Podcast: Addressing Educator Burnout - Self Care in Not Enough - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Addressing Educator Burnout – Self Care in Not Enough

Addressing Educator Burnout: Self Care in Not Enough

In his book, “Triage Your School: A Physician’s Guide to Preventing Burnout,” Dr. Chris Jenson provides specific actions school leaders and coaches can take to address the elements of chronic stress for teachers and themselves. Combining his years as a doctor in an emergency room with his years teaching high school science, Dr. Jenson has a unique understanding. Chris states, “Like healthcare, triage prioritizes educators actions and provides a healthier perspective toward overflowing work demands…one that removes guilt and emotion from incomplete tasks.

Find Chris’s Book, “Triage Your School” here.

Visit Chris’s website here.

Find Chris’s LinkedIn here.

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Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.390] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:27.840] – Steve

Addressing educator burnout: self-care is not enough. The author of, “Triage Your School: A Physician’s Guide to Preventing Burnout,” Dr. Christopher Jenson, is joining our podcast today. As the Senior Advisor at Diagnosing Education, Dr. Jenson works with school districts, state organizations, and businesses that are invested in education. His professional development programs and consulting frequently relate to actions to deter staff burnout and embed preventive mental health for students. Welcome, Chris.

[00:01:13.360] – Chris

Thank you so much, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

[00:01:17.880] – Steve

Your background as an ER physician and high school teacher must have generated some interesting insights. I wondered if you’d kick us off with a look at some of those insights.

[00:01:29.940] – Chris

Yeah, absolutely. The question that I always get was, which one was more chaotic and which one was more dangerous? [laughter] No, I was very fortunate to have a very supportive wife, and I’ve been guided by a kind universe with serentipity. But I went from being a full-time ER physician to transitioning to education. While I was in the ER, and I worked for quite some time there, I loved working with medical students and junior residents. And as we advanced our life together as a family, my wife was a full-time clinician, and things were just crazy. And so I thought, why don’t I take this little niche in medicine that I love and go do it as a second career? And so I moved over to become an educator, taught nine years as a high I’m a science teacher, and then realized I could merge the two. And I started consulting on health-related issues in schools around 2018. As you can imagine, my business exploded around 2020. And then I just continued with this passion ever since.

[00:02:32.370] – Steve

So what comparisons would you make between the roles of educator and doctor with stress and burnout?

[00:02:43.960] – Chris

Absolutely. So one of the things that I want to point out is that it was very interesting to live both jobs and see how both roles require you to be a caretaker. I think the general population naturally understands how a nurse or a physician are a caretaker. They’ve got a patient in front of them that they’re using medicine or procedures or some activity to intervene in their life and take care of them. But so do educators. Whether you’re the assistant principal or you’re the superintendent or you’re the classroom teacher, you are working with a vulnerable population that is dependent upon your skills and expertise, which you’re looking to develop over time and then have evidence qualitative or quantitative, that they have, in fact, improved. This is the same, whether it be health care or education. It’s the same. Same goal, same vulnerable folks. This began to fascinate me. I realized that because educators are subjected to the same stress points as health care providers, their metaphoric twin in terms of care providing, that if they’re subjected to the same stress points, then solutions that we’ve seen work in for these stress points ought to be scalable with similar success.

[00:04:05.660] – Chris

I can tell you, using them and working with PD and instituting them in engaging districts over the last couple of years, they are. That’s been one of the thrills of my job is taking operational advantages from healthcare that worked, scaling them to schools, and then seeing the same success.

[00:04:25.490] – Steve

What are you currently finding as schools address education educator burnout in the early exiting of teachers from our schools?

[00:04:36.780] – Chris

Two things, and I mean this in the most loving of ways. I think leading administrators are all in to fix the problem, but I think there’s a little bit of, number one, false reassurance, and number two, falling prey to old habits. Let me deal with them one at a time. False reassurance – Rand, in 2023, released a very sizable survey of educators in the United States that said, hey, congratulations, friends – our teachers are back to pre-pandemic levels of stress. The problem is that prior to the pandemic, between 2003 and 2019, The Washington Post Most New York Times, multiple news agencies ran articles on how teacher attrition was increasing, burnout was increasing, and to no surprise, that educator burnout is about 20% higher than the general population when you look at all professions combined. Add in the fact that if you look at the numbers of students enrolling in schools of education, those numbers have plummeted. And while they wax and wane a little bit like a stock market, we have a diminished pipeline in terms of incoming staff and a higher exit of staff. Plus, we still haven’t recovered from around the 550,000 teachers we lost during the pandemic that retired early.

[00:05:56.840] – Chris

So it’s a math problem that if you think we’re okay, I would humbly suggest we’re not. It’s going to take some time to dig us out. And so what needs to happen is we try to recruit better to get more individuals going into teaching, but that’s not going to happen until we satisfy some of the needs of current teachers who tell those kids, hey, the profession is good again. The second thing that I worry about, I talked about false reassurance, but falling prey to old habits, self-care is a good thing. I can share – there’s paper after paper that says that self-care is beneficial to emotional and to some extent, mental health needs. Because it provides a pause in the day, it allows you to reset, it allows you to have some calm. But if you look at our school leaders who understand operations and flowcharts backwards and forwards, you show me how self-care mitigates the driving forces of teacher burnout. How does self-care deal with the fact that a teacher has got expanding responsibilities? How does going to yoga class mitigate the polarization in your community right now over school-related issues? How does going for a run deal with the fact that teachers feel their hours are expanding?

[00:07:12.550] – Chris

Really, what self-care does is it just puts a bandage on your day, it doesn’t erase any of the driving forces. If you look at the fact that we have a teacher shortage that really hasn’t improved, and maybe your area right now is okay-ish, that math is going to hit you sooner or later. If you can’t establish a better climate and sense of satisfaction for the educators in your district now, that’s a dangerous gamble to take when that shortage finally comes to your district.

[00:07:42.200] – Steve

Let’s connect the term triage to school leaders addressing the issues.

[00:07:49.730] – Chris

Sure. I’m going to take a fun little poke at Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a triage on that show or many medical shows is tossed around and screamed out as if this is this magical thing that takes place to save people. But triage is a workflow process. Triage is going to give your building principles and your classroom educators two amazing things: stability and removal of guilt. Here’s the stability aspect. A lot of times, as we’re overwhelmed in our job and we make a list of all the things we have to do, which many educators do, we just, depending on, I’ve got seven minutes here, I’ve got three minutes I’ve got 10 minutes here, and you just pick at that list in random orders. Then by the end of the day, you still have very important things that have to be done. So you’re not getting out of there until 5, 5:30 PM. This continues day after day after day. Now you’re looking at a 55-hour work week plus whatever teachers do on the weekends. Plus, I can’t imagine what principals do on the weekends. It becomes too much. Triage accepts the fact that you can’t be all things to all people at all times.

[00:08:56.180] – Chris

We know that in healthcare. If a terrible accident occurs and I get 20 patients at once, I can’t see 20 patients at once. So I risk-stratify them. Highest priority, second highest priority, third highest priority, and I’m going to see them in that order. Now, medicine has gone to great links in research to determine what’s that prioritization. So we do the right things at the right time. You can do that with your district. You could sit down with teachers and principals and say, hey, a level one is things that have to be dealt with right now. Great example is a kid who’s making statements that might be suicidal. A level two is something that needs to be dealt with in the next 60 to 90 minutes. False rumors on social media about violence at the school. We better get a hold of that before parents go nuts. Level three is most of your actions of daily in school. It’s teachers doing grading, lesson planning, working. It’s counselors or appointments for kids that need help. What you get that is you risk drive the daily events of school and what has to be dealt with emerging and what can wait?

[00:10:03.900] – Chris

This is important. Teachers and principals need to hear from the top level what can wait. Now, in a perfect world, we get the things done before we go home. I have never seen an ER doctor take care of everything that could be done in an ER, yet we go home. How do we know when to go home? Our triage list and a mutually agreed upon point, once we hit it, we go home. You need to give your teachers and your principals that same freedom.

[00:10:34.320] – Steve

That’s a great example.

[00:10:35.290] – Chris

You have to remove the guilt from them to say, hey, once you’ve done level one, two, three, or whatever we decided in our district and whatever we decided in our building, we want you to go home. We need you to go home. Let’s play devil’s advocate. Your hardworking teacher that’s type A is going to say, “but I didn’t set up my room perfect for tomorrow.” At the highest level, you need to tell them, “You know what, Mr. Smith? You at 85% of what you could be will probably hang around 15, 20 years and still do a great job for kids. You at 130%, I’m going to lose you in two and a half years, and that’s a problem for me and a problem for the community.” And that’s the example we need. And it can be done. It’s being done in medicine since the times of Napoleon. Trust me, it can be done.

[00:11:23.110] – Steve

Powerful. Thank you so much for that. What are some other actions that you’d recommend school leaders consider regarding decreasing burnout?

[00:11:33.820] – Chris

Something that you talk a lot about, Steve, is community resilience. I’d like to piggyback on, I know you’ve done work with that. I’m going to look at it from a work operations standpoint. Many principals and teachers work in an independent silo. Here’s the list of all the things I have to do today. Let me attack them by myself. I’m exhausted. I’m tired. Repeat tomorrow. There can be a distribution of workflow. We do it all the time in outpatient medicine. I mean, those doctors, hey, they’re not martyrs, and so they’re smart enough to realize, look, as a group, if we look at all the things that need to be done for our practice and we could rotate through these jobs, some weeks will be hard, and we’ll stay here late, some weeks will be very easy. Instead of me doing eight things every day, maybe I’m going to do two, and my other partners are going to do two each, and we’ll rotate them in an equitable fashion. When my hard week comes up, I’m not so stressed because I know I’ve got some good weeks coming, and, hey, it’s just my turn. Why is this important for your staff?

[00:12:36.080] – Chris

Why is this important for your teachers and your admins? Right now, they have no idea what’s coming. It all falls on their shoulders. They’re solving all the problems themselves. If they knew in any given week, I’m here with my kids, I’m taking care of students, and in addition to that, I only have these two things, and my grade-level partners or at a high school level, instead of grade level, my science team, we’re all going to distribute this workflow, suddenly the burdens are diminished. Even when I have my hard week, I’m not so mad because the next week I know I’m running out of here at 3:15, guilt-free, by the way, because I gave my hard week, and I can tell my family, yes, I can be at your soccer game, and yes, we can go to dinner tonight. That does so much for morale. There’s no reason why we can’t scale those operations to schools. I go through it in painstaking detail, converting from medical operations to educational in the book.

[00:13:35.430] – Steve

There was another piece that I came across in your book that I wondered if you’d talk about, and that was finding joy and the impact that finding joy has on stress.

[00:13:49.980] – Chris

Yeah. I imagine it depends how long you’ve been in education, right? But at some point, all of us went into it for a really cool, neat, authentic, genuinely good reason. Some of that may have been drowned up on the noise that we all deal with. I would say, when you look at a lot of your staff, they went into education for those same reasons. There are things that you can’t do for them, even though you’d love to. You can’t pay them more, probably, or not as much as you’d like to. You can’t suddenly give them amazing health benefits in a 401k that’s out of this world. There’s things that you can’t do, and your hands are tied. But you can start going into their classrooms and encouraging their principals and department chairs and folks to allow them to infuse moments of joy in their class. What I mean specifically by this is we’ve got a youth mental health crisis right now. It is not necessarily school’s problem to fix all of it, but we could play a role. Well, what’s a way a teacher could play a role that doesn’t cost you extra funding?

[00:14:56.910] – Chris

What if when a teacher was going to give a that they knew kids struggled with, what if they spent only two days on content instead of three, and one full day on dealing with persistence and perseverance and how it benefits us as people and shares a story from their own life and connects to the kids and is boosting their self-esteem and teaching them concepts of personal efficacy? If you say we allow them to do that, I don’t think they perceive it that way sometimes. They’ve got the state standards, they’ve got skill-based standards, they’ve got all those things piled on their classroom. What if from the highest level, we’re walking in with our principals and we’re just telling teachers, hey, Superintendent so-and-so is going to swing by our building. They want to see examples of you enjoying your teaching. That is really important to them. They want to see you connecting with kids. They realize you may have to cut content. You know what? They’re okay. For the content-based teacher that worries about that, go take a look at Forbes. What do businesses want graduates right now? Ability to think, self-assurance, confidence, knowing how to talk to people.

[00:16:05.990] – Chris

It’s all soft skills, plus adaptability, plus being able to retrain themselves when technology changes. They don’t really need Chris Jenson to teach four straight days on the electron transport chain. Chris could cover that in two and teach some life skills in the other two days. I think putting your money where your mouth is and going into buildings classrooms as a school leader and advocating that, or even doing a mini lesson yourself with the kids to show that, will speak volumes. You will become the hero. Teachers need to put joy back into teaching. They’ve forgotten that exists, and it needs to come back.

[00:16:45.810] – Steve

You’re bringing an old memory for me.

[00:16:49.110] – Chris

Hopefully, you’re good one.

[00:16:50.530] – Steve

Well, yeah. I started my teaching career in middle grades, and after five years, switched to first grade. I made this discovery that the majority of my time when I was teaching middle school was spent figuring out how to get the kids engaged and excited about what I was doing. When I walked into Grade 1, 90% of my time went into, can I have enough stuff ready for them to do? Because I’m just diving in. I decided as a Grade 1 teacher that first grade teachers and kindergarten teachers should have to sign an oath like doctors do, which is first, do no harm. We’re going to send you a group of kids who think learning is cool and fun, and somehow that has to stay while you’re teaching basic reading of math. If learning how to read and learning math means you have to kill that other piece, we’ve lost something.

[00:17:50.900] – Chris

I love that you say that, and I would bounce off of that, if you’ll permit me. When you’re a first grader or a kindergarten, everything you’re learning is relevant. You want to read. You want to understand how to add things up at a grocery store. Letting teachers have those moments again and encouraging them, it still provides benefits. We’re not diluting education. We’re giving kids those skills and those moments and building up their self-esteem, which the teachers wanted to do in the first place. I’m not saying this with levity, I’m saying it in sincerity. To some extent, Steve, let’s make every grade first grade.

[00:18:28.650] – Steve

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Chris, just extra special. Thank you so much. Tell listeners how they can follow up with you and find “Triage Your School.”

[00:18:42.290] – Chris

Sure. Triage Your School is available both at amazon.com, as well as through SolutionTree. They were the wonderful press I got to work with and edited my writing to make it readable. And then I’m also on LinkedIn, Christopher Jenson. And I have a website at www.diagnosingeducation.com. My passion is working with educators. Yeah, I like to write books, but I’d rather work with people. And so I welcome any reach out.

[00:19:10.700] – Steve

We will post how to connect with you at the lead-in to the podcast make it easy for folks to find. And again, thank you so much.

[00:19:18.410] – Chris

Oh my gosh. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

[00:19:20.630] – Steve

You bet.

[00:19:24.250] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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One Response to “ Podcast: Addressing Educator Burnout – Self Care in Not Enough ”

  1. Lorna Says:

    Do you mean self care IS (not in) not enough?

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