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Teaching and Burnout

Well, friends, it's been quite a while since I've written in this venue.  Full disclosure: the fall semester was a tough one--my library was down two teaching librarians and the load was heavy as responsibilities in this and other areas increased.  While I still enjoyed being in the classroom with my students, I didn't have as much time as I'd like to think deeply about cognitive science and educational theory, and I often started feeling badly about myself for not making more time for it, for not pushing forward in my understanding of how we can best help students learn.

The truth is that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. This is something that I spout off to others quite frequently, but is something I too often fail to keep in mind for myself.  I often feel like a hypocrite as I speak to my students frequently about the importance of self-care, when I so infrequently practice self-care myself.  Teaching, done well, uses up a huge amount of emotional and cognitive energy (as does much of law librarianship), so this is my (very public) reminder to myself that taking care of myself is a key part of being able to do my job to my best ability.

So how can we help recover from or decrease the effects of burnout?

First, I think it's helpful to understand the factors that lead to burnout.  A helpful Harvard Business Review article articulates three symptoms of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Let's take each in turn.  Exhaustion--physical, emotional, cognitive--undermines our ability to work as effectively as we might like; teaching, especially a heavy load, leads to all three types of exhaustion.  Feelings of inefficacy--when one feels incompetent and unproductive--often happens in tandem with exhaustion.  When people are exhausted and not feeling like they're working at their best level, we can start to feel we're failing at our job; this can be especially difficult if your career performance is something in which you've previously take immense pride.  Finally, cynicism is a lack of engagement that occurs when you are trying to mentally distance yourself from your work; it can occur from conflict or lack of voice in the workplace. Tired and frustrated that we feel that our work is subpar, we begin to view our work through a different, darker lens. Burnout can manifest in different combinations of the above factors. For me, exhaustion has been a regular companion since I started my first law librarian job, but the feelings of inefficacy and cynicism I've felt at point this year have scared me much more, as I never want to feel disengaged about this profession of which I'm privileged to be a member.

Here are a few ways that we can work to recuperate from these symptoms:
  1. Replenish your energy.  This can differ for different people. Sleep, obviously, is important. Make sure you're getting the right amount.  For me, this means not too little and not too much.  If I sleep too much, it actually results in me feeling groggier than if I got the appropriate amount.  Exercise--preferably in the fresh air--is also another big factor.  A walk outside, even a short one, makes me feel better almost instantaneously. If I start feeling tired or am having a hard day, I'll leave my desk and go outside for a quick jaunt.  I don't feel great if I just veg out watching TV, but reading a fiction book can actually be a helpful mental break. Scrolling through social media does not qualify as a mental break for me.
  2. Do things that have a positive effect on your emotions. Spend time with company you enjoy and participate in activities that make you happy; it may take some reflection to figure out which people and hobbies are re-energizing for you.  For me, this is spending time with dear friends (and NOT talking about work) and my dog; hiking; cooking; and taking photos.  I've started going home at the lunch hour to eat with my pup and to take an actual break, instead of just eating lunch at my desk.  I've also tried to start limiting the amount of work I'll do on weekends and replacing that by taking my camera out for long walk.  I can do better work during the week if I take some time to engage in other passions on the weekends and in the evenings.  Fingers crossed I can keep this going as the new semester begins.
  3. Log your accomplishments and what you're grateful for.  This is especially important for those of us whose burnout can manifest with those feelings of inefficacy and cynicism. It's easy to fixate on the negatives, but taking a few minutes each day to acknowledge the positives can do wonders in helping to keep a more uplifted mindset.  Even if you find yourself overloaded and have to put some projects aside, you are accomplishing plenty; taking a moment to recognize that can help you to remember you are making progress.
  4. Cultivate positive and meaningful relationships inside and outside of your workplace.  These people will help make you feel appreciated and valued beyond your ability to be performing your job at a certain level.  The challenging part for me has been finding the willingness to open up about my exhaustion to others, including family members and close friends; I am guilty of being an exhaustion denier. Some of my law librarian colleagues have been so helpful this year in this regard; phone calls with faraway friend/colleagues has been a re-energizing reminder that people care and that we all feel this way at times.  Being open about our challenges helps us all, and it's okay to take a break from boosting others up and let them bolster you.  It has also helped to participate in a diversity and inclusion colloquium across campus; spending time every other week with like-minded individuals has helped to me to re-engage.
To be the best teacher I can be, I need to avoid burnout.  I've commented before on how I must love teaching because, even when I'm beyond exhausted, I "miraculously" find the energy when I enter a classroom.  But the reality is, we all only have so much energy--there is a limit.  I don't want to reach mine when I'm trying to help students learn and I want to keep learning and writing about how we can best facilitate student learning, so developing some strategies to start coping is necessary.  It may be a work in progress, but it's helping.

Recommended resource for more on self-care: Legal Ease: Self-Care for Library Staff.  It's a wonderful resource written by our own community.

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