This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Need help dealing with teacher burnout? Let Pam’s story of overcoming teacher burnout and learning to love teaching again inspire you.
I got an email a few months ago from a woman named Pam Gresser. She wrote,
I’m starting my 20th year teaching and 2 years ago, I didn’t know how much longer I could go on. I read your book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What and it truly changed my whole attitude!
I started a school book study on it and am going to be using “Unshakeable” for a class where educators can get credits toward their license or professional development hours for their district. Our school has started SO POSITIVE this year and I honestly don’t remember when it’s felt like this and I truly believe it is because of your book “Unshakeable.” Our state superintendent visited us and presented me with the honor of being selected as the Elementary Teacher of the Year for Wisconsin. I won’t go on and on about it, but I do want you to know your book has truly rejuvenated me which then has rejuvenated my career. I am so excited to be on state boards and panels for education to be a part of change! What an honor. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
So obviously Pam’s email made a big impact on me as the author of the book, but I also wanted to learn more about what, specifically, she did to create change in her life. How exactly does a teacher go from being burned out and feeling like she wanted to quit teaching to being recognized as teacher of the year?
I wanted to speak with Pam to learn more about her amazing transformation and she volunteered to let me record our conversation for the podcast so that hopefully other teachers can get back their enthusiasm for teaching, too.
Click to listen to OR download the audio of my conversation with Pam:
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
Tell us a little more about what your life was like a year or so ago before reading “Unshakeable” and how you were experiencing teaching.
It was two years ago, and I had been teaching 18 years at that point. I did 14 years in first grade, and I was in my fourth year of teaching fifth grade. At that point I was truly contemplating going into another field. I was strongly considering going into selling real estate because at school I felt exhausted, I was stressed to the max, and I truly just didn’t know how much longer I could make it as a teacher. I was doing nothing to take care of myself. I felt like I was working 24/7. I was at the max with meetings that we had before school, during the day, after school. I was sick most of the year from stress, leading me to be on multiple medications.
And I think the hardest thing for me is that I was feeling like I had to teach certain things in certain ways, and the worst part was it all had to be the same way everyone else was teaching it. I knew what my passions were, and I just didn’t feel like I was able to share my authentic self in the classroom, which definitely is going to affect what you’re teaching. And the other thing is, in Wisconsin our unions have really changed, because we don’t have the same union protections, I felt like I couldn’t say no to anything, because then everyone tells you, “If you say ‘no,’ then who knows what could happen.”
So it just makes you feel so weighed down. Bottom line, I wasn’t happy professionally, and that just affects you personally too.
I’m sure that a LOT of teachers can relate to what you’re feeling. How did you change your perception of teaching and start to enjoy it again?
First of all, I realized I had to do something, and I was so exhausted when the school year ended that year, I didn’t have the energy to look for another job. And so actually Unshakeable came up on my Facebook feed, and I went, You know what? I’m going to try it. I’m going to see if this will make a difference.
And there were, honestly, so many things as I was reading it that really made me rethink what I was doing and how I was doing it. The first one that really stuck out was my perception that working longer meant I was producing more. And it really took a lot of honest reflection, because when I read it, I thought, “Oh no. That’s not me. I really work all these hours.” So I got that work timer app, and I realized that because I was multitasking, it was taking me a lot longer to accomplish things. I have used the to-do list that you have, and that has been a game changer, which, again, helps change my perception.
I have always been a firm believer in doing community building–and this is going to sound silly too–but I felt like the book gave me permission to really spend my month of September and throughout the rest of the year really doing activities to build a community of learners. My perception of, “Oh, we can’t do that anymore,” has just changed. You need to have a community with your classroom, and it’s not just fluff. Doing community is a great place to incorporate STEM activities, and then you’ve got your students working together, collaborating, problem-solving, and really learning the people skills they need to be successful in life.
I will not let myself go back to the perception of, “I don’t have time to do this.” I have the perception of, “This is the most important thing I do, so where is it going to fit in?” And the biggest thing is that my negative self talk completely stopped, and that totally has changed my perception as well, because the story I was telling myself was not a good one. Not one I wanted to live.
What do you do now on a regular basis that’s different from what you did a year or two ago?
Again it’s those to-do lists. Every Monday morning I turn on my computer and immediately pull out the to-do list for the whole week. Depending on my schedule, sometimes I actually do a few weeks in a row, because I found I was forgetting appointments I had.
Another thing, one of my good friends, Sarah, she and I talked a lot about how important it is to focus on gratitude. I think it has a lot to do with your story that you tell yourself, like you talk about in the book. But Sarah has something every day that she calls her “something wonderful.” So each and every day I would hear her noticing all the wonderful things. She would say, “Oh, thank you. That’s my something wonderful today.” It’s something that caught on with me and now it’s caught on throughout our whole school.
When you focus on gratitude, it’s amazing how much better you feel about your day. It even can be things like noticing the kids coming in, “Oh, it’s my something wonderful. You’re coming in with a smile today.” But what makes it even better is I’ve heard my students saying, “That’s my something wonderful today, Mrs. Gresser.” So now the kids, on a regular basis, focus on gratitude.
Another big thing that “Unshakeable” started me on–usually I think most teachers during the year, we feel like we have to read things that are going to help us professionally. But “Unshakeable,” I can honestly say it wasn’t just a professional book, it was a personal book. So I realized how important it is to read things that inspire me personally as well as professionally. Because let’s face it: When we’re happy in our personal life, that carries over into school and our professional life as well.
I also try to spend my time with people who inspire me, because sometimes it can be difficult to be positive and find the silver lining. You really have to find those people who lift you up instead of bring you down. And that can be a really hard one.
The other thing I do regularly is even though our curriculum doesn’t have project-based learning in it, I work very hard to implement project-based learning and have for the last two years. It gives students the opportunity to combine what they want to learn with what they need to learn. This approach creates curious, innovative, creative children who can collaborate with each other. They can think at higher levels, and they can find solutions to real-world problems. I’ve found that this personalized approach to learning really helps students develop life and character traits that are immeasurable. The kids we’re teaching right now, we all know most of their jobs haven’t even been created yet. And so even though project-based learning isn’t necessarily listed specifically out in our standards, I feel like the skills that they’re learning through that are going to really carry them in the future.
One other thing that really stuck out from your book was just doing the little things for colleagues. I worked on this last year–trying to do things as much as I could for my colleagues, just to try to keep our atmosphere up in the school. Our principal now in the school, once a month at our faculty meeting, everyone has cards to write to someone. And so everyone in our whole school is writing a card to someone to recognize them for something, to congratulate them for something, to thank them for something. That’s taken on throughout our whole school, which is awesome.
That is awesome. I love how you’ve taken that and not just helped your students but also helped your co-workers and try to do your part to raise morale within the school.
And I think that’s really something that a lot of schools have, because it’s easy to hop on board the train of “this isn’t working, we can’t do this, I can’t stand my job.” And so hopefully by creating that atmosphere, it helps.
When you first reached out to me, you said, “The biggest thing I was doing was telling myself a story I didn’t want to live.” I want to talk more about the importance of story and self-talk. There’s a whole chapter in “Unshakeable” about changing your story because honestly my entire experience in life changed when I really understood the power of story, but not everyone gets it.
I think in schools, and in education in general, we spend so much time focusing on what’s wrong, it’s easy just to live that. I found myself constantly saying things like, “This job is going to kill me. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t believe in how I’m teaching.”
There were so many parts of “Unshakeable” that stood out to me, but Chapter 19 is where you talk about your story. I realized that I was telling myself a story I didn’t want to live. When I really thought about it, my story was making me unhappy professionally and personally. You can’t say things like you’re job is going to kill you and you can’t do this one more day and actually find happiness in your heart even when you leave school. I was not finding gratitude in anything at school, even though I loved kids, I loved working with kids, I wasn’t focusing on any of those things.
You have to be honest, you have to really figure out what story are you honestly telling yourself. And it’s not bad. I don’t feel like I was a bad person because I was doing that, but what was I going to do to change? I tried to really try to empower myself and others by just saying things in a different manner, because again, we truly live the story we tell ourselves.
If I could give anyone any advice, it’s to read Chapter 19 and really figure out the story you want to live. And it’s not natural. If you’ve been saying, “I can’t do this. It’s getting worse every year,” it is not natural to change that thinking, so write the new story down. Read it every day. Post it in places until you can naturally do it and say it and believe it every single day. And really the negative thoughts that we have, we always can turn them and say them in a positive manner, and find someone who will hold you accountable.
Again, my good friend Sarah, she and I really held ourselves accountable for telling the story that we really want to live. Another thing that really helped me to not fall back into my old habits was you recommended to identify your triggers of stress and anxiety. My friend and I sat down, and we did that. When you know what gives you stress, write out replacement thoughts. It just helps you to think of another way to say it. We call them our positive affirmations.
Every single day on my way to school, I say affirmations to myself. A couple of examples, my favorite is, “I attract positive people,” because if you’re around the negativity, it kind of soaks right into you. “I attract positive people.” Sometimes you hear people saying, “Kids don’t want to learn,” so another one I have is I say, “Kids are passionate about learning in my classroom. I make a difference every day.” Those are just a few of the examples of things I say to kind of keep my story positive. If you’ll let me digress here a little because I want everyone listening to understand what we’re referring to. A lot of teachers don’t like when I offer up story and self-talk as the solution to their problems. They’ll email me and say, “The A/C is broken in my classroom and it’s miserable in there. I have five kids who don’t speak English and five more who are two grade levels behind, and no help or support for any of them. The copier’s always broken and they’re laying people off so I could lose my job at any time.”
And I’ll tell them to read Awakened or Unshakeable and they’ll say, “Change my mindset? These problems aren’t in my mind. They’re real problems. I need real solutions.” And they get angry with me when I insist, look, you can’t do anything about the abilities of students who were assigned to your classroom. You can’t make the A/C and the copier work every time. You can’t stop the layoffs. The only thing you have control over is your own mindset and the way you choose to perceive things. You can choose what you focus on.
To give an example that’s completely outside the realm of teaching, think about a situation where there’s a huge traffic jam. You’ve got person A in her car absolutely fuming, thinking about how much time this is wasting and how ridiculous it is and how she knew they never should have moved to the area because the traffic is so bad all the time. And with each moment that passes, she’s getting angrier and angrier. That’s completely because of her response to the problem. It’s her own thoughts that created those feelings–it’s her interpretation of the event, she’s telling herself a story about the traffic that is making it feel even more stressful.
Then we have person B in the car next to her who is listening to a podcast, or having a conversation on the phone, or just otherwise turning her attention to something engaging and meaningful and pleasant. And although person B doesn’t like being in traffic, she doesn’t experience the rage and frustration person A does.
It’s the exact same situation with the same consequences. They’re both going to be late for work. But Person B has a different interpretation of the event: the story she’s telling herself is, “The traffic is annoying but it’s not the end of the world. Getting upset about it doesn’t change anything. I might as well use my time wisely and catch up on that audio book I’ve been wanting to listen to.” She’s choosing to focus her attention on something that is not stress-inducing.
And that’s what we have to learn to do with our teaching and every aspect of our lives: what you give attention to, you give power to. So Pam, when you say you were telling yourself a story you didn’t want to live, I’m guessing you can totally relate to person A in the traffic, someone who is taking a frustrating, difficult situation and making it worse by choosing to focus on the problem and create this interpretation of the problem that makes it even more miserable to deal with.
So tell us what the principle of story looks like in your life. How has your story changed, and how are you applying this new story in your teaching?
It’s not natural for everyone. And especially, because teaching is stressful. But I just know I didn’t like my heart feeling the way it did, because it affected my whole life. It wasn’t just when I was at school. And honestly, having an accountability partner, someone who can keep you on track, really helps. And you also have to want to change. No one can make you change your story, but I can tell you from my own personal experience, it is powerful when you can practice it.
As we wrap up, what’s something that you wish every single teacher knew about enjoying teaching?
I think the biggest thing is if teaching is in your bones, there is no profession as rewarding as working with children. I think we need to remember, we need to teach students not standards. Most articles you see focus on how hard the job of teaching is, and we know that. Last April, the Huff Post had an article listing the reasons that teaching is great, and I’m just going to talk about a couple of those.
There’s no other profession where the people you’re with all day will do small chores from you, whether it be run something someplace, get your coffee. That really is kind of great that you can ask someone to go get your water and they get it for you. Compliments. The kids, and the younger the kids the more compliments you get, but they notice your haircut. They notice your new clothes. And on the flip side, they still keep you humble, because their honest observations quickly bring you back to reality. I think everyone has probably had experiences with that.
The kids love when we’re authentic. They love our weird personalities. I don’t know any other job where in the middle of my day, I could just dance or I could sing off-tune or dress up as some character for social studies or they would quickly show you the door.
The camaraderie with other teachers is something that I don’t know that you have in every profession, and I would recommend if you are in a school that you don’t have that camaraderie, then I would consider looking elsewhere, because so many schools, it’s your work family. And the last thing is it’s always an adventure. No day is the same. Every single day something different will happen, so really just enjoy the ride and teach from the heart.
I always close out the show with something that I call The Takeaway Truth–a short but powerful sentence or quote that I want teachers to remember in the week ahead. Can you give us a Takeaway Truth for this week?
Yes, and it’s something I’ve really been living this year, and it’s to inspire meaningful change, you must open the heart before you can open the mind. If you want to connect with Pam and other positive teachers who want to love teaching every day, no matter what–I have great news. We’re going to be going through Unshakeable chapter by chapter in March in our online book club. If morale is super low in your school right now or you’re feeling defeated and worn out, I hope the discussions we hold in this group next month will help lift your spirits and re-energize you for ending the school year strong.