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69. How To Set Personal & Professional Learning Goals That Transform Teacher Burnout with Special Guest Melissa Steigerwald
Episode 6929th August 2023 • The Resilient Teacher Podcast • Brittany Blackwell, Teacher Burnout Tips
00:00:00 00:41:21

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Often we think of teacher learning goals as these things that include educational jargon like "rigor" or "learning gap." But if we aren't creating our own professional learning goals, then it's almost pointless.

In this episode, we dive into how Melissa, a teacher just like you (not an influencer or social media teacher) used this podcast to set a professional learning goal to beat the teacher burnout cycle once and for all. As you listen to her story, I'm sure you'll feel a little sense of "Oh, I've been there too" and grab a few ideas to add to your plan to beat burnout this school year. It's a constant process and the process of setting these goals is what leads to reviving that passion for teaching again.

Melissa is a veteran teacher with 20 years experience in the classroom. Out of college, she was hired to teach 4 year old kindergarten in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has been blessed to be able to stay in the same school, grade level and classroom for her entire career. She considers herself to be an ordinary classroom teacher as she does not have any teacher social media presence. Melissa tries to make a difference every day by bringing joy, playfulness and connection to our youngest learners.


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Melissa's Burnout Journey and Introduction

[0:01] Hi, Melissa. I am so excited to have you here on the Resilient Teacher Podcast.

Hello. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Yes. So I started following Melissa, and Melissa started following me.

And what was really cool was she started sharing her burnout journey with her district.

And so I thought it would be really cool for you to kind of share a little bit about who you are, your experience with burnout, all of that.

So if you don't mind just telling the listeners who you are, what you do, how you got into teaching.

Absolutely. So I just finished my 20th year teaching four-year-old kindergarten.

And I've been very lucky that I've been in the same district, same classroom, my entire career.

And it's just, it's home to me. It's really, it's wonderful.

And so when I initially started teaching, I was in a half-day program.

So I had a morning and an afternoon class.

And then it was about 16, no, 14 years ago.

Transitioning to a full-day program and experiencing burnout

[1:10] That the district started looking at expanding to a full-day program instead of a half-day program.

And that's kind of where my burnout journey starts a little bit.

We were doing a lot of research with moving to this full day program.

And when we started that first year, there was a big shift in what we were doing.

And so that was just, it was new and there was a lot going on at the time.

So when I've had the time now to reflect and look back, I think that's where the ball started to get rolling a little bit in that direction.

But it was also, it was a really good experience as well, making that move in the program.

I'm really proud of the work that our district did in that area and moving towards a more play-based program.

So it's been an adventure. It's been a learning curve for sure, but it's now on the other side of things.

I'm really happy with where I am and everything I've gone through.

I'm thankful for the learning I had from that.

[2:19] Yeah, so you said you've been teaching for 20 years. That is a long time to be teaching. And I know that some listeners who are just now listening in, they're like, I don't even know if I can make it to Year 5. And I think a lot of teachers have that. You know, they, they start out, and they think it's going to be one way, and it's not. And so there's a lot of teachers who leave the profession in those first 5 years. So kind of going back to what you, experienced in your burnout? What were some of the symptoms? Like, what did you experience? What really set it all off, do you think?

[2:57] So it's really interesting taking a look at the whole span of time. So I think that first year, I was, so in the first half of my career, I was the only 4K teacher in my building. There was only, we have four elementary buildings, and there was only one of us in each building. So, having that dynamic of someone else to share the load with and things.

[3:25] Like that really wasn't there the first half of my career. And then when we moved to the full day program, I then had three additional people join the team, which I was so thankful for and we really worked well together. But I noticed that year I really kind of overextended myself with wanting to help. So, you know, and taking on, when you have a new team member, you do, I was their go-to for a lot of things, which I don't regret being that for them at all. But I was that for a lot of people in the building and being the veteran teacher on the team, a lot of people would come to me for questions. Now, you know, now our kids were going to specials and they had never done that before. And so when I look back, It was a great first year in the program, but I was tired by the end of that year.

And when I moved into the 19-20 school year, there were just other things that happened in the profession.

So I have an educational assistant both in the morning and the afternoon.

We had some turnover and we were having trouble hiring one person.

So it left a lot of time where I was covering for different, you know, I was helping in the lunchroom and losing some of my prep time and.

[4:46] I had a student at the time who needed a lot more behavior supports and had some bigger anger issues and that, you know, just there were things to deal with in the classroom with that as well.

And then, you know, COVID hit that year.

Personal and professional challenges leading to burnout

[5:03] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So that was already kind of a stressful year in the classroom.

And then I think on a personal level as well, I have one daughter, and I had never had a really strong pull to be a stay-at-home mom earlier in my career.

But for some reason that year, she was nine at the time, I was having this pull to be more present with her.

But I knew deep down, financially, it just couldn't happen. And there were other things happening in the district at the time.

You know, we had had a threat at the high school. There were a couple suicides at the high school in the last year, and I just was feeling it not just heavy on my teacher heart, but on my mom heart too.

And I remember, like, sitting in the car one day just crying to my husband, saying, I don't.

[6:00] Know if I want to do this anymore.

Like I want to be home, but I can't. So it was a hard year, both in and out of the classroom.

And then COVID hit, and in a way for me, there was a silver lining to it because I got a.

[6:18] Taste of that stay-at-home time with my daughter.

hen I went into the summer of:

[7:39] And yes, it just kind of came out of left field. And I have struggled with anxiety on and off my entire adult life.

So it was thankfully something I was familiar with.

But it's not any less scary when you're going through it.

And that summer moving forward, it was almost like my nervous system was just shot.

I felt like I was triggered so easily and to fight or flight or freeze and I, you know, went to the doctor. I was currently on anxiety medication. They increased my dose and it really, I wasn't seeing a lot of improvement. So, when I went into that next school year, I was already in a not great place, but I don't think I even realized maybe how bad it was at the time. I think now looking back, I can see that a little bit more.

[8:44] But that previous spring as well, there were just some personal things going on. We had lost a good family friend. We had lost our cat that was my first pet as a grownup, and both of those were really hard losses. And I think that looking back now, I think I went into that school year, not only with that anxiety being there, but I think I was also battling a little bit of depression as well. But again, at the time, I didn't really fully know that, I think. I think I really thought more it was my anxiety was flaring up. And being that it was summer, I didn't even really equate it at the time to maybe everything that had been going on at work.

Overwhelmed and Stretched Thin in the Classroom

[9:34] So that school year, I went back, and that ended up being the hardest year of my teaching career.

I had some children with some pretty significant needs, and I felt like I had to wear so many hats in the classroom, I think. I sometimes felt like I wasn't just being a teacher. I felt like I was trying to navigate maybe their own mental health challenges at the time and some struggles they were going through. And I just, I had this constant feeling of not being enough, and just being so stretched thin. And we were in, we were in our fall in service in our building, and I had another panic attack.

And my teaching partner, she was amazing. She sat with me for the next hour and a half, two hours in my classroom while I cried and just spilled it all out to her. And, she was really instrumental in starting to get me some help that I needed. She's like, okay, we're going to call your doctor right now. You're going to make an appointment to go in.

You're going to request a referral for a therapist and start going back to seeing someone. And.


Yeah. Yeah. It was wonderful. So that really started me realizing that I needed to do something more.

Seeking Help and Realizing the Need for Change


But that year, it was just so hard.

It was, like I said, I had those constant feelings of not being enough that was trickling over to home with, um, I really want, I think I went more into that freeze mode, so I would come home and I would just not want to do anything. I would need quiet, I would need downtime.

And same thing in the classroom. I know I was struggling with decision fatigue and that I would, the kids would leave the room and I remember feeling like a deer in headlights.

Like I know I have so much to get done, but I don't know what to do and I'm so overwhelmed and my nerves are so shot right now that I need this time to just fly to make it until they get back from lunch, you know?



Husband's Health Issues and Contracting COVID-19


Because I was home and I had already been working on, in therapy, those like negative thought patterns of not being enough. And I said, you know what? I felt like at that time, I was stuck in such...


And then she did your summer self-care conference last summer, and that's how I found you. And, it was like perfect timing because you had just started the podcast, and I was just getting going with my things I was working on. So I felt like we were growing up together in away with the work you were doing and what I was doing at the time.

And so that was really when I said, okay, therapy's great, but I need another layer of support as well.

And at the time, I had really worked with my therapist on a lot of the anxiety issues.


Exploring the Idea of Leaving Teaching


Yeah. And so she was really helpful with, okay, well, we need to work through those thoughts.

Like is it that really you need to start looking for a different path or are there things that you can work on still being a teacher to make it more sustainable.

So I signed up for the Summer Self-Care Conference last summer and worked through that.

And then I had gone back to therapy that month before school started and I said, you know, I think I might make this my professional practice goal this year where we have to pick, you know.

And she was thrilled. She's like, I think that's a fabulous idea.



Making Small Changes to Manage Burnout



And I went through, and that's really where I started to work through, okay, what mindset shifts do I need to make?

And then once I figured those out, it was like, okay, so what are the boundaries and the routines that I need to create that are going to support that.

And that was really how I started the process. I looked at what I knew I wanted to change.

That initial part was really in August, like what I really wanted to change just to kick off the school year.

And then I used that monthly check-in process to see, okay, how's it going?

What other support might I need?

Or is there a new area that I need to work on?

So yeah, that was how I got started. And then another piece of the puzzle for me really was my own self-regulation.

And in therapy, my therapist kept saying, she's like, you need to get into your body.


And I started following someone else on Instagram. She's Anna the Anxiety Coach.

And she had a bunch of really great options for your own self-regulation.

So I started building that into my day.

Incorporating Self-Regulation Strategies into Daily Routine


I did something every time the kids left the room, especially when I first went back to school that first year because I still was in a more anxious state than I wanted to be, obviously.

And I knew that if I was going to be able to help with the children's regulation, I needed to make sure I was on my best and being proactive about it.

So whenever the kids would go to a special or if they left for lunch, I would always end the last five minutes in my classroom with doing something quick for me.

And it usually didn't even take five minutes, but that was something that was really helpful as well for me.

So what were those things, what were the things that you did like before the kids came in?

I'm sorry to interrupt. No, that's okay.

So she, there's all different types of like body movements that she would have for different strategies you could use.


So I would use them at transition times and it was really great.

So the three that were my go-tos were bouncing up and down for a minute.

And then she had one called, it was a bamboo sway. So basically you just stand with your feet apart and you're swaying back and forth.

I close my eyes while I do it and just take deep breaths. And then the last one was, sounds kind of weird.

This is the one the kids would always ask for, is there's, put your fingers right in front of your ears, where your ears meet your cheeks, and you rub slowly in circles.

And that one works really well for me. kind of just sends me out. So I do 10s while I'm breathing. And I would even do that when I would take my bathroom breaks at school before I would walk back to the classroom because it was just a quick, you know, 15 seconds that it would take. But it would also help me remember that I was taking care of myself, that I was putting myself first. And I think that was, um, I think the biggest mindset shift that I needed to work on first.

Putting Self-Care First for Teacher Well-being



And as part of my professional practice goal, I ended up, as you said, presenting in my district this last spring what I was offered as one of the classes my colleagues could take on burnout recovery.

ohn Hattie, I think from like:

And the number one thing is teachers having that collective efficacy of you going in each day, thinking that you and your team are going to have a positive impact.


It's so important. So I really needed to check that with myself in multiple areas this school year. So how much time I was putting in every day. I know that's huge for all of us. How much money I was spending in the classroom. All of those things, you know, was just, I really needed to look at all those different areas and set some boundaries with those things. And it really did help a lot this school year. I feel like I'm a totally different person than I was when I went into the school year.

Continuous Growth and Maintenance of Self-Care Practices


You know, I don't want to do that. I want to continue to make sure that I'm putting myself first and also helping, you know, my team do that as well.


Because then you're able to show them and be that model as to what that looks like when you do take care of yourself.

And the change that you had throughout that year, that, that is just phenomenal and just gives me goosebumps to listen to your story, because that's just, I just feel like when you hear stories about people who deal with burnout or have, experience that, you hear a little bit of yourself in there, too. Because I heard, in your story, I heard things that I dealt with. And I was like, oh gosh, you know, like.





Overcoming Burnout and Knowing When to Quit


One question I do have for you is if somebody is listening right now and they're like, that's great, a professional learning goal, another thing to do on my list, what would you tell that teacher who's like, I don't know, I don't think I can do this anymore?


I think right now it's so hard for teachers to know if it's time for them to quit or if it's time for them to put in the work, and the work is hard.

I mean, it doesn't come as quickly as anyone I think would like it to.

I can't remember. I know I've heard someone that you've had on the podcast say this, but someone talk about how, you know, if you choose the route to quit, which is completely fine if you choose that route, but you haven't dealt with your underlying burnout, you might just take that with you into your next career, next position.

So I think it's really important to start the work, start small.

I really looked at what I could take off my plate as well, and I know every district is different.

So I know what worked for me might not work for someone else, but there were things that I looked at that I was doing because I thought I should be doing them, not because I had to be doing them.

And so, I think really looking at your workload.

Taking Control of Workload and Finding Joy in Teaching


Well, if I'm not doing that, but so-and-so is doing that, then I'm not doing as good of a job.

And I keep thinking back to this year where I was taking things off my plate, but I felt like I was a better teacher this year.

And my kids responded more to that this year than I have in the last couple that I've taught because I was going in happy.


It wasn't like I was going in not wanting to be there because if we carry that in with us, that trickles down to them as much as we want to hide it.

If we're having struggles, it's going to come out in our behavior some way, just like it comes out in the children's behavior.

So I think if you're in that position that you're really struggling, take a look at what you can take off your plate and then really start small with what changes you can make that are within your control and not playing that blame game either.

I think if you get into that mindset of like, well, if only this happened differently, or if only my building did this, or if only my principal did this, or I think that's a very slippery slope to go down because I know you've said it before, but it's the change that needs to happen is not going to come from higher up.

It's going to come from us in the classrooms trying to make that change.

So I think if you're in that point where you're really struggling, know that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

Making Small Changes and Taking Responsibility for Change




If there's another teacher out there who, you know, wants to connect with you, do you have a way that they can connect with you or do you want them to? You don't have to.

I'm like, oh, you can find my:

But I will share my email and you can put it in the show notes if there's anyone that wants to reach out and connect, I'd be more than happy to, you know, take care to listen to. And that was really my hope when you had asked me on. I wanted to give that perspective of just someone that's been through it and really has put in the work and has tried really hard because I do want to stay in the profession. And I really love my job and I love working with these young children. And it was important for me to find my way back to that.


Thank you so much again for having me.

It was wonderful.



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