Apr 22, 2023

Recovering From Teacher Burnout by Shifting Your Habits: From Burned-Out to Burned-In with Alyssa


Recovering from teacher burnout can be challenging when you are working against old habits and mindsets. These previous ways of being and thinking can become so ingrained that it’s challenging to change and remove them, so challenging that many don’t and just accept the status quo.  

But it’s when these old habits and mindsets are challenged and shifted that we can truly start our journey of recovering from teacher burnout. 

In this episode, going to share with you a Burned-In Teacher Student Spotlight from a Burned-In Teacher student named Alyssa.  In this interview, Alyssa is going to talk about how she joined Burned-In Teacher University in the late spring/early summer of 2022. So at the time of this interview, it’s close to the one-year mark since Alyssa joined.  She and I went back and forth and decided that now would be a great time for her interview so she could talk about how her school year has gone since adopting the Burned-In Teacher principles and mindsets into her day-to-day practice.  I know that you’re going to love what she has to say about how her perspective, mindset, and outlook have changed as she now moves out of the 2022/2023 school year.  

So, without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to my friend Alyssa. She's a first-grade teacher in Massachusetts that’s currently in her 11th year of teaching - and she’s going strong ever since completing and applying what she’s learned in the Burned-In Teacher University Course. Let’s dive in! 

 Amber:  Hi, Alyssa! Thank you so much for joining us on the Burned-In Teacher Podcast today. 

Alyssa: Thank you so much for having me, Amber. It's great to be here. It's my first time being on a podcast, so it's really exciting.

Amber: It is really exciting. I'm so grateful that you are joining us today to tell us about your burnout story and your experience with Burned-In Teacher University. 

So, tell us a little bit about you.

Alyssa: Sure. I live in Massachusetts. I grew up in Massachusetts, and I currently live in a suburb of Boston with my husband. I also enjoy spending a lot of time with my parents and my sister who live nearby. And in my free time I love doing yoga and I love dancing - I've been doing Salsa dancing for the past six or seven years. And I also love being outside in nature. We spend a lot of time going on hikes and going on trips to national parks, the mountains, and things like that.

Amber: You’re speaking my language right now! I don't know if you know this about us, but we love spending time taking hikes and exploring national parks. It’s a great outlet. 

What grade do you teach? 

Alyssa: I'm currently teaching first grade with a mix of native English speakers, as well as students who range from beginner to intermediate English learners as well.  I have quite a mix of students in my classroom. 

I’ve been in my current role for the last several years, and currently in my 10th year of teaching. Over the years, I’ve been in all different early childhood grades from pre-K through second grade, but the last few years have been in first grade. Right now I’m trying to settle into one position after being switched around for many years. 

Amber: I get that.  It’s nice that you've had the ability to grow into this position. Is working with English Language Learners something you’ve always wanted to do?  

Alyssa: I don't think I knew that when I initially started teaching, but I studied early childhood in my undergrad so I knew since I was in college that I wanted to be a teacher. Then after I graduated, I spent a couple of years in a volunteer teaching program. So my first two years of teaching were in Honduras where I taught in a bilingual school.  My love for the language developed from the multicultural aspect of that experience.  

Then when I came back, I taught in a dual language program in Boston. I was also an ESL specialist for a few years. I've worked with kind of this population of students in a few different capacities.

Amber: That's cool. I visited Honduras in high school when we went on a missions trip there. It's such a beautiful country. 

So with this being the Burned-In Teacher Podcast, I'd like to start with the hard stuff. Can you tell us a little bit about your challenges with burnout? What that looked like and what that felt like for you? 

Alyssa: In reflecting and preparing for this conversation, I realized I probably had an earlier episode of burnout that I didn't identify as that at the time. When I was teaching in Boston in 2017, I had a very challenging year, and I ended up switching districts and switching positions. I decided to take a break from being a classroom teacher and I switched to an ESL specialist. I think that the time, that sort of solved the problem that gave me a little time to recuperate.

But the story that brought me to you was last school year, which was the 2021/2022 school year.  That was the first year that we were back fully in person after remote learning. I think the main challenge for me that year was that I had a handful of students who had very challenging behavior due to trauma and different disabilities. I feel like they were ALL were dealing with so many social emotional needs. 

Dealing with everything was so draining. It caused a lot of negative thoughts about my own teaching like, Why are students like this in my class? What am I doing wrong? I felt like I couldn’t handle things and felt alone. I also didn't have a paraprofessional that year because they just couldn't hire anybody - the position was vacant. I did have a part-time student teacher for a couple of months. But most of the time I was on my own.  I didn’t feel like I had a lot of support from other people, the counselors, or the administrators in my school. But looking back, I think they wanted to support but everyone was going through these challenges coming out of the pandemic and it was challenging not having enough resources - and not having enough staff - for the many needs of the students.

I was left feeling left in the dark and struggling to give my students what they needed. I dreaded coming to school every day.  I would worry about what the kids were going to do that day, whether or not we’d be able to make it through lessons, and if the students would feel safe.  There were so many negative thoughts about not being able to get out of this situation with the group of kids that I had.

Amber: I can feel that so deeply. I know what it’s like to feel that dread of going to school every day and not wanting to get out of your car.  I have been in that in that position. 

You said that you now believe that they (admin) wanted to support you, but they either didn't know how or just were stretched too thin. Did you have anybody outside of school that you could turn to for any support at that time?

Alyssa: Yeah. I think I discussed all of these things with family and friends. But you know, another challenge with all of this was just feeling miserable and not myself. Whenever I would spend time with family and friends, I felt very negative. I felt like I wasn't able to be present when I was with people. I felt like I was always venting and complaining. And I feel like people were good listeners, but that wasn't necessarily something that would change my situation.

Amber: Right.  You were just venting to get it all out, but that wasn't followed with the support or suggestions, or resources that you needed at that time. 

So how did you find Burned-In Teacher?  

Alyssa: So in the spring of 2022, I felt like I need to reach out to other teachers.  I knew I needed to reach out to my network and start to see how other people were managing everything and what could do to get out of this situation.

At the time, I started talking to some colleagues who I knew either had families but were still able to create balance (I was curious to hear how they made it sustainable) or other people who maybe were leaving.

 A co-worker connected me with a different podcast, The Teacher Career Coach Podcast.  I started listening, but that podcast is more focused on leaving teaching, and I didn't feel like I was at the point where I wanted to leave teaching. But at the same time, I'd didn't know how I was going to come back for another year. I knew I wasn’t ready to leave, but I had to figure out how I could at least get myself prepared to come back in the fall. 

I believe you had been interviewed on that podcast, and then I found and started listening to your podcast.  Then I looked up your course and it felt like exactly what I needed at the time. I had nothing to lose.  I wasn't planning to do any teaching or anything over the summer, which I know was a true privilege to be able to take that time and reset.

I completed your course that summer and I also did a couple of other self-care things - I went on a couple days yoga retreat (which was awesome) and I did some therapy as well. I just threw everything I had at it to try to get myself back in a good shape for the fall. 

So that was how I found you and your course. 

Amber: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing that.  

Yeah, summer is when a lot of teachers join the program, and I totally get it because of how stretched many of us feel during the school year.  But I don't feel like the course is “one more thing”, I feel like it is the thing that can help you to pull through, especially in those really hard rock bottom moments. 

You and I connected quite a bit when you first joined, and I asked you if you'd be willing to share your story because you just poured your heart out in an email at one point. When I read it, I was like, Oh my gosh, more people need to hear this. But we strategically waited until spring because you wanted to see how this would all play out now that you've done all of this work on yourself over the summer. It's easy to say that things are going to be different in the summer when you're fresh and you're renewed.

Can you give us a window into how your days and how your weeks are different now than they were pre-Burned-In Teacher? 

Alyssa: When you asked about my burnout story I talked a lot about what was going on in the classroom with my kids, but I think the other piece of it was how unbalanced I felt. Since I was so drained during the day, I wasn't able to focus during my prep time or focus at the end of the school day to get my planning and my prepping done. So there was a lot of taking work home on the weekends, and I resented doing all that work outside of school. 

One piece I wanted to take from the course was to be able to get most of my work done during school hours, be prepared, and not have to deal with school things outside of school. And that was new for me. For most of my career, I was always a weekend planner. I was always planning on Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon. I think in the beginning that was fine for me, but over the years it got harder. During the pandemic, it became a resentful thing for me and I told myself  I can't’ do this on the weekends anymore 

After that, I did work on habit-shifting, based on things I learned from your course. Now I use a Trello board similar to the way you showed us. I set up ahead of time how many hours I want to work each day and plan out what tasks I’m going to do before school, during school, and after school. It's certainly not perfect - it's a work in progress still -  but I try as much as possible to kind of stick to those plans. And I've been able to keep my hours around 45 hours per week with very minimal, if any, work on the weekends. 

All of this has been life-changing. Being able to renew and recharge, enjoy my weekends, and be present has been a game changer. Even if you know there's a little detail that for the next week that I didn't quite finish to the point where I wanted to, I still come in and I feel more ready to be with the kids and more myself. That's been one huge change - just having everything ready before the weekend and coming in on Monday and just being ready to go. 

Amber: That is incredible. That's one thing that I applied big time in my own classroom.  I do not leave on Friday unless I am prepared at least for Monday, and now it's gotten to the point where I leave on Thursday and I typically have my whole next week pretty much planned. There might be some things here and there that I have to wrap up, but I'm not worried on Saturday or Sunday about what I'm going to be doing on Monday. That's the worst feeling in the world, especially when it's just one of several factors that are very hard throughout our day.

Alyssa: I used to have that Monday scramble to try to get everything ready. And now, as you said, by Thursday or Friday my planning is done for most of the next week. And when I come in, everything just goes so much more smoothly. 

I also have the benefit of now being in the same position for a few years, so my curriculum is pretty familiar to me and I'm not like recreating new things. So I know that it would look different for someone who was in a position for the first time or in a new grade level. But I think the same strategy works of determining the hours when you’ll complete each task and just being intentional about it. Otherwise, I would just sit down and just feel so scattered and I wouldn't do anything.

Amber: Yeah, 100 percent. I'm so glad you also mentioned “work creep”. When we first start teaching, we're new and we're fresh and we're excited. And we don't think twice about putting in some hours on a Saturday or a Sunday, or in the evenings. But then after a couple of years, for a lot of teachers, it becomes drudgery work. Feeling like you have to do work on the weekend because things aren’t ready for Monday creates that feeling of anxiety. I'm glad that you mentioned that because I want to stop normalizing and believing that you have to work on the weekends to be a good teacher. I think that that just needs to stop.

With that being said when my kids were young, it was very nice for either one of us - Jeff and I both taught in the same school at the time - to leave the girls with the other and go to school for a couple of hours. I remember a couple of weekends, I would go in for a couple of hours, and when I would come home, he would go in for a couple of hours. We were both new-ish teachers at the time and that was just nice to have that quiet, uninterrupted time to get things done.  That worked for a while, but we eventually got to a point where we didn’t need to do that anymore because we set up systems that set us up for success. So I'm glad to hear that you've also done that for yourself.

Alyssa: Something I've been thinking about a lot, as we start thinking about having our own family, is how to create a sustainable career when you have your own small kids at home. Oftentimes I feel so exhausted from the day with my students and I wonder how do people do that when they have their own little kids at home? I’m trying to create and put systems in place ahead of time.  

Another habit that I changed that's also been really helpful for me - and I started to do this before signing up for the course - is meditating. I started this during the pandemic, but it wasn't a consistent practice, especially during the school year. I’d be like, I don't want to get up any earlier to you to do anything in the morning before school because I already hate getting up early. But I told myself, I'm just going to do it. I decided I'm going to get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning and do a short five-minute meditation, and then I journal a little bit in the morning based off of what you talk about. I write down things I'm grateful for, and my goals and intentions for the day, and then I revisit that journal entry in the evening. That has been a nice practice to center me before the day starts. And I feel, for the most part, I've been able to maintain a much more calm presence throughout the day with my kids. You know, we have students who are challenging every year, right, I have a handful this year as well, but I feel like my approach with them has been so different than my approach last year just because I'm in a better space and I'm calmer heading into my day.

Amber: Oh my gosh! I'm so glad you mentioned that too. I was telling my husband that I've never been so calm facing the challenging students that I've had this year. I can't imagine how 2010 Amber or the new teacher Amber would have handled what I’ve had to deal with this year. It wouldn't be pretty, I can tell you how that much! 

But it's just a ripple in our day, right? It doesn't have to destroy our whole day, especially if you're setting yourself up with that intention and that mindfulness before you start your school day. That's amazing! Great job! 

Alyssa: Thanks! I feel, even if it's a hard day at school like I'm able to just let it go when I leave. When I come home, I do whatever I do in the afternoon - my exercise, my yoga, my dinner with my husband - and it doesn't feel like it has like affected the whole rest of my day the way it used to. That’s a big change.

Amber: Yes! So what advice would you give to a teacher who is struggling and asks for your help? What would you tell them?

Alyssa: I think, for me, it was a two-part thing. It was the habits, which are more concrete and tangible changes, along with that inner mindset and reflection. I feel like those two things went hand in hand. 

You mentioned a lot in your course the Be-Do-Have mentality. And I liked that one to get people started. It seems simple, but it's something that you have to convince yourself of and adopt. But instead of waiting around and saying, I'll get to this laterWhen I have time, or I'm going to change this down the road, you have to take action now. Just start by changing really small things one at a time.  You have to look at what's within your control and implement these new habits one at a time to see how they can affect your day in a big way - even if they are small changes. 

Amber: I'm so glad you highlighted that. It's just one small thing that you can try. It doesn't have to be a new thing every day, it can be that one new thing that you want to build into your routine, right until it becomes that ritual.

That was a huge change for me. When I started my journey back in 2016, I had to start to pay attention and be intentional.  I’d have to tell myself, No, we don't do that anymore, We're not going there, This isn't who we are, and This is not who we want to become. I’d have these conversations with myself. 

And I love the Be-Do-Have mentality. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. So thanks for bringing that up.

Alyssa: It's funny because I feel like your course somehow was the first time in 10 years that I had somehow truly been convinced that we are in control of our own time.  That we can make our own choices about what we can control. I feel like I finally believed that teachers don't have to work all the time to be good at their job. 

Just being able to finally convince myself of that and agree with that mentality was life-changing. You can align this job to the values that you have as a whole person. That inner reflection piece, convincing yourself of those beliefs, and then combining it with small habit shifts, has kind of been a good combination for me.

Amber: That’s amazing. I also love that you brought up that you found me on Daphne Gomez’s podcast, The Teacher Career Coach Podcast. When she and I talk, we talk about how our programs go so well together because people might be exploring leaving teaching even though they don't want to, they just can't imagine continuing on this path that they're on. You know, that path of working all weekend, and all night and the feeling of exhaustion and hopelessness that comes with it. 

I've had several people who have found me on her podcast because they are exploring leaving, which is admirable if what you’re doing isn’t sustainable and you’re feeling miserable.  If you’re feeling that way, then absolutely you should explore other options. But then they find me and they realize that there are some things to try and there are some different avenues to explore before actually leaving the profession. 

And Daphne has sent people my way, and I've sent people her way. I've had people email me or who have connected with me that know taht leaving teaching is the best thing for them, but they don't know where to start with how to build a resume or what job they should apply for.  I tell people in this situation that they have to connect with Daphne because she is a great resource. 

I appreciate that you shared that because I want teachers who are miserable and feeling frustrated to know that they have options. You don’t have to stay.  Teaching is not who you are. I've left teaching twice and returned twice, so it would be pretty insane of me to tell somebody else that they needed to stay because sometimes in leaving, you find yourself and realize that teaching is for you but you just need to go about it differently.

Alyssa: One thing that comes up in a lot of these conversations is that teachers feel so much of their identity is tied to their careers. They tell themselves, I am a teacher, it’s who I am. What else could I possibly do? 

A lot of us knew very early on that we want to be teachers, it's what we went to school for.  That was the case for me.  A lot of people in my family are educators so it's just kind of always been the path that I thought I would follow. And you feel like it's this forever career, more so than other careers where I think people move around in their positions a lot more. 

I think that was something I was having an internal dilemma about last year when I was deciding if I should leave or stay. It’s freeing to release the mentality and to tell yourself, I can continue if I want to, but I don't have to. I'm not tied to this forever.

I lean into the other pieces of my identity. Now, when people ask me what I do for work, I tell them, Right now,  I'm teaching first grade.  Just that small shift of phrasing it differently helps me internalize that just because I’m doing this now, doesn’t mean I'm stuck here forever.  And moving forward, just feel more open to possibilities and know that there are other things out there if it comes to the point that I want to try something different

Amber: Yes! And what you've done is you've taken your power back just in the language that you're using. You have a choice. And who knows, down the road if you choose to have kids, maybe that won't be your choice for a while.  You don’t have to know and not knowing is okay. 

 So I know that you said you enrolled in Burned-In Teacher University in the summer, was there one specific thing that happened where you were like, I need to enroll now? Or was it just kind of a natural next step for you?

Alyssa: I have one event in mind, that was sort of like the dramatic blow-up of my burnout - I feel like a lot of us have those. I know you talk about yours a lot. 

In April of last year, on the last day before our week of April vacation, I had a really difficult experience with two of my students who were having a very physical fight in the classroom. As I mentioned before, I was by myself, and I had called for support from the office several times but no one was coming. It was very stressful at that moment to try to figure out how do I keep these two children safe from each other, as well as the whole rest of the class safe. Eventually, I was able to get one student to come out into the hallway with me, but they were still trying to battle from opposite sides of the door. 

What ended up happening was a few of the counselors and social workers walked by in the hallway and saw what was going on and stepped in to help. I was just in this, very heightened, stressed-out mode at that point, so I took a break. I took a break from the room and they took care of the situation. Then later I found out from the administration that they wanted to investigate the issue and see what happened. So I was nervous. I was worried I was going to get in trouble for the way I handled it.  Also, my principal asked me to go home early that day because she saw how stressed I was, and I was mortified that I had to leave. I didn't get to say goodbye to my kids before the end of the vacation, and I had an exciting vacation planned but I was so nervous about what was going to happen with this situation. That was sort of my breaking point. 

Thankfully, after we came back from vacation and there was some support offered to me - they tried to put more staff in the room whenever somebody was available, they offered a behavior coach that I could speak with about how to help these kids. So they tried for the rest of the year to put some support in place, but I had just gotten to the point where I just couldn’t go on with that situation anymore.  I decided that I kind of wanted to do something, but I wanted to wait until summer to enroll in anything because I wanted to give it my full attention and focus. And I wanted to, as you said, take the control back into my own hands. I just kept waiting for people at my school to come and help me, and that wasn't always something that people could do even if they had the best intentions. I felt like I needed to figure out how to manage these situations on my own if I'm going to be able to continue. 

So I decided over the summer that was the time to refresh and try to gain new skills that would help me come back ready for the fall. 

Amber: Thank you so much for sharing. I know that those moments are hard to sometimes talk about. I can just imagine how stressful that must have been. 

So why do you think other educators should enroll in Burned-In Teacher University?

Alyssa: For me, I liked the way it was organized with the eight-course modules, and how they were released kind of one week apart. It was self-paced and manageable. It never felt overwhelming. 

And the way that you deliver the content is very digestible. I personally like writing things down, so I liked having the journal and the reflection notebook that went along with everything. 

I wasn't part of the Facebook community personally because I don't use social media, but I think just having that community is important. It’s important to be able to hear about the experiences that people are having and get support in that way as well. And even though I wasn't on social media, I was still able to join the coaching calls if I wanted to and listen to your podcasts and hear other people's experiences. 

For me, it feels like a good first step for people because it's not too overwhelming. It's very clear and it sort of meshes well into your life already. As I said, it’s about making those small habit shifts, taking the pieces that work for you, and implementing them.

Amber: Thank you for saying that. Was there anything else that you'd like to tell the listeners of the podcast today before we wrap things up?

Alyssa: To try to follow the path that makes the most sense for you. Some people might be wanting to continue, some people might be wanting to take a break and try something else. And I think that both of those things are okay, and take your time and figure out what works best for you and do not sit in the negative all the time. And it's hard, right? I'm certainly still working on it. There are times when I catch myself in these negative thought cycles. 

Amber: Now you’re able to identify them now and know it's okay to feel this way for a moment, but you’re not going to stay here.

Alyssa: I did have a couple of weeks in this school year where I started having those same thoughts again, you know Why do these things always happen to me? Why is this going on again this year? but I was able to pull myself out of it more easily than I have in the past.

I would say just start somewhere, take a small step - whether that's trying to make your current situation better, whether it’s teaching in a different school, whether it's trying something different altogether. But for me, the key was balance. I created my own word of the year that you talk about, and my word was balanced. And so for me, no matter what my choice was about my career, the priority was to remain balanced and to keep those priorities - my own health, my own priorities, my own joy, my life and family outside of school - aligned with work. Just keep going back to whatever your values are as you decide what changes you'll make moving forward.

Amber: That was the perfect way to end this interview. Alyssa, I am so grateful for your time and your energy, and your story. Thank you so much for investing in yourself and for trusting your job as a teacher you know, and for your belief in yourself. Thank you for putting your trust in me. I don't take that lightly. And I'm so glad that you came on today to share your story.

Alyssa: Thank you for having me. I'm so grateful as well that I found you and your course. There's a huge network of support out there right now. It's so important what everybody is doing to help us all make this career the best that it can be for us. 

Amber: We all need help. Thanks again, Alyssa.


Call to Action: Things You Can Do Tomorrow

  1.  Reflect on your habits. Consider what habits are keeping you stuck in burnout, and what habits you want to add/change to help get you out of it. 
  2. Take ACTION!  Decide what’s one small step you can take to create the changes that you want to see in your life and your career. Click here to listen to my podcast episode on the Be-Do-Have Mentality.
  3. Create your own word of the year. Click here for directions to create yours.


Resources Mentioned in This Episode 




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