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How to Beat the Disillusionment Phase

This time of year is traditionally when the teacher burnout hits in earnest. According to Ellen Moir’s Phases of First-Year Teaching, we’re deep in the disillusionment phase. And seven years into teaching, I can tell you: this isn’t a first-year teacher thing. I’ve repeated this cycle 6.25 times now.

The great thing about recognizing that it’s a cycle is this: you know this phase will pass, because it has passed before. You know the troughs aren’t as deep as they appear. You can navigate through because you’ve done it before.

What I find helps me in this, the winter of my discontent, is reminders that life exists outside my classroom. That I love things outside of my students. My yearly reminder is National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge that takes place every November. The idea is to get over the hurdle of the blank page by writing a 50,000-word rough draft in the 30 days of November. It truly is quantity over quality. I’ve been participating in this challenge for 18 years. For the last 13 years, I’ve been one of metro Detroit’s Municipal Liaisons, meaning I help plan the writing events for thousands of local participants.

My first year of teaching, it wasn’t just disillusionment. It was the fast track to burnout. It was an administration that was taking advantage of my energy and enthusiasm and inability to say no. It was a disorganized school that led to teachers and students mistreating each other just to survive. It was a lack of advocacy and dismissal of teacher concerns. It was me applying for any job I was remotely qualified for in the middle of October, because if this was what teaching is, it wasn’t for me.

I contemplated not participating in NaNoWriMo that year. I was so swamped. I was getting up early every morning, going to work, staying at work until the custodian kicked me out, settling into my couch at home to keep working until I passed out and slept in a weird, painful position, then starting it all over the next day. I went to a writer’s convention in October and ended up grading papers in the back of panels. It felt like the job was consuming my life, like I was no longer a person if I wasn’t in my classroom, working on things for my classroom, thinking about my classroom, having dreams about my classroom…

But I decided I didn’t want to break my NaNoWriMo streak. I might not make it to 50k, but I was going to try.

And that’s when the magic happened.

Somewhere at the beginning of the month, I remembered how much I like to write. Then, at our big event near the middle of the month, I remembered how much I like to write in community. The next week, I remembered how proud I was of our growing community of writers, and for whatever hand I had in fostering that. I made it to 50,041 words. Were they the best words I’d ever written? Absolutely not. But they existed. I had made them.

The writing, the creativity, the community: I loved these things. I was good at these things. And they existed outside of the school building.

It didn’t fix my school year. I still left that job in March, and I stand by that decision. But NaNoWriMo saved my teaching career. I would not have been the 2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year without it.

If you’re in the winter of disillusionment, commit some more time to what you love outside of your classroom. What time and energy are you giving to your classroom that you could redirect somewhere else? I know it can feel impossible. Schools often don’t function without the unpaid labor of teachers.

But the classroom will still be there, I promise. The students will still get an education. And not only will you survive, your teaching will be better for it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m behind by several thousand words…

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