What Do We Do About Burnout? (Ep. 311)

Burnout is a problem facing an untold number of teachers, and art teachers are no exception. In today’s episode, Tim welcomes on Chelsea Whittington to discuss both how teachers can prevent burnout and what they can do if its effects have already taken hold. Listen as they discuss their own experiences with burnout, what self-care really looks like, and why making and experiencing art can be so beneficial. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I want to talk today about burnout. It has been an incredibly difficult few years and teachers everywhere are struggling with, well, honestly, they’re struggling with just about everything at this point. I know a lot of people are feeling burnt out and that’s why I want to discuss it today. I want to share just a little bit of my own experiences, and I want to share some strategies that may be helpful for you to step back, whether that be from just a difficult year or from you feeling burnt out.

Joining me today is Chelsea Whittington. If you went to the NOW Conference this winter, I saw Chelsea present on all sorts of great strategies that can help you relax, help you be more mindful about what you’re doing, both on your own and with your students. I thought she’d be someone who’s really good to talk to about this topic. We have a lot to discuss today.

Before we do that, however, I need to give you the caveat or the disclaimer that neither of us are mental health professionals. We cannot diagnose anything. We can’t offer treatment or any course of action or tell you what you should do. What Chelsea and I can do is share some research, share some experiences, and talk about some things that might be helpful for some people. You can decide for yourself whether any of that information is worthwhile and what ideas might be beneficial to you.

I guess before we dive in, I want to talk just a little bit about what burnout looks like, and maybe some signs that you can recognize. I think these things can maybe creep up on you. They may start to manifest themselves without you realizing that they are signs of burnout. Now, one of those things is a lot of disaffection, and maybe a little bit of snark about your work or your workplace or your colleagues.

Now complaining can be fun. It can be worthwhile. I do plenty of it myself, but if you catch yourself reacting really poorly to things you would normally take in stride, or if you’re suddenly showing just a ton of snark or a ton of contempt for even minor announcements around the school, that can be one of the first earliest signs of burnout. Hey, like I said, a little bit of snark about work, about your job, about your colleagues, that can be normal. When we’re talking about using data to guide instruction for the 30th time, it’s normal to roll your eyes. But if you are rolling your eyes more than you’re thinking about what’s actually being said, it might be time to take a step back.

That’s something, like I said, that can just start to creep into your day to day without you realizing what’s really happening. I’m going to also link to some of the other early physical and psychological and behavioral signs of burnout so you can check up on those if you think that might apply to you.

As you get stressed, it’s natural to complain a little bit, to procrastinate on some things that are unpleasant, or struggle through some days. But you want those to be one offs. You don’t want those to be a regular part of your routine. You don’t want those to be the norm. But if those are becoming the norm, if those are the new normal for you, hey, you want to try and cut that off before or your mental health and your physical health start to go downhill. Not to mention, your performance as a teacher. Read up on that, think about that, and if you feel like you are feeling some of those signs, if you are feeling burnt out, take a listen to this conversation and listen to some of the things that Chelsea has to say. As I said earlier, you can decide whether those things are right for you. So let me bring her on now.

Chelsea Whittington is joining me now. Chelsea, how are you?

Chelsea: I’m doing good, excited to be here. How are you?

Tim: I am great. I am thrilled that you are joining us. I think we’re talking about an important topic today. I’m thrilled that you’re here to chat about it with us. You had some great stuff to offer at the now conference a couple months ago, and I’m glad we can dive into some other topics with you. But before we do that, I guess, can you introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about you?

Chelsea: Yeah, so I’m Chelsea. I’m a former art teacher turned grad student, and I’m studying arts leadership with a focus in arts and health. I’m really passionate about bringing what I’ve learned in those classes into tangible art based wellness practices, or digestible ideas for the public, particularly teachers. A lot of arts in health is done in hospitals, but there’s so much that we can use just every day in our lives. I just see how art and wellness can be used both in education and just to relax and recharge every day, and just nourish parts of us often get put on the back burner because we’re so busy.

Tim: That’s cool. I’m interested in all that. I’m interested in talking about all of that. Before we get some of your best advice, I thought maybe I could both share our own experiences with burnout. Can you talk about how burnout has affected you in the past?

Chelsea: Yeah, so while I was teaching, I started feeling like a lot of teachers, a lack of motivation in something that I was once so passionate and excited about. It was just, I was really emotionally and physically exhausted. I started getting sick more often. I was getting more cynical about work, and I was just working really hard and still feeling ineffective or having a low sense of accomplishment. I just wrote that off as being part of the job because people told me going into teaching it’s going to be rough. So I just accepted that that’s how you were supposed to feel. But I started having panic attacks for the first time and symptoms of depression. I was like, okay, this is not, this is not how it’s supposed to feel. This is not right. I just started wondering what I was doing wrong to get this result, which now I know, and I want to make clear that feeling this way is not your fault at all.

But that is how I initially felt. I had heard people talk about buzzwords, or talk about burnout as a buzzword, but I didn’t really know what it meant or looked like in real life. Looking at the World Health Organization’s newly revised definition of burnout, we see that it’s categorized as a syndrome of resulting from chronic workplace stress. I was like, oh wait, this is… I get it now. Even though it might be common, it shouldn’t be the norm. I realized that, and I could kind of start getting help to manage it. Now I try to be a resource and support system for people going through it.

Tim: Wow, that’s awesome. I love that idea. It may be common, but it shouldn’t be the norm. That’s a great way to put it. So yeah, for me, when I first started teaching, I was doing elementary art and I was art on a cart at seven different schools.

Chelsea: Wow.

Tim: Which was just wild. And so as you said, the workplace stress that comes with that was pretty tough. After a year two, I was thinking what is going on and do I really want to do this? Luckily in my district, a high school job opened up. I was able to move there and that sort of alleviated a lot of that stress and sort of calmed those feelings of burnout for me. Then maybe 6, 7, 8 years in, I was just starting to lose that joy that you talked about. Teaching wasn’t as fun anymore.

Then we actually had an inservice, like a professional development day that was all about burnout. Like you said, you just start to recognize those symptoms. Be like, yes, that is me, and that is me and that… just check, check, check. Luckily for me, it was not just about burnout, but it was, how you can solve it, how you can help yourself, what things you can do to, like you said, alleviate some of that burnout. That helped quite a bit for me as I continued on. Now I’m lucky enough to really, really enjoy what I do and be at peace with everything that I’m doing, not have too much stress, and still really enjoy all that I do. I guess I’m lucky that at the times I needed it, I had the opportunity to move on to something new, and also I had the opportunity to have the support systems and the resources that I needed, I guess, to get through those times of burnout.

I know that not everybody has that at, and I know that not everybody is lucky enough to be able to have those opportunities. So I guess we should probably talk about how we can manage that for the people that don’t know what resources are out there, what kind of supports are out there. Let’s chat about that. Before burnout starts, I know a lot of people feel a low level anxiety and just a lot of stress. Like you said, that workplace stress, on a regular basis. So can you talk about, I guess, what kind of things help us deal with with those feelings of anxiety and stress?

Chelsea: I think that recognizing and acknowledging the feelings first is so important. We’re humans first and we work a demanding job within a struggling system. It’s natural to feel some low level anxiety and stress on a regular basis. The key is to not let it fester up into something bigger than we can manage on our own. Ultimately no one wants to burn out. We need to do what we can to stay happy and healthy in our jobs. So that sounds great, but what do we do? A lot of stress comes from having so much on our plates and so little time to complete it. You have responsibilities that extend past your planning period and the school day, and then you come home and you have a whole other set of responsibilities. I have a feeling that sounds familiar.

Tim: Yes, it very much does to me, and I’m sure to everybody listening too, but yeah, go on.

Chelsea: One thing that can take a little while to make a practice, but will help you tenfold is prioritizing and delegating. So looking at your week, think about everything that needs to get done, and don’t stop at this point because then you’ll get really overwhelmed. You got to push through. When you have all the things that you need to do listed or laid out, look at them and see which ones are urgent, which ones are important, which ones can only you do, which ones could you teach a student or family member how to do, and just kind of look at that list and see, okay, what needs to be done now, what can be done later, that kind of thing.

If you’re still looking at your list thinking that there’s no way you can get all of it done, go to whoever is setting these expectations and ask them to prioritize them for you, because they may not realize how much they’ve given you, or they might realize how much they’ve given you, and they can help figure out which ones, okay, we really need to focus on this now, and give you that clear understanding of what to put your energy into.

One tip I have for delegating in the art room is creating a little cohort of student curators, whether these are students that are usually early finishers, need to keep their hands busy, or just love being the teacher’s helper, pick a group of students who you can rely on to take some of the tasks, whether it’s prep work, organizing, whatever, and take it off your to-do list. They’ll love having that title and getting selected to do something that’s like special and adult-y.

Tim: Yeah, I would say, I found that works at the high school level too. They don’t get excited about doing adult-y things, but you can have student assistants, or if you don’t have like student aids, student assistants, whatever. There’s always a couple kids in class that are willing to help with things. They’re willing to give you a little bit of their time, a little bit of their energy. You know who those kids are. If you’re listening to this right now, you can picture two kids in your third period class that can help with things.

Going back to that idea you had about making that to do list and delegating, that’s one thing that always helped me is, I’d put together that to do list, and then I would make just a little check mark next to ones, like hat are the things that students can help me with, and just kind of picking those off your list. That’s just a huge relief to say, oh, I’m going to ask this kid in this period to do these two things. Then these two kids are going to do these three things, and it can really just sort of take a weight off your shoulders knowing that, like you said, you don’t have to do everything. You can delegate a lot of that stuff. But I know you had more to say though, so I’m sorry for interrupting you there.

Chelsea: No, you’re good. You’re good. I just also wanted to talk about setting yourself up for success from the start. Part of that is understanding the difference between self care and self soothing, and while self care won’t fix all of the problems that are weighing you down, showing yourself love and compassion is so important, especially when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Self care at its core is taking action to preserve or improve your own mental health. I’m not knocking the power of a good face mask or bubble bath, but self care is more than that. It’s literally taking care of yourself and your health.

Sometimes we’ll hear people saying that their self care is scrolling Instagram or going ham on sweets or whatever. It feels good at the time, but when overdone it’s honestly most likely just numbing you out from feeling what you’re feeling by self soothing. That’s not really healthy. I’m not saying you have to delete your Instagram or give up chocolate altogether, but I am saying, be mindful of what you’re doing and how it impacts your mental, physical, and emotional health, because it does make a difference how you spend your time and you don’t have much time. So you want to be careful about that.

Tim: Right. Right. That makes a lot of sense. Okay, so you’ve got me thinking about a lot of things, but I want to ask. We’re all for bubble baths here. We fully support face masks, all of that good stuff, but there’s more. We hear all of this advice about the other things that we need to do for self care. We hear so much advice about why we need to rest, how we need to tap into our creativity, the types of physical activities that we should be engaged in, but like what actually helps? What are the things that we should be doing?

Chelsea: I’d say all of the above. If you were at the Art of Ed Winter 2022 NOW Conference, you heard an amazing presentation by Dr. Sandra Dalton Smith about the seven types of rest. I don’t think that could have been any more timely. We’re currently seeing results of living in a time where productivity is everything. It’s been, go, go, go for so long, and now people are starting to set boundaries and acknowledge what’s outside of their capacity. This can be kind of hard I think for employers to see it happening because they’re used to the hustle. But in my opinion, it’s a really great movement that people are recognizing what their time and energy is worth and how much you have to offer before you start to get tapped out.

All of that is to say that you don’t need to measure your success by your productivity and prioritizing the type of rest that you need is so important. So something that we talked a lot about in my arts in health classes is experiencing art, whether it’s viewing or making, can lower your stress levels and promote a sense of calm. Something I find interesting about that fact is you don’t have to be “good” at the art you’re making.

Tim: Yes, yes, yes. Okay.

Chelsea: Yes.

Tim: I’m sorry to get excited. That’s an important point. That’s what I tell students all the time. You don’t have to be good at this, you can just enjoy it.

Chelsea: Yes, definitely. The act of painting, or dancing, or singing, or drawing, or woodworking, or sewing, whatever it is, it’s beneficial to your mental wellness. My advice is to try something new, because it’ll break up your routine a little bit. You’ll get a new skillset, and you might find that you really enjoy the process of something that you usually wouldn’t reach for.

Tim: Yeah. Okay. If I can add something to that too, you mentioned that even if you’re just viewing art, it can lower your stress levels. It can make you more calm. I talked about this on the podcast last week, but just for my birthday a couple weeks ago, I went to the Jocelyn Art Museum in Omaha. We spent a couple hours with family and just seeing all of our favorite artworks. Then we spent some time walking around downtown. We got a good couple of hours of walking in, and then we had some ice cream. That is the best day I’ve had in a long time. Just the sense of calm that came with viewing art and then walking and then indulging in those sweets that you told me not to do too much of, but it was worth it that one day.

But anyway, no, but that worked to have the creativity and then have the physical activity that goes with it. For me, running is a good physical activity. That’s what I love to do. I know it’s different for everybody, but can you give us just some general advice as far as types of physical activity that people should be doing?

Chelsea: Yeah. So we know that it’s really important to incorporate movement into your day in some way, but we really it’s… a lot of people are like, oh, I have to do this, or I have to do that. It’s more about listening to your body and leaning into what you need, which can change from day to day. Some days you might need more of a meditative practice like stretching or yoga, and some days you might feel like you just need something like boxing to really get it all out. The point is that you’re following your body’s lead.

One thing that I did hear recently is that there’s new research about aerobics, especially running, they were talking about helps your brain recover from mental exhaustion, which helps your cognitive processes and nervous system so they can function more effectively. So, there’s that, too

Tim: Nice.

Chelsea: Then talking about getting outside and walking or running or doing whatever, I just want to plug that your environment makes a big impact and sometimes getting fresh air can make all the difference, whether that means in the classroom taking some clipboards outside to sketch with your class, or making an Andy Goldsworthy inspired art with natural found objects around the school. Just consider scheduling some time outside. If it’s not possible for you, there’s a concept called biophilic design where you bring natural elements into your space, and this can be done at home or in the classroom, whatever you think will benefit you the most. If you’re like me, you love plants, but struggle with keeping them alive.

Tim: That’s another thing that sounds familiar.

Chelsea: So because of that, I keep nature, photography and art around instead of actual plant. In my classroom, I had a mini little fountain because water, it has a big impact. I just try to fill my home and my classroom when I had one with natural colors and textures. It’s just things to think about when getting outside isn’t always an option, because that does make a big difference.

Tim: Yeah, those are all really, really good suggestions. So I’m also hunting for more suggestions with this next question, I think, but what are some other ways that we can prevent burnout or if people are already feeling burned out, how can they keep it from getting worse?

Chelsea: Yeah. We’re all artists here. So I think that my biggest advice is to build up an art-based wellness practice outside of creating student samples and helping students. You need something for yourself. It doesn’t have to be taking on big projects. It could be doodling during lunch or journaling at the end of the day, or singing in the car. Like I said, you don’t have to be good at it. I’m terrible at singing, but I sing in the car and I laugh at myself and I feel better. So, just any kind of art making will do. It doesn’t have to be good to be beneficial.

One thing in particular that I really enjoy doing that is somewhere between a journal and a sketchbook is I write down quotes that I hear that inspire me or jot down a quick note about something funny that happened that I can look back on later. Or if I’m kind of in a funk, I’ll challenge myself to put down some things that I’m grateful for to reframe my thoughts. Then when I’m done with the day I get home from wherever I was, I’ll kind of look over it again and just get the pages kind of messy with whatever supplies I have, working intuitively, making marks or quick sketches. I’m really just playing with the materials and kind of decompressing for the day. This way I can reflect on the day and acknowledge where I am so I can make a game plan for myself and see what I need after checking in.

I also think that recognizing who you spend your time with is really important. Even though it’s easy to kind of want to be a recluse when you’re feeling this burnout coming on or you’re in it, especially if you’re sitting in it right now, it’s easy to kind of cut yourself off, but you need support from the people in your life. You want to make sure that the relationship is mutually beneficial, that you pour into each other and both enjoy each other’s company instead of one person draining the other, or having really negative impacts on the conversation or things like that. We want to be able to set those boundaries, which is tough, but you’ll be glad that you did.

Then my last thing is get some sleep. Get enough sleep and some water while you’re at it.

Tim: Yeah. No, all good advice. All important. I’m terrible about sleeping. I’m terrible about trying to drink enough water, but always trying to do better. I guess I need to ask for those people who are just really struggling, really having a tough time, right now, people who are feeling incredibly burnt out. What is your best advice to just get through these last couple months of school? Best advice for finishing out the year, and then on top of that, what can they do over the summer to just alleviate that burnout?

Chelsea: Totally. I just want to start out by saying, I’ve been where you are. I know how that feels. I know that it feels impossible, but there are professionals that their main gig is helping people get through this and get through these situations of burnout and just workplace stress in general. It could be your doctor. It could be a therapist, a psychiatrist. These people are here for you, and it might be an intimidating to reach out. For me it was hard to reach out at first, because I felt like I was the only one going through it, but you have to know that you’re not alone. There’s so many people, unfortunately, that are feeling the same and finding community in that and knowing you’re not alone, I think is really helpful with taking that first step. Like, okay, other people are doing this. I can do this too.

So just find someone that’s a good fit for you and you feel comfortable talking to and work through this season together, even though it’s kind of a messy one. I think that makes a really big difference in getting you the support that you need.

Then in the summer, just do your best to balance resting and pursuing things that bring you joy. You may not have time to do these things during the school year, and whether it’s something big like traveling or just small, like taking a walk, just follow what feels right and really allow yourself to connect, refresh, and set up those healthy routines, emotionally healthy, physically healthy, mentally healthy so you’re have those routines in place when the school year starts again and it’s easier to adapt to going back to school.

Tim: That is some great advice. All right, Chelsea, before we go, where can people find you, either Instagram website? What’s the best place to see everything that you do?

Chelsea: My favorite little corner of the internet is on Instagram, and I’m at hey miss brighter days. So you can connect with me there, and let’s talk. Let’s get to know each other.

Tim: All right. Sounds good. We will make sure we link to that in the show notes so everybody can find you and Chelsea, thank you so much for the conversation, the wise words, and all of your advice today.

Chelsea: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so glad to be here and get to talk about this. It’s super important.

Tim: I appreciate Chelsea’s perspective. This is something that she cares a lot about and if you want to hear more from her, as she said, she can connect with you on Instagram. She would love to hear from you. She would love to chat with you I am sure.

As we’re getting toward the end of the year, we need to think about if you are feeling burnt out, how you’re going to get to through this last little bit because that’s, that’s where it gets difficult. We can’t step away as teachers. It’s so incredibly hard to be gone. Hopefully some of the things we talked about in this episode can help you get through that last little part. And then if you can get to the summer and then if you need it, just take a summer of doing nothing. No PD over the summer, no curriculum writing, no going in early to set up your room and get lessons ready and get everything ready to go. Just take the time off that you need. Hopefully you can come back refreshed and feeling better and ready to go next year.

So if you are feeling burnt out, take the time that you need. Use the strategies that you have at your fingertips to help you get through this. Like we said, if those stressful days that are affecting your health, your mental wellbeing, if those are the norms, I would encourage you to do what you can do to try and step back from that to try and help yourself get through that. Like I said, take the time you need this summer away from things and we can recharge and be ready to go next year.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.