The effects of teacher burnout can extend their reach far beyond the classroom. The effects and feelings of burnout don't just pause once you leave the building at the end of the day, the effects of your teacher burnout extend into all aspects of your life, and vice versa. This is why having strong habits, routines, and support systems are important - they keep you Burned-In in all aspects of your life.
Merriam, a sixth-grade Earth science teacher and student of Burned-In Teacher University, will share with us in this episode her experience with burnout. After 15 years in teaching, Merriam has seen the detrimental effects of burnout on her mental and emotional well-being. She is now taking steps to become a Burned-In Teacher so that she can reduce the stress in her life and be a more effective educator for her students.
Teacher burnout can have extreme impacts on a teacher. Merriam experienced postpartum depression while trying to create boundaries in an unorganized school system, leading to fatigue and exhaustion. Merriam’s story serves as an example of how this exhaustion can lead to a lack of boundaries that occurs within a chaotic system – a reality many current educators are facing. If you are dealing with this kind of burnout, know that you are not alone.
I know that you're going to love hearing her story so let's dive in!
Amber: Merriam, it's so good to have you on the podcast! Thank you so much for joining us.
Merriam: Thank you, Amber. I'm super excited to be here!
Amber: Prior to this interview, we’ve been talking about how we both have a strong passion for teacher wellness, and I love that you invested in this course. You and I have had a lot of conversations about how you're applying what you’ve learned in the course to your life, but I'm getting ahead of myself already!
Tell us about you as a teacher and your life outside of teaching.
Merriam: I am a mother of two beautiful boys - I have one that's in ninth grade and one that's in sixth grade, and I have been married for 17 years to a wonderful man. This is my 16th year of teaching, and I've always taught Middle School, and I've always taught Earth science as well. I started teaching eighth grade, and now I'm with sixth graders and that is my sweet spot. I love sixth graders.
Amber: That's fantastic. Have you always been in the same district?
Merriam: No, is the second district that I’ve taught in. I was in the first district for 12 years. This is my fifth year in my current district.
Amber: Tell us about your burnout story. Did it happen one time, or has it been sort of a roller coaster? What did your burnout look and sound like for you?
Merriam: Actually, this is so interesting, I didn't even know I was experiencing burnout. I didn't know there was a word for it.
A little bit after my first year of teaching, I became a mother. And I actually did not go to a traditional teaching school - I had a science degree and I went through an alternative program to get my teaching licensure. Other new teachers who were coming into the classroom had a lot of practicum experience, but I didn't, I had to learn on the job. This created a lot of insecurity for me because I didn’t have the proper training, but I definitely had a passion for wanting to teach kids.
I had severe postpartum depression after having my first child, as well as a lot of anxiety about being a new teacher and trying to meet all the expectations. In my first year of teaching, I got a lot of NI’s which means “needs to improve”. That didn't really help my self-esteem.
I was trying to juggle being a new mom, and a new teacher, and I was only married for a couple of years at the time, so it was just too many new things happening all at once. It was a lot trying to balance everything. I didn't get to really fully concentrate and master one skill before another one was put on me.
It was just a lot - a lot of depression, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety - just trying to balance everything. I never did walk away from teaching, but those dark clouds stayed with me for years. And honestly, I didn't have time to process what was going on. I didn't even know that what I was struggling with was called burnout. I just thought it was feeling overwhelmed. I would tell myself, Well, you have a lot going on. That's why you feel the way you do.
Amber: I know that there are teachers listening to this right now, especially young teachers, new moms, and moms of young children who can relate to this on such a deeply personal level the way I do. I, like you, became pregnant with our second daughter in my first year of teaching. So, I was pregnant that whole school year and had her in April, and that was tough. That was really, really tough.
I was lucky though, I did get to take the rest of the school year off, and then took the rest of my nine weeks off when school started the following fall. But when I came back, I'm telling you what Merriam, I didn't know that I had postpartum depression. Now I was never diagnosed, and I never even considered it at the time, but I look back now at how sad I was and how horrific I felt when I went back to school, I know that had to be part of why I was having such a hard time as a new teacher.
That is such a hard thing to go through, and I'm so sorry that that happened to you.
Merriam: I appreciate that, and I am on here because, had somebody else talked to me about that, that probably would have given me some strength. It brings such a dark cloud and you can't think clearly and you can't process things and it’s overwhelming. You’re also not sleeping through the night because your baby isn’t sleeping or your brain is just slower, so you can’t think as fast and it causes this domino effect. These feelings start to affect so many other things and it starts to eat away at your self-esteem as a teacher because you start thinking that you aren’t good enough.
Somebody once told me once you become a parent, you can't be 100% of both things - you have this give and take. I think the problem is that there's some, I don't know if it's just my generation or what, that think we have to be perfect. But perfection is the enemy of progress. You talk a lot about progress and that there’s no such thing as perfect. There isn’t.
Amber: Society has shifted so much in the past few decades - we're expected to work like we don’t have children and parent like we don’t have a job. It feels almost impossible to do both.
Merriam: Definitely. All you can do is your best. And the problem is, when we're in the teaching profession, we are under the eyes of a lot of people. Even if you don’t have the parents in the classroom with you, the kids go home and they report back what’s happening in your class.
So, we are in this field where we're constantly being evaluated which makes you feel like you're always under the critical eye. And this doesn’t help you if you have a background where you always got criticized. It feeds into that constant fear of not measuring up to what you think people want you to be.
Amber: Absolutely. And that's such a hard place to be, especially if you don't have the mental strength or the know-how to talk to yourself in a different way.
All of this was back at the beginning of your teaching career, and you just joined Burned-In Teacher University a little over a month ago. Can you fill in the gaps and explain what brought you here?
Merriam: So I taught at my first district for 12 years and then we moved. I had a friend that was an art teacher in what is my now current district, and he said there was an opening in the science department. At the time, I wasn’t looking for a shift, but I knew that the commute would be better, and I would be in the same district as my kids. There were just so many pluses not to give it a go, but I’m such a loyal person and I had this fear of the unknown.
Let’s face it, when you are in a place for a while, you get comfortable, and when you start in a new place you have to prove yourself all over again. I stayed in my first district because they knew me, they knew I was a hard worker and I had two little babies at home. I was a good employee, and all those years I didn’t leave out of fear of things like they wouldn’t let me take time off if my kids got sick, or whatever came up. But at the time of our move, my kids were upper elementary school age, so it was sort of perfect.
So, I gave it chance, and it was interesting coming in as a new teacher after teaching for 12 years. After teaching for 12 years, I’m definitely not a new teacher, but being in the new district was like learning something new all over again. And I did come in with a bit of arrogance - I was like Hey, I’ve been teaching for 12 years, I know what I’m doing. But as I got going I was like Whoa, this is all different! You see, even though I was teaching science still, the style that they taught was different. I learned that you can’t go into new situations thinking that just because you have 12 years of experience you’re done learning. That’s just not the case, and I wasn’t prepared for that.
So, this was a good switch for me. And since then I’ve been doing personal mindset work, and that's what prompted me to look into your program. There are different degrees of burnout. You know there’s you’re done and ready to walk away, and sometimes it’s the “Sunday Scaries” where you just don’t want to go back, and other times you’re like: I love my kids or my job, but I just don't wanna do the work anymore.
Amber: You're describing those stages of burnout for sure.
Merriam: I think my heart's craving to help other people because when you suffer through something, you don’t want others to go through what you did. I always make a joke, if I ever write a book, its title would be I Wish Somebody Would Have Told Me because there are lots of things I wish that someone would have told me about being a mom, being a teacher, everything.
Amber: I know you told me that you haven’t finished the course yet, but can you tell us a little bit about how far you've gotten and what's resonated with you the most?
Merriam: The mindset.
First of all, I really appreciate how you model thinking. When you’re a teacher, there is no time to think, you don't even get one minute to take a restroom break. So there’s no time to process and you want to think but you don’t know how to think. You model the ways to think for us and how to create boundaries and how to arrange your classroom to avoid all the clutter. Now that I'm looking back at it, that's what I'm trying to do, declutter my life and my mind.
Another important point that resonated with me was the control thing - you cannot control parents, you cannot control the district rules, and you cannot control the school. But when I shut my classroom door, that’s my world, and I know that I can control what’s within those four walls and I can’t control what’s outside of them.
Something that really stuck and resonated with me - you’ll notice a lot of C’s resonated with me - is when you talked about decluttering. I had a cluttered mind. In the last 12 to 14 months, I’ve been trying to declutter my mind and trying to find the root causes of why I feel the way I do. What I’ve discovered - and here’s another C word - is that I was conditioned to always feel worried about criticism, which was a problem when you’re constantly feeling like you’re being evaluated.
In my old district, when someone would come into my room I’d be like See, I told you I wasn’t good enough. That was the conditioning and the criticism. Then, naturally, you compare yourself to other people which is quite damaging because a first-year teacher is not going to perform the same as someone who has been teaching for 30 years.
Amber: What you're saying reminds me of a quote that I heard a long time ago which was You can't compare your beginning to somebody else's middle. That's just not fair to you and it's going to stall you and it’s going to stifle your progress because you're comparing your experience to somebody else who's been doing it for a lot longer. It's okay that they're “better” at it than you are right now. It's okay that they have a few things figured out that you haven’t figured out yet.
Comparison is the killer of creativity and it's the killer of growth. When you tell yourself Oh, they're so much better than me, I'm never going to be that good rather than asking questions like How have you been doing this for so long? How are you keeping your room so decluttered? How did you build these relationships with your students? you’ll never grow.
Merriam: In middle school, we talk about how in elementary school, they have like the best, cutesy stuff - the best bulletin boards, the best everything. But when you go to middle school, it's survival mode and there is no cutesy anything as far as the bulletin boards and things. And in high school, you can forget about all the cutesy stuff, it's just trying to get through the academics. And I think if I was sitting in an environment where it wasn’t always a competition - there's another C word - meaning we weren’t competing over things such as who had the best bulletin board, I wouldn’t be so drained. We're all doing the same thing - we're trying to help kids. If something worked for my kids, then I’ll share it with somebody else because you get blessed for that.
Amber: And that's another C word - collaborate. Sometimes have a very limited view of what collaboration looks like, and that could be positive or negative depending on how well you collaborate as far as - here’s another C word - curriculum.
Merriam: We need to make the shift to being more collaborative. The problem is that people try to compete because they're looking for merit pay or to be number one. There has to be a healthy way to do that. Obviously, we all want to be number one in our own way, but we want to get the kids to be number one, right? Not us.
And yes, of course, it's nice to be recognized and you want to feel good, but it can't be done in such a toxic, unhealthy way where people want to hoard their stuff so they can be number one.
Amber: We really are better together, and that's why I love having these conversations because I learn things from students that come on and talk to me and tell me how they're applying the Burned-In Process to their life. We have these amazing and deep conversations about how we're moving forward and what our plans and goals are.
Merriam: I wish that I had come across you 15 years ago when I started because I was really lost! The stuff that you tell us isn’t new, it’s not stuff that nobody ever heard of, but sometimes when you hear it, you can make those needed shifts. And sometimes is the most basic stuff like It’s okay that you’re not number one. I don’t know why teachers feel like they have to be that exception to the rule.
So, the year after the pandemic, there were (and still are) a lot of kids with social emotional issues. And after my lessons, students would come up to my kidney table to talk about their problems and what was happening in their lives. And just to show you how disconnected and nervous I was, I asked my principal if I would get criticized for talking about something other than science content and instead helping students with their emotional problems. And she told me, Don't you think the most important thing right now is to help them with their emotional problems? And then I asked Do all the administrators think that, and she's like, Of course, they do! And in that moment I realized how disconnected I was - meeting their emotional needs is a basic human need, right? And I realized it’s important of having those courageous conversations to ask what my expectations are to just calm my nerves.
And guess what, when they came in for my next observation I wasn’t so nervous because they had already given me the okay, which was important because that’s my personality - I need a little reassurance to know what I’m doing is okay.
Amber: What you're talking about is one of the main causes of burnout - depersonalization. Sometimes we forget about the human element and about that human-to-human connection that a student and teacher can have. And we’re told to make connections and build relationships with kids, right? We do that through those little tiny conversations on that human level to show that we really care about them.
Merriam: I agree with that! At the beginning of the year (I had only taught my students for a couple of weeks) my dad ended up in the hospital with Pneumonia, and I left a message for my students on the daily slides telling them what happened. I told them: Oh, my God. I'm so scared. My dad went to the hospital. I wasn't planning to be out. Could you please be good for the sub? When they read that, they felt so bad about the situation and they were so good for the sub because they were so connected to me.
You see, that’s the “magic sauce” - connections. Relationships are relief, relief from stress. When you make connections with students, they don’t want to disappoint you, and they can tell if you really care about them or not - they are very intuitive.
Amber: Yes, 100%. I can relate to you with that pride that you feel when you have that sense of connection with your kids.
So we had to actually reschedule this interview because last week I was sick and I didn’t have a voice. I actually missed two days of school because of it - if you can't talk you can't teach, right? But I sent parents a SeeSaw message and told them that I wasn’t going to be there, and for my morning meeting I left a note for my students that said: I'm so sorry that I'm not there, but I lost my voice. Please show integrity, respect, responsibility, safety, kindness, and patience. And I was in tears on Tuesday, when my instructional assistant, who was actually my sub that day, told me, Amber, these kids are being so incredibly kind and patient and helpful. You would be so proud of them. My heart just swelled, but this was possible because we connected on that human level so often.
So Merriam, where do you see yourself going from here with what you've learned in the course?
Merriam: I find myself mentoring a lot of the teachers - I'm just so passionate about not letting another teacher go through the agony that I went through. If I can offer words of advice and help them, I'm compelled to do that.
I also gravitate towards people who have the knowledge, I like to learn and grow. If there's somebody who's figured out a way to do it better and easier, why not learn from them? I was just thinking about the pandemic and the teachers who have been teaching for 30 years; they had to dive in and learn stuff they never learned before. There was no time or position for them - or anybody - to be arrogant and say, I'm not using the computer, because you had to, everybody had to, and we learned and grew together.
I'm looking forward to applying more of your wisdom, about boundaries. I haven't perfected that yet. And even personal boundaries. A lot of things from your personal life can spill into your professional life. Once teachers realize that if you're strong a person, they will be an even better teacher. You don't have to be a martyr, teaching is not a lifestyle - it's just a job. Yes, it's a very special job, but you cannot mold your whole life around being a teacher because there are other parts that require you not to be a teacher. I even tell my students that if they work hard, they should go home and play hard. I actually want I tell my kids to do their work in class so they don't have to worry about doing it at home because when you go home and you do the things you want, you'll come back happier, spreading joy in the classroom. Even as a teacher, if you don’t get to do the things you wanted to do, guess what? You're going to take out all that bitterness right onto your kids, and nobody wants to be around a bitter person, right? You don't want to be a bitter bug. So just make yourself happy. Do those things. And what this means for me is that I get my work done at school so I don’t take work home. My time is too precious. I didn’t have this skill in the beginning, but now I do and it’s too precious.
Amber: So a couple of things that came out of everything you've just said - If you're not getting better, you're getting bitter, and if you're not growing, you're dying.
I think that sometimes our ego can really get in the way. In the course, I do have a couple of lessons about your ego, and how it can affect and stagnate your growth because if you believe that you are the best and you believe that you have nothing to learn, you are putting up a wall between you and so many opportunities to grow as, not just a teacher, but as a human being.
Merriam: Absolutely. I agree with that so much.
Amber: So Merriam, what would you say to a teacher who is struggling?
Merriam: I would ask them what their tears are about and if they could pinpoint what’s triggering their feelings like Is it because you’re overwhelmed? Then, you can figure out a game plan like, Why are you overwhelmed? And you just keep working backward from there until you can figure out the route cause and come up with a game plan. People are burned out for lots of different reasons, so you got to take a moment of self-reflection and really dig into what the cause is.
I’d like to make an analogy. Have you ever seen the movie Couples Retreat? In the movie, one of the characters gest s statue called “The Donkey”. And people can take the symbol of the donkey two different ways - it could be an offensive curse word, or it could mean something else. So the reason why he got it was that he carries a load of his family, just like a donkey carries a person or other heavy loads on its own, there's no help for that donkey. I see a lot of teachers as “The Donkey”, they are constantly overdoing it and carrying the load to prove that they are number one and that they are “good enough” to be a teacher. No, you don’t have to do that, you can ask for help! This mindset causes a lot of burnout. You’re not meant to carry all that on your own all day long.
Amber: I’m reflecting and connecting so many things.
First of all, you're basically reciting “R- Reflect on Your Challenges”. It’s important to get to the bottom of why you’re feeling that way. To do that, you can play the “Why Game” - But why? Why this? Why that? - so you can get to the root cause.
And the other thing that you said that resonated with me is that some people do say, Yes, I'll do this for you, I want to help you, and they aren't necessarily doing it all the time for that “gold star” or for that recognition. They're doing it because they want to help, they genuinely want to help other people. But as you know, there is only so much time, so if you're giving and giving and giving to other people, you're not building those boundaries because you don't want to make people mad, you're a people pleaser. When you're saying yes to everybody else's work and everybody else's load, you won’t have time for your own workload.
Merriam: When you can't take care of your students the way you want to because you're struggling with your workload, it's going to really take a toll on you. And then it affects your self-esteem and it causes a whole nother set of ripple effects.
Amber: Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience today before we end this conversation?
Merriam: Yes. I just want to say Don't give up. Listen, the answer you’re looking for does lie within you. Is it an overnight process? No, but you can move forward if you can just start to figure out what the root cause is and work backward to find your next steps and inspiration
That was the other thing that got me through my burnout - those stellar people. I’d ask myself, Where's their inspiration? Look for kindness, find somebody who can build you up and not tear you down. And you know what, you may have had a bad day, but one bad day doesn't mean a bad career.
So remember, the answer does lie within you. Don’t give up, keep looking for a way and a system, and people who can help you.
Amber: Spoken like a true pro. I'm just, I'm so grateful for this conversation!
So, before this interview, you and I were talking about how, even though you’ve already been doing work on your mindset and you already know a lot about teaching, you still wanted to uplevel what you were learning and take it to the next level.
The course isn’t just for a teacher who has never heard of mindset shifts or setting boundaries. We’ve all heard those things in different circles, and some people might know more than others, and that’s okay.
The fact is, I've learned all of these strategies, and I learned them in a very messy way. And what I've done is organized all of that into this process that helps people to fully implement it into their lives in whatever way that they need. That's why I really call it a “personalized burnout plan” because, as you've already reiterated, different people burn out for different reasons. When I started my burnout journey, I was looking up symptoms of burnout, this was back in 2011-2012, and I was finding all of these Pinterest lists of symptoms, many of which didn’t apply to me, and lists of things that I could do, many of which I was already going. Am I getting enough sleep? Yes…Am I drinking enough water? Yes… Did I run every day? Yes… So I was doing all the things, but I still felt miserable and I started to wonder what was wrong with me.
For me, my burnout wasn't because of time management. It was just the negativity in my mind at that point, and I had so much inner work and inner self-awareness work to do. I wasn’t self-aware enough to do the work that I needed to do, which was one of the main causes of my burnout at that time. As you know, I’ve struggled with burnout a couple of times for different reasons. That goes to show that we can’t treat everyone’s burnout the same.
Merriam: Correct, and mine was my mindset. The mind is some really important real estate. And it’s powerful. if you can get your mind collected, then you can achieve so much more.
Amber: And what’s really interesting is that a teacher who is at Stage 0 (rock bottom) of burnout, the last thing they want to hear about is to change their mindset because they are in such a deep, dark place. I know if somebody would have told me that when I was at my rock bottom moment, I would have been like, It's not my fault! It's his fault - he's a terrible leader. But what I really needed was someone to tell me, That might be true for you, but there are other teachers in this building who love him. What do YOU need to do to change your perspective on him as a leader? But at that moment, that just wasn’t something I was ready to hear.
Merriam: Right, and that’s where they need a lot of love and support. When you are deep in burnout, it’s not necessarily teaching, but instead, it’s your internal framework that is not in place to deal with teaching. When you are in burnout, there’s something else going on that you need to be soothed and loved.
Amber: Yes! And sometimes, the only way out of burnout is to get to that rock bottom. That's where I was and I had to get there to realize that no one else is going to come and fix me. No one else could do this work for me, and that's when I really dove into self-help and personal development.
Merriam: I found myself complaining a lot and I would proclaim to anyone who would listen, Nobody else has teacher stress. Listen, teaching is stressful - what other fields out there require people to be in charge and look after 30 people at one time? A doctor goes in one patient at a time. Nurses, one patient.
Amber: Yeah, not to mention teachers do that every day for how many hours…
Merriam: And elementary school teachers stay with the same group pretty much the whole day. At least in middle school I only see students for about an hour and then the next group comes in.
But I didn’t feel like anybody supported me. I feel like my friends and family would get sick of my “teacher stories”, and when I would complain I’d sound like a broken record. It’d be the same thing over and over, So I did this today…and I did this today… I really didn’t like the way I sounded.
Amber: And that’s one of the steps of the Burned-In Process - to pay attention to your thoughts and the things that you say because it becomes habitual. It becomes who you are and turns into your “teacher brand”, which is essentially your legacy.
And if you aren’t self-aware enough, you’re going to continue to things those thoughts, say all the negative things, hang out with those tearer-downers…It’s like feeding the fire. When I look back on my darkest moments, I think about the conversations I was having and the ones I wasn’t having, and how I was exacerbating my misery.
Merriam: Yes, definitely. And I had personal stuff going on that had nothing to do with teaching but was affecting how I was showing up in the classroom. I had to really get down to the root cause.
Amber: Yes, 100%. Burnout doesn't always come from the actual act of teaching. We all have stuff going on personally, right? You can’t just shut that off when you walk in the door.
Merriam: No you can't, but I wish I could. The kids really suck up your energy and mind space during the day, and you start forgetting about stuff.
When I had my first baby, my principal was really nice, he would tell me, If you ever need a moment, or you need to go and visit your child, or you need a day off, just let me know and at the same time I’d be thinking to myself, Little does he know today's my last day. This went on for a YEAR. Every day I would think it was my last day, but then the kids would suck me up into their little lives, and the next thing I knew, I had 12 years of teaching under my belt.
Amber: Merriam, I'm just so grateful that you joined me on the podcast to talk about these incredibly challenging things that we go through as teachers. I just really appreciate it.
Merriam: I appreciate you, Amber. Thank you for building this program to help teachers. This is really a “service act” that you're doing to help teachers have a voice and a place and a platform to open up their hearts, as well as have a “no judgment zone” and to get help. I really appreciate you! Many blessings to you.
Amber: Thank you so much. This is why I built the program. I really appreciate you saying that.
And you’re doing the work and just killing it! Keep it up!