of your job with working with young children is you get to go to work and have fun and be silly. You get to go and focus on joy, focus on relationship building, sometimes pausing and saying, "Whoa, we're having a hard day today. I'm going to stop what I'm doing in this plan book, and I'm going to focus on joy and relationship building and I'm just going to try and love and enjoy what I'm doing in this moment."
Mamie Morrow: Hello, everyone. I'm your host, Mamie, and welcome to the Teaching With CLASS Podcast where we explore topics that help educators deepen their connections with children and enhance their social, emotional, and cognitive growth and development. Today, our guest host, Erin Sabina, joins our returning guest, Colleen Schmit, for a conversation about understanding and overcoming teacher burnout and ways to show empathy to ourselves during busy and stressful times. Colleen has worked in the field of early childhood education for over 20 years and she got her start as a kindergarten teacher. Colleen shares some strategies for self-compassion and some advice she wishes she knew earlier on in her career. We hope you enjoy this conversation.
Erin Sabina: Good morning, Colleen. You were very open in your blog post and on our previous podcast recording about how you stopped loving teaching at one point. Can you summarize how you went from loving your work to feeling burnt out and what some of the main factors you think contributed to that might have been?
Colleen Schmit: Erin, I feel like I'm literally an open book lately about most things, especially about my experiences of being a classroom teacher. I taught kindergarten when I first began teaching, like I mentioned in the previous podcast. I absolutely loved my job. Loved the kids, obviously, right? Loved the families we were serving, loved my coworkers, loved the district, big old love fest. And when I began teaching, I really did use a lot of developmentally appropriate practices and best practices that I had learned during undergrad. And so I taught the way I was taught to teach and it was joyful and fun. And then those expectations, sometimes it's school-wide expectations or teachers might be feeling pressure from the district that they're working in. And that seemed to start interfering with... I don't know if it's my ability to teach with developmentally appropriate practices, but it became clear to me that in order to fit in with the mold, my practices weren't necessarily matching up with the expectations of how I was expected to teach.
So I conformed and I completely went away from focusing on relationships or interactions, and I really focused very heavy on rote learning. I took away a lot of the autonomy or choice for my kindergartners. I still was nice. You can still be nice and really engage in rote learning. My classroom expectations did not meet the needs and abilities of the children I was serving at the time. I had an expectation of you sit crisscross applesauce, hands in your lap, bubble in your mouth for an extended period of time, especially during whole group time. So that took a lot of joy away from my teaching experience. So that was a part of what led to the burnout. It wasn't the only factor, but it was a big part because teaching is hard. It always was hard. Even when it was joyful, it was hard. But when it became not joyful and when I took away the focus of relationships and interactions and choice and promoting higher order thinking skills and creativity and all of those good juicy things that we want to do as a classroom teacher, now not only was it really hard, but it wasn't any fun. I love the phrase if mama ain't happy, nobody's happy. Right?
Erin Sabina: Absolutely.
Colleen Schmit: True. I mean, that was a big part of it, Erin. Another factor was my complete lack of self-care. When I began teaching, I was newly married. We didn't have any children yet. And I was just able to keep my head above the water. And then my husband and I started having children of our own. I would work with young children all day and then come home to my own sweet babies and I have nothing left to give. Dinosaur chicken nuggets for dinner because I had no plan. Blue Box Mac and Cheese, no plan. So it was very much the survival mode where I didn't feel like I was able to give myself fully in either role that I was playing. I also didn't have myself on the list.
Now, a disclaimer to what I just said. I hope listeners listening know that I have lots of colleagues, lots of friends who are killing it at both. I am not saying you cannot be an effective teacher and caregiver or parent or whatever your outside roles are at the same time. Absolutely you can. But when I reflect back and think about, "Oh my goodness, what the heck went wrong? Why did I go through these flames of burnout so early in my career?" I made it eight years in the classroom. That's not a super long time to be there. And I reflect back on it, and it really was that lack of self-care was a biggie. That was a big part of something that was missing when I was teaching. So not only was it hard and not as much fun, but I was not putting myself on the list. So I think those two factors are really what put gasoline on the flames.
Erin Sabina: Self-care and being intentional about that is so important. It's like the oxygen mask analogy of you have to wear your mask first. You can't be there for others. And I wonder, so I worked in a juvenile detention center before, and I felt the same thing of there was this push to treat the children like inmates. And I got pushback for asking questions like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And so with that, it impacts the children in the way that the children are reacting. So do you think that the young children you were teaching were aware of your inner feelings at the time?
Colleen Schmit: I hate that question because the answer is yes. I do think that the level of joy or balance or respect or autonomy that the teacher has, I do hypothesize that that affects the kids directly. And when I think about that and when I think about early on in my career, those first few years when you're brand new and you're wanting to save the world and change all the things and just be a bright light and it feels good and new and exciting. And I was enjoying what I did. I do feel that my relationships with those children were very different than year seven or eight. And that hurts my heart because I always loved my kids. That never went away, that I did love the children and families that we were serving there. But I do think that it was impacted.
When you take away choice for children, when you take away ownership of learning, when you take away joy in the classroom, they feel that. And it just seems that getting back to a place of joy, balance, focus on interactions and relationships can sometimes seem daunting, but I don't think it's impossible. I think it's what you said, Erin. I think you have to be really intentional about working at it.
Erin Sabina: Absolutely. So that brings a great question. How did you fall back in love with teaching?
Colleen Schmit: Okay. This is super dramatic, but it's really... I'm not just saying this because it's a Teachstone podcast. But honest to goodness, when I learned about the class tool, it was like I had been hit upside the head with a two by four because all of those things I did early on in my career, those first few years, here, I was learning about this research based tool that directly supports learning outcomes, academic learning outcomes, social-emotional learning outcomes. And it was this awakening almost of, "Oh my gosh, what did I do? What happened?" Here it is. Someone has put the words in a tool that we can directly use to support why interactions matter and why relationships matter, why you want to be very intentional about supporting voice and choice for kids. Why you want to promote higher order thinking skills and stretch their brains and expand learning and promote learning, all those good things.
And I know that's so dramatic to say, but I truly believe that the class tool changed my life. And that's a huge drama statement, really big, but it's so true because it made me pause and reflect. And when I had left the classroom, I went and worked at the university in program evaluation. So I also had the time to do that. When you are teaching and you're in the field, you're on the front line, holding the babies, serving the kids, working with the families. Finding that time to self-reflect and pause is really hard. So it wasn't until I left, unfortunately, that I had that opportunity to just take a minute and say, "Whoa, what works? What am I already or was already doing really well? And what would've been game changing for me if I would've had support and coaching on?"
So I know that's such a drama statement, but it's so true. The class tool changed my life. Learning about that really impacted how I view teaching. And I still teach, I still get to work as a substitute teacher. I think I mentioned that in the last podcast too, but I'm very different, very intentional about how I interact with kids. Even though as a sub, you don't come in with that relationship already built. You're going in kind of blind. It is the job that I learned the most in, is working in the classroom still. That's where I learn the most. It's amazing to be able to use what I know from the tool and put it to practice.
Erin Sabina: You mentioned a few times that you feel like that's a dramatic statement. I don't think it is at all. I can't tell you how many programs I've spoken with, program leaders, just partners that we work with who say the same thing that they've been looking for the class tool. They've been looking for something that puts what they know is best practice into a research-based observation tool. So I think that's actually a little bit more common than you may think it is.
Colleen Schmit: That makes me feel better, Erin.
Erin Sabina: So can you share some examples from that time of just, as you were finding that joy again, do you have an example of a child interaction?
Colleen Schmit: Sure. Yeah. Just recently actually, which is funny. So I was a kindergarten teacher. My master's is early childhood. I like the littles, but I've been trying to stretch myself and substitute teach in older grades just to kind of get a feel for that. And I have fallen in love with the big kids. I didn't think I would. And by big kids, I mean fourth graders, but they're great. And they're funny and they're not so different from working in the kindergarten room when it all boils down to when we think about being intentional with relationships and interactions. That applies for any age level that you're working with, infants all the way up through secondary. Right? But an example of an interaction that I had that made me think, "Oh my gosh, what are we doing here?" I was subbing in fourth grade and it was writing time. And I asked the children, would you like me to put on some music while you write? And they were like, "Can we do that?" And I was like, "Sure. Do you want to even do choose what music we listen to?" "Are you serious Mrs. Schmit?"
And I was like, "Yeah." One little girl asked, "Would it be okay if we turn off one of the lights?" And I said, "Yeah, I don't like these fluorescent lights either." And they were just so floored. And I know that's a super minimal example of giving kids choice, but that's where we're at. So when we have taken away all sorts of opportunities for independence, choice, ownership of what you do, simple things like that means a lot to the kids. And I know that's a really rote example, but it was one of those aha moments for me where I felt like, "What are we doing here? What are we doing?" Anytime I sub now, I am a little over the top with how I support voice and choice because I feel like it was the area that at the end of my career, I struggled with the most and maybe had gotten rid of the most, was that choice of learning and choice of movement, choice of I wasn't eliciting any of their ideas and more. I didn't want them to talk. Really, I just wanted to get through the lesson and share what I needed to say so we could get onto the next thing.
And so when I interact now in the classroom with children, I'm a little over the top with that. And I know that, but I believe in the power of student ownership and autonomy fully.
Erin Sabina: Absolutely. And especially at that age level when they're at a point where they know what they're most comfortable with, they know what helps them learn, what calms them, and provides that environment that allows for you to have the effective teaching in the classroom. So what tips do you have for teachers who are experiencing this? Because I've seen on different discussion boards that I'm in, I've heard directly from partners that I'm working with just how challenging things are right now and how high the burnout level is. So what kind of tips do you have, especially those who are feeling it on a whole new level with COVID?
Colleen Schmit: Holy moly, whole new level is an understatement, right? Our teachers are dealing with more than ever right now for the last, I don't know, almost two years, we've been dealing with many changes. And burnout is something that is not just seen in the teaching field or in the classroom. I think this applies especially to leadership, to coaches, to people who work in the cafeteria. It's really all stakeholders are feeling certain levels of burnout and there's no magic cure. So I don't want anyone listening to this to think, "Oh, if I just could do these," I'm going to share four strategies or tips, "If I only could just do these four things, then this is my fault that I feel burnout and I can fix it." That's not true. I still go through burnout, even doing the roles I do now, and I'm doing different jobs. My house are really different with how I'm serving kids and families, but I still struggle with burnout.
It is not a quick easy fix. So please listen to the strategies with an ear of empathy for yourself, for understanding that you're not... I'm not prescribing any magic cure for burnout. So I had shared a blog I think last month, Erin, or recently where I did map out some of these tips. So I will just briefly share a little bit, but I do have... when I think back on, "Whoa, what helps me now and what really could have helped me then when I was a classroom teacher?" I identified four key factors. So the first one is really focusing on your why, and that applies for all the stakeholders. Whether you're Erin Sabina who works with Teachstone, if I ask you Erin, what's your why, I know it's going to be the same why that I have. We're all here to serve children and families. That's our collective why, but sometimes we forget it.
And a simple thing you can do that might brighten the way you look at things when you're feeling stressed or burnout is creeping in is simply just write your why on a sticky note and place it somewhere that you're going to see it and feel it and remember it because that's such a simple to do. So that's tip one, is focus on your why. Why do you do what you do? If you didn't love what you do or have some sort of interest in what you do, you wouldn't keep showing up because this is a job that is challenging. It is physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging to be a classroom teacher no matter the age level you work with. And it's the same for leadership: physically, mentally, emotionally challenging. So being grounded in your why can really help you to stay focused on, why am I here? Why do I show up every day? I need to know my why.
The second strategy or tip I would say is to find your people, find positive people who will support you. There is a big difference between gossip and venting. And when you surround yourself with negativity, it can really add to burnout. Maybe even if you're not engaging in the gossip or negativity, but you're just a set of ears for someone who is not venting, but who is gossiping. And the difference between gossip and venting is gossip is where you try to make someone else look low so you look high, it's fear-based. Venting is when you go to someone that you have a supportive relationship with and say, "I'm having a hard time. I'm really feeling blue, or I'm feeling this," and they empathize, not sympathize with you and say, "I'm so sorry you're feeling that. I've been there too." And you walk away feeling a little bit better. That's a big difference. So making sure that you're mindful of who you're interacting with and how you're responding is a big one. The third thing, and stop me, Erin, if I'm going too fast, or if you want to interject.
Erin Sabina: You're doing great. I love the emphasis on empathy both for yourself and seeking empathy from others. And that concept that you are who you surround yourself with, right? You are the top five people that you surround yourself with. And so make sure that those five people are bringing you up rather than pulling you down.
Colleen Schmit: Absolutely. And that's not to say that you aren't going to empathize with your colleagues at work. For sure. And it sometimes just feels good to get things off your chest with it. But the most truest statement I have ever read or heard was those who gossip to you will gossip about you. So make sure you're surrounding yourself, like you said, Erin, with top five people who support you, make you feel good, make you feel energized and united, and you're contributing to an environment of collaboration at your workplace and not competition or fear.
Erin Sabina: Absolutely. And I think that goes perfectly into your third tip.
Colleen Schmit: Yes. So my third tip is really to focus on joy and relationships. And we talked a little bit about that when I shared really what I feel went wrong when I had felt those flames of burnout later in my career. But that's a huge thing, especially if you work in early childhood. I just want to talk to the early childhood people for just a second. The biggest perk of your job with working with young children is you get to go to work and have fun and be silly. And you can do that at the elementary years, upper elementary, secondary, middle school, all those things, but that's a perk. That is a huge perk that you get to go and focus on joy, focus on relationship building. Sometimes it is more important to stop what's in the plan book and reset with what you know works and what we know works based on a research based tool called the class tool is we know that relationships matter and relationships impact all of those learning outcomes that we're striving to help our students and children receive.
So sometimes pausing and saying, "Whoa, we're having a hard day today. I'm going to stop what I'm doing in this plan book. And I'm going to veer off my lesson plans, veer off the pacing guide." I'm going to talk about that in a second. "And I'm going to focus on joy in relationship building, and I'm just going to try and love and enjoy what I'm doing in this moment." Now, I understand that many listeners will say, "Colleen, I'm unable to veer from the pacing guide. At the school or the building I'm in, our pacing guide is so strictly regimented and scripted that they will not let me do that. And I can very much empathize with you and what that can feel like and how hard that is. But sometimes it's more important to shut your door and do what you know is right. I'm not saying all the time.
The other thing you can do is to start advocating for best practice with your kiddos. And that means you go to leadership and say, "Here's why I veered from the pacing guide right here. There was a magical teachable moment. I wanted to focus on relationships. I understand what my state standards are, and I'm getting right back to them. But in this moment, this was more important. This is what mattered." And I know that's a loaded thing to say right there that I just shared, but it's how I feel, and it's how I believe that we can get some of that ownership back to our teachers too. If we trust them as professionals to allow them to veer from the pacing guide, veer from the curriculum, and focus on supporting intentional relationships and interactions with our kids in a way that they know how to do. And I think that's a powerful way that we can push the pendulum a little bit of giving our educators some more joy in the classroom.
Erin Sabina: That makes me think back to May of last year and how a lot of businesses, I know Teachstone included, had to pause for a moment and reflect on what was happening in our country after George Floyd. And you can't necessarily just continue with business as normal when kids are experiencing trauma or they're going through challenging times. So I love that you are emphasizing really being intentional on pumping the brakes and slowing down and saying, "What do you need right now so that we can be successful in the classroom?"
Colleen Schmit: I love that, Erin, pumping the brakes. It's okay to pause. It's okay to stop for a second and reflect on that why. Why are we here? What do these kids need in this moment? How can I support and help? I love that. That's beautifully stated.
Erin Sabina: Absolutely. And so your last tip here, you said putting yourself on the list. So you need to not only focus on the kids and what they need, but how do you focus on the kids if you're not focusing on yourself? Right?
Colleen Schmit: Yeah. It's like your airplane analogy that you shared earlier with you have to put your oxygen mask on before helping out of a small child. Right? It's the same with teaching, but this is also a topic that I think is getting to be a little... how do I want to say this? A little bit misguided. The buzzword of self-care has been going around for a few years now, it feels like, and I believe in self-care, but I think our messaging and our wording around it is important and words matter. So when we're talking about self-care, there's no program or regime, it's different for everyone. If I tell one of my best friends who's an extreme extrovert that you need to sit and meditate 20 minutes a day and be quiet and be by yourself, that's not self-care for her. She doesn't recharge that way. She recharges by being around others or being social.
So I worry that when we send this messaging to educators, that self-care is a must and you must engage in self-care, there's a few things that happen. First, they get a little upset because they say, "I don't have time. I don't have time for self-care. Are you going to give me time for self-care?" And if you are in a leadership position, I just spoke to leaders this week from Mississippi, and I was like, "Listen, if you're going to preach to the teachers that they need to have self-care next time you have a professional development session, you allow them to have an hour where they can do whatever it is that's going to bring them back to feeling good." If we're going to promote this message of teachers need more self-care, we need to push some time in our schedules for them to actually have intentional self-care.
Self-care is also little things that you can do. Simply walking your dog, calling your sister if that recharges you, being mindful of doing things that will take care of your physical and mental health are huge. I know I shared on social media the other week I went and had a mammogram. I'm like, "That's self-care." No one wants to do that, but it's part of things that we do to make sure that our bodies are healthy and staying physically well. So I think it can look like a lot of different things for a lot of different people. And what it all boils down to is self-care are things that you do to take care of you in a way that makes you feel more of yourself. So if that includes journaling, yeah, self-care. If that includes going out and being with friends in a safe way, self-care. It just varies person to person. But what it boils down to is putting yourself on the list.
I had a friend the other day and this totally... when she said this to me, Erin, it made me rethink how I talk about self-care because I was like, "Oh, you're not the only one feeling this, this is so true." She said, "Colleen, I believe in self-care. I do. I think it matters. It's important. But when I don't have self-care, if I'm not engaging in self-care, I feel like it's one more thing that I'm failing at, or that I'm not good at and I'm not doing. And I just add it to this list of almost like self-sabotage." When she said that, I was like, "Holy moly, this is why we need to be careful with how we're talking about self-care and how we're promoting it because those who feel like they aren't engaging in self-care, it can really impact your mental help and what you feel about how you're trying to do that." So when she said that, it was a game changer for me. I was like, "Oh."
Erin Sabina: Just like all interactions, it's not one size fits all with kids or with our friends or family, it's going to be different with each person and themself as well depending on what your individual needs are. And you commented on how this is something that administrators should focus on as well. Now, you had also mentioned advocacy. Can you tell us more about how teachers can advocate for what matters not only for their students, but also for themselves?
Colleen Schmit: Oh my gosh, I am in the midst of writing a little something about advocacy. In fact, it's titled Take The Bubble Out Of Your Mouth: How To Be an Advocate, but advocacy is not just being a voice for the voiceless for the kids. That's a big part of our why and what we want to do. But advocacy also includes advocating for yourself, for your coworkers, for the families you work with and serve, and it's a big job. It's similar to self-care where it's not this one size fits all, but you have to really be intentional about finding different ways that you feel respected enough either with your other stakeholders or with yourself, that you see that your voice matters, your voice is important, and that you should use your voice to help advocate for others, yourself.
And same with leaders. Leaders are in a hard role. They really have a challenging position. I have never been in that role, so I can't speak totally for them. But when I think about what that must feel like or be like, leaders are advocating for their teachers, they're advocating for the kids, the families. But I feel like sometimes we forget to advocate for ourselves. And again, that's where the burnout comes in. If you're working from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, you don't leave that building, eventually... My mom, she says, "Eventually if you burn the candle at both ends, eventually, you'll burn out," and she's right. And that's what happens to us is if we forget to take a minute and pause, we will burn out and it's hard. It's ongoing. There's no quick fix.
Erin Sabina: So Colleen, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for this. I am very passionate about this topic in general. It's been wonderful talking to you. Can you just recap a little bit about what you would really suggest for teachers, for administrators, and how they can support themselves in one another with teacher burnout?
Colleen Schmit: Yeah. Just to recap, I think the biggest thing is when we talked about empathy, Erin, and adding that as an important part of being empathetic with yourself and empathetic with each other, empathetic with the kids, with our families. We've all been through it lately, right? Everyone is dealing with something that you truly do not understand. So being empathetic and kind to all is a big one. And then just to revisit those four that I shared, again, this is not a prescription for how to extinguish the flames of burnout or anything like that, but really focusing on your why. Why do you love what you do? Finding positive people to interact with, a positive support system that builds you up and feeds your soul, and then focusing on relationships and joy, especially with those in your classroom.
And then finally is just loving yourself enough to put yourself on the list. And if you're like me and feel like, "Oh my gosh, lately, I have zero self-care." I'm really good at preaching this preach of, "Everyone, self-care, it's the answer," but then I don't practice what I preach and I just forgive myself and say, "Okay. Well, today, I'm actually going to go for a walk with just me and that recharges me, or I'm going to just sit and read a book for fun and that recharges me." So simply putting yourself on the list can help you feel a little bit more of you.
Erin Sabina: Absolutely. I love that focus on yourself on being empathetic to yourself. And I love what you said about forgiving yourself as well. Don't linger, don't dwell on things that you've struggled with, just move forward. Well, this has been great. I hope our listeners really get some great takeaways here. And also you mentioned your blog post. That'll be linked in the podcast as well here.
Colleen Schmit: Thanks, Erin.
Erin Sabina: Thanks, Colleen.
Mamie Morrow: If you're interested in continuing this conversation with other educators, I invite you to join our class learning community which just recently got a fresh updated look. You can share or learn more strategies with other educators around the world. The link to join is included in the show notes along with helpful blog posts on this topic that we hope you'll enjoy. Thank you again for joining us today. And until next time, be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning.
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Moving towards a post-pandemic world, early childhood education is still in a fractured state of recovery. Numerous headlines define the inequitable foundation early childhood system is built on that limits educators’ capacity to thrive and impact children’s lives. Yet demand for early learning remains steadfast as families get back to routines in communities everywhere. How do policymakers start to level the playing field for early childhood programs with equitable policies while increasing access for families in need of high-quality care?
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