3 ways to avoid teacher BURNOUT as a Head of PE

3 ways to avoid teacher BURNOUT as a Head of PE

Due to our competitive spirit, we (PE teachers) are motivated to win in everything. In order to do this we become committed to learning, developing & improving, as we work incredibly hard in order to become successful. But, we are also very stubborn and proud which means that we are not great at admitting when we are struggling or asking for support. We grind through in the pursuit of victory. Whether that is in our own sport, personal life or professionally as a teacher. Sound familiar? I can see you nodding! Unfortunately, this can make us prone to high levels of stress, as we can be very self critical and expect very high standards of ourselves. This mindset is the perfect foundation for BURNOUT.

My Journey

I want to start this article by telling you a story about someone I have known for a long time…

(yep you guessed it… it’s me!)

I struggled with learning at school, but I overcame that with seriously hard work. Going to University was a goal I felt I needed to accomplish in order to prove myself within my social and personal life. As competitive people, PE teachers often seek the next target to aim for and back at school my first big one was Uni. When I got there, the sense of accomplishment was amazing but that soon faded and so I looked for the next challenge. In no way do I regret going to university, or working hard in order to get there, but I now understand my main motivation then was not due to the passion of learning, but accomplishment. Getting a place at one of the top universities in the country was something I wanted to do, in order to prove to myself (and others) that I could! I guess, at this time of my life, I was addicted to the feeling of winning or being successful (both in sport and academically) so this was in line with that.

Achieving a 2:1 degree with honours from Exeter University, off the back of a childhood of very few people believing that I would be academically successful, gave me a huge ambitious drive. I was told that successful people have ambitious goals. And I wanted to be successful! I believed that I had more worth because of my achievements. The more I achieved, the more success I would have and therefore the happier and more fulfilled I would become. With this in mind, as a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) I set myself a quiet little goal of becoming a Head of Department (HOD) before I was 30. At this stage, I didn’t even know which day my duty was on let alone what the day to day role and responsibility of a HOD was. But, it was the only major rung up the professional ladder I could see and achieving this would validate my worth as a professional (so my mind was telling me!).

I thought that my purpose was to become a Head of PE before I was 30. So much so, that everything I did was to gain experience to put me in a position to apply for a significant leadership job. I achieved mini promotions along the way but never really celebrated these achievements or allowed myself to fully enjoy the journey I was on. Why? Because I had a laser-like focus on my goal. Really what was going on here was the worst type of professional comparison you could imagine.

My Head of Department at the time had risen through the ranks quickly and became a HOD at a young age and I aspired to be like him. I never stopped to ask myself – “Chris, why do you actually want to become a head of department?” However, years later I did and I realised that the truth was that I wanted the title more than the responsibilities of the job. I wanted my friends, family or even strangers to think, “Wow! He is really successful and must be really good at his job.” I was seeking the approval and validation of others instead of finding a direction which truly energised me. A direction that would bring me happiness and contentment instead of the perception that happiness could be found on the horizon of an arbitrary, “ambitious”, goal.

So, fast forward many years to 2017. After working towards my goal for a long time, I finally became a Head of PE & Sport. I was 29 years old when I started so I felt elated that I have achieved my “purpose”, the goal I was heading towards since I started teaching. It was January 2017 and I was going to totally boss it with all my leadership courses and teaching experience under my belt. Yeah right! It was the hardest, most lonely year of my life. A few months in, I realised that I was not really enjoying the job. I loved teaching and I wasn’t doing much of that due to leadership time. No one really cared about the job I had and I wasn’t getting much praise or reassurance that I was doing a good job. But, I was not going to give up! So I ‘manned up’ and just got on with it. Due to my attitude to overworking and other personal pressures, eventually I became diagnosed with Teacher Burnout and slid into a dark place of depression…

…Thankfully I recovered quickly. I was signed off for 2 months in January 2018 and returned with more resilience, self awareness and understanding of mental health. During this time, I reflected deeply on happiness, success and wellness practices. I remember making a promise to myself to never allow myself to feel like that ever again. It was at this time that I started to meditate daily, practice gratitude and reframe my thoughts. I set to work on studying the science of happiness, wellness and stress.

Road to Recovery

On my journey of recovery from burnout I have learned that goal setting without honest, true and purposeful consideration, can be damaging for your mental wellbeing. Therefore, before mapping out your professional route any further, you should question why you even wanted to start teaching in the first place. Work out your ‘why’ and find your professional purpose. Teaching is such a tough and amazing job but, for some reason, we are made to feel that being ‘good’ at your job is not good enough. But, what I know now is that most teachers who would be classed as ‘outstanding’ or ‘beyond good’ are not measured against realistic criteria. These teachers normally work 50+ hours a week and when you speak to them are not truly happy, they are fairly cynical and often plan to quit as they claim the job is not sustainable. But, the teachers & leaders who work about 35-40 hours a week are happier, healthier, more positive and present in the classroom. When I returned to teaching I made a commitment to not work evenings and weekends and to make this happen I have learned to say no to things that will take me away from my day to day duties. I have never loved teaching and leading more than I do now. My wife is a headteacher and very rarely ever works in the evening or or at the weekend. But, to be fair she does have an epic Wellness Coach as a husband! Seriously though, she really has got the balance right.

How to avoid teacher burnout: My Top 3 Tips

I’d like to share with you 3 things that would have changed the way that I lead as a HOD and might have avoided me from becoming seriously mentally ill in the first place.

  1. Do 1 thing at a time – There are always so many things to do. For me I wanted to do them all in my first year to show impact. Increase participation, increase outcomes, raise the standard of sport, win more competitions (you get the idea). But, this is crazy and unrealistic. Focus on the things that are going to affect the students’ learning first (curriculum, teaching, learning). All the other stuff like sports days, presentation evenings, after school clubs, fixtures etc. are important but should not be the number 1 priority. Once the 1st thing is embedded and working well then move onto the next thing and so on. Each term, choose just 1 thing for the department to focus on meanwhile plan the intention for the next term. So this is 3 a year. Build and develop gradually over time not all at once.
  2. Judgement from others – In sport we are always receiving feedback and seeking to improve. We like doing a good job and dislike failing. For years we have relied on others to inform us of our ability, whether that is a coach in sport or mentor in teaching. So, when we move into leadership this mindset can sometimes follow us. Therefore, we continue to seek positive feedback about the job we are doing. In reality, that feedback rarely comes. But, parents, students and colleagues are quick to tell you what you are not doing right. This can be tough to handle as it bruises our ego and reduces self confidence. We start to doubt decisions and lose the self belief that we once had. But, the reality is that we can only control our own thoughts and our own actions, not those of others. With this in mind, we can choose to believe the 1 or 2 people who are being negative or we can accept that their thoughts are not the truth. You can choose to think that they are wrong and you are right. This will help you to not become overwhelmed by their comments. In short, don’t allow the negative opinions of others to get in your head. But, more importantly, this also works the other way. You need to learn to not rely on praise to reinforce your decisions and success. You need to learn to measure your success by yourself and not rely on the reassurance from external influences to know that you are great. This will empower you to make difficult decisions even though you know they are the right ones and others might judge you for them. Just remember that you can’t control what others think.
  3. REST – You will never be at the end of your to do list. There is always more you can do but this doesn’t mean you should. Unfortunately, in education there is a toxic competitiveness with ‘leavism’. ‘Leavism’ is when you work outside of contracted hours, for example weekends, evenings and school holidays. If you are finding that you do not have time to mark, plan, teach, manage, lead and do all the other paperwork – then something needs to change. Work out how much time you spend on each task and the impact it has. You will find that there is a lot you are doing to be ‘perfect’ or so that others will not negatively judge you. Trust me, people do not care if you have animations on your PowerPoint for a meeting or if you have given feedback on every question in a GCSE PE test. Sometimes you have to pass off responsibility to others and if no one can do it (for example, plan inter tutor or sports day) then cancel the event in the interest of staff wellbeing (most importantly yours). Don’t accept that you have to work 1 day on the weekend in order to get everything done. It is not true, this is just something that you have come to believe and have got in the habit of doing. Your time will be better spent with family or friends socialising or engaging in hobbies. You can drink from an empty cup but you won’t get any water from it. Work out what tops up your cup and schedule in time for these activities.

The Biggest Lesson To Be Awesome At Your Job

The most significant lesson that I have learned over the past 4 years is the importance of self care and prioritising your own needs to ensure that you are mentally well. The best analogy for this is the oxygen mask on a plane. You are asked to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else with theirs because you are no use to them unless you can breathe. We should view our own mental health in this way too. I promise you that it will make you a better leader, teacher, friend, partner and parent.

Time to REBOOT and put your MindFirst

In order to help busy professionals reboot their mind I have certified as a wellness coach and created a coaching programme that takes people step by step from disconnected and overwhelmed back to self assured, empowered and thriving. Everyone I work with is amazed how they become more productive, less stressed, happier, healthier and much more successful in their jobs and life. People also experience improvements in their relationships with partners, children, parents and friends. It truly is a pleasure to prevent people from total burnout and provide them with the tools, strategies and mindset to thrive. If you are currently overwhelmed with stress and it’s affecting your health and happiness then I hope this blog has helped but if you need a little more then I would love to help you. Do you want to know IF or HOW I can help? Not everyone is ready to take action, change their lives and feel the power of true success. Are you ready? If so, email or DM me “I’m ready” and let get you moving forward towards your goals!

Good luck and remember you are awesome and you don’t need anyone else to tell you that.

About the author

Guest blog by, Chris Misselbrook
Head of PE, Wellness Coach, First Aider for Mental health Instructor

Twitter – @mindfirst_UK
Email – mindfirst_uk@gmail.com
Facebook – Search ‘MindFirst Coaching’ (Page & Group)

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