Teacher Burn Out Tips: Protecting Your Peace from Toxically Negative Co-WorkersSep 12, 2023
Teacher Burn Out Tips: The Difference Between a "Bad Day" and a Bad Attitude
No one is upbeat all of the time. Even with all that I know, teach, and practice, I still have plenty of days when I would say the lemonade stand is closed. That's just life. And especially life as an educator. There are so many moving pieces and personalities that every day has the potential to be challenging. So venting, complaining to your teacher best friend, and commiserating for a few minutes is natural and needed. Needing support during an illness or dramatic life change is nothing to feel wrong about. But there's a difference between having a bad day and having a bad attitude.
You know those teachers who constantly complain, focus on the negative, and find problems in any solution or changes that anyone suggests or tries to implement? Those are the "battery drainers." The people whom, when you finish talking to them, you seem to have aged. The life force has been sucked out of you. Some call them energy vampires. I call them my "Validate and bounce" people. More on that below.
First, recognize this. Every relationship we nurture either brings positive energy to our life and our outlook overall or takes energy from it. My advice to my students, young, old, and adult, is always the same, "Mind who you hang with."
How to Boundaries with Toxically Negative Teachers in A Loving Way
So, what makes a topically negative teacher? They complain that every class is the "worst they've ever had," and never have anything positive to say about students, parents, admins, or school board members and policies. They are heavily invested in their self-image as a victim. They're a drag, and they drain you.
Here are some simple steps to deal with the battery drainers.
1. Judge a little less
Yes, I know this blog may sound judgmental, but I feel really sad for teachers who give off that Eeyore vibe. One of the founding principles of my ECHO framework is that other teacher's experience doesn't need to be your experience; you get to create your own. Their experience is REAL for them. They are not making it up that students, parents, and policies are ridiculous some days. So, step one - empathize.
2. Limit your exposure
Once you have validated someone by saying something like, "Wow, that sounds tough!" "Goodness, you are having a Monday!" You need to limit your exposure. What does that mean? It means finding an excuse to cut the conversation short and keep on moving.
I'm not advocating lying, but a generic "Hey, I have to run because I need to be somewhere" can suffice. Teachers always need to be somewhere else. You can say you have an appointment, even if that appointment is with yourself at your desk, to get caught up on things. Gain confidence with some phrases that I call "validate and bounce."
"Goodness, that sounds tough. I have to run, but I hope your day gets better!"
"Wow, that's really challenging. I need to be somewhere, but I'll keep you in my thoughts!"
Maybe those two phrases don't sound authentic in your voice, but practice beforehand with something that does.
3. Do not engage or compete
The third rule of dealing with someone toxically negative, you've guessed it, is do not engage. What I mean by that is resisting the temptation or bad habit of offering details of your crappy day. Please don't get involved in adding fuel to their fire by adding a story of whose class is worse, whose students are more dysregulated, and whose parent request is more ridiculous. That not only prolongs your exposure to the conversation but turns the whole conversation into a weird type of competition that leaves you feeling worse about your day.
What if You Can't Limit Your Exposure to Negative Colleagues?
The above steps work for colleagues you run into in the hallways, playground, or parking lot. What if the battery drainers are part of your department or grade span team, and you must work with them daily or weekly? In this instance, you will need to level up your boundary-setting game.
The first strategy is to set some meeting norms. Just like we set rules to govern appropriate classroom behavior, meeting norms are "rules" everyone agrees to with the goal of making meetings productive and efficient. Some sample norms to focus on keeping the meeting more positive might include:
- an agreement to limit "catch up" and small talk to no more than the first 5 minutes of the meeting
- publishing the agenda items ahead of time and asking people to come to the meeting prepared with possible solutions
- a "sharing" activity at the beginning of the meeting, such as, "In 30 seconds share something that is going well in your classroom or with a particular student."
If meeting norms do not improve the situation, a more direct approach to setting a boundary will be necessary. Below are some sample scripts. Remember, setting a boundary is about your desires, preferences, and non-negotiables. Be careful not to seem to attack people (nobody is receptive to the idea that they are "negative"; they feel they are "realistic"). Therefore, it's important to remember to use "I: statements. For example,
"I feel overwhelmed when there's constant negativity. Can we focus on more positive topics and possible solutions?" or
"You know what, I feel overwhelmed when we constantly dwell and like what isn't going right. Can we focus on areas where we can empowered to make a difference?"
Remember, your goal is to be direct yet compassionate so that people don't feel attacked and become defensive. While it's crucial to protect ourselves and our energy, remember that everyone, including our negative colleagues, is fighting their own battle. Their negativity could be a reflection of personal challenges they're facing outside of school. Approach the situation with empathy but without compromising on your boundaries.
In conclusion, remember that you cannot often change other people's behavior and outlooks, but you can take steps to protect your own peace. Using the tips above should help!
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