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Disillusionment: 5 Steps to Help Teachers Survive

We've just finished the holiday season, a time of the year that often brings as much stress as it does joy. The holiday season also collides with the disillusionment phase of teaching. What is disillusionment? You may think at first this is the same as disappointment, which I talked about in this blog post. Disappointment is when things don’t go as planned. It happens all the time, to varying degrees. I share more about this in my free ebook The Thrive Guide: Beginning a Teaching Career in Uncertain Times, which you can download here.

Disillusionment is a phase that we cycle through every year as teachers, especially in your first years of teaching.

Before the school year begins, we’re in the anticipation phase, where we’re excited for a new year and a fresh start. As the school year begins and gets underway, we enter the survival stage, when reality starts to set in. The honeymoon with the kids ends and they start testing you, those new changes to the curriculum that didn’t seem to be that big a deal eat away at more time than expected, and the everyday classroom life of managing student behaviors and maintaining the teacher workload of grading, planning, and teaching are leaving you exhausted. I tend to tell myself each week in the survival stage it will get better, right?

Enter the disillusionment phase, where the hopes of things becoming better regarding physical and emotional exhaustion just evaporate. Perhaps you’ve felt this year that the disillusionment phase started much earlier than it usually does with the amount of changes and work you’ve had to take on. It usually hits right around the holidays, when the newness of the school year is long gone, student attention is diverted to the excitement and festivities of the season, and nothing seems to be as you thought it would be back at the beginning of the school year. You’ve probably had your confidence and self-esteem dinged by at least one unhappy parent or administrator at this point, even though your intentions are good and you’re doing everything you can to hold your classroom and yourself together. Also, at this point you have probably had at least one illness that you’ve either taught through or had to take time off for, throwing off your routines and ability to be at your best.

It’s a recipe for despair, especially with the added turmoil of a pandemic, along with fewer hours of daylight going into the winter months. I fear that teacher’s mental well being is at higher risk than ever before with all the added uncertainty and stress brought on this school year.

Worst of all, the disillusionment phase is a valley (I’d say a pit but valley adds a bit more hope). The despair is real, and your feelings right now (and always) are valid. The good thing about a valley (and a pit for that matter) is that there is an incline out of it, although it’s a steep one.

The amount of time you spend in the disillusionment phase depends on your ability to climb out to the other phases that await you: rejuvenation and reflection. And this year especially, we desperately need to get to those phases.

What I’m about to share with you is the 5S strategy for surviving disillusionment - because you deserve peace and wellness this holiday season, regardless of the circumstances. We are always inundated with professional development on how to improve as teachers, but we don’t get much - if any - guidance on how to process and balance the emotional and physical toll teaching takes on you. The S5 strategy is teacher PD for a balanced life in the midst of chaos.

#1 - Simplify.

Think of it as running in “safe mode,” like a computer does when it’s been damaged or is having its memory drained. Ask yourself these questions: What has to happen each day? What are the most important things that need to get done? How can you do those things well - without any bells or whistles? Even if you are a bells and whistles person, in the disillusionment phase, put them away for a while. A lot of what we expect from ourselves…comes from ourselves. We set the bar really high, then get upset when we struggle to get over it!

The important thing is that your students learn and feel loved. They are living through the same crisis, as are their families. Especially with the learning curve that has come with distance learning and teaching, now is the time to pare down to the minimum viable product to deliver instruction. That doesn’t mean be a crappy teacher. It’s the opposite: focus on teaching well, not embellishing and teaching well. We all need to get through the winter ahead so we can hopefully a spring with a brighter outlook. Concentrate on the things that you are required to do each day. Remember you’re trying to climb out of a valley. You can get back to being "extra" when you’re on the other side of this.

#2 - Stop.

Stop answering emails at all hours. Stop grading into the night. Stop scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest and mentally beating yourself up for not having themed, color coordinated templates for your virtual classroom - it’s making you SICK (read this blog post for evaluating how your social media feed affects you). You have not caused the circumstances we find ourselves in this year, but chances are there are some behaviors and habits that are sucking the life right out of you. Drop them like a hot potato, quit them cold turkey. Stop the toxic practices that we’ve come to normalize in teaching. If you haven’t read this post about setting boundaries, “stop” and go read or listen to it, because it’s all about why it’s important to create divisions between school and home, even if you’re working from home this year.

Notice I didn’t say to stop doing those things period, like answering emails or grading papers, those things have to get done, but you - and only you can do this - need to put end times on them so you can recoil and relax. And don’t let the fear of the work not getting done stop you from doing this. It gets done - often when you have time boundaries, you tend to work more efficiently and get more accomplished in a shorter amount of time. But more importantly, the work getting finished isn’t nearly as important as you not being consumed with work 24-7. It’s a self control thing that starts with you.

#3 - Soften your self talk.

We are often our own worst critics and say things to ourselves that we would never say to a friend experiencing the same or similar circumstances. Personally, I get really upset with myself if I don’t figure something new out on the first try - often before I read the directions. I just have this odd expectation of myself that I should know how to do it by looking at it! But I would never get upset with someone else if they didn’t do something perfect the first time they tried something new. I certainly wouldn’t be upset with a student when they're learning something for the first time.

I’m sure there have been times this year - especially with technology - that things haven’t worked out how they “should” have for you, and you’ve probably gotten mad at yourself. The thing is, was anyone else mad at you for messing up? And…if they were, is that how you would have treated someone in the same situation? It doesn’t make right if they did.

How we speak to ourselves truly matters, because indirectly whether you realize it or not we’re teaching our students and our own children how to speak about themselves and react when they make mistakes through our own self talk. Like I said, this is hard to do, but if you want to get out of disillusionment, you have to extend yourself grace. Self talk influences your mood and your self-esteem. You’re teaching through a global crisis, and learning how to teach with technology on the fly. I bet if you make a list of all the things you have had to learn how to do since this started you’d really see that you’ve accomplished a lot. So please extend yourself the kindness you’d expect from your students to treat others with when they are less than perfect.

#4 - Speak up.

Other teachers are feeling the same way you are - the fatigue, the stress, questioning if they can do this for the entire year. You and they are not alone - but it’s easy to feel that way, especially if you’re teaching remotely and aren’t with your colleagues. You start to feel like the pilot in the movie Cast Away - stranded on an island with few resources to survive.

We all need to have our feelings and fears validated. Even though administrators have their own set of stresses in this season, they still need to know what you’re experiencing in the classroom. No one knows what it’s like to be you but you, but they won’t know what you’re feeling unless you express it. I’m not saying being disrespectful, and I’m not saying blast the current situation on social media. But you do need to tell others about what you are going through, because the less alone you feel, the more light you start to see at the end of the tunnel.

Also, speak up about solutions you see to your current teaching situation as well. There’s no way to tell if your ideas will be considered or acted upon, but often we get so into our “teacher tunnel” vision we forget we have good, professional opinions that need to be considered. The benefit of being in the valley of disillusionment is having truly been in the trenches, and your insight is valuable. Don’t feel like anyone’s listening? Keep speaking up.

#5 Strategize.

We have to get through this year. Most of us, even if the situation we find ourselves feels devastatingly hard, can’t just quit our jobs. We’ve got to find a way to make this situation work without destroying our health or our dignity. Otherwise, we’ll spend the rest of this year in the disillusionment phase. The second half of this school year can play out better than the first. That’s the benefit of going through the disillusionment phase in some capacity each year; you learn what’s working, what’s not, and how to make it sustainable. Pay attention to how simplifying your work and stopping certain behaviors improves your life. If the changes you make and the things you eliminate make teaching easier and give you more time to take care of yourself and be present for your family, carry those on out of the disillusionment phase and into your regular practice.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, and it’s that martyr mentality creeping in: that a “good” teacher should be giving his or her all, burning the wick to light everyone else’s candle, in it for the outcome not the income. I know, I’ve taught 18 years, I’ve heard them all - and at some point, I believed them all as well.

And it just about killed me.

What I’ve learned is that you not only have chosen a profession of great value, but that you are a person of great value as well. And you can’t give the world your full value and fulfill your purpose as a complete human being if you're burnt out from holding onto to standards based on outdated teacher cliches. So yes, you have an obligation to complete your responsibilities as a teacher, but you have an obligation to yourself to make a life you want to wake up to every morning as well. And to do that, you must strategize how you will survive the times in the pit so when you climb out of the valley of disillusionment, you can thrive.

To review, the disillusionment phase of teaching is when reality sets in and the stress, fatigue, and expectations threaten to throw you off course. To rise out of disillusionment, use the 5S Strategy. Simplify your tasks and teaching, Stop the behaviors that keep you from setting boundaries, Soften your self talk, Speak up about your feelings and solutions, and Strategize for what you need to do in order make the second half of the school year better. Use this experience being at “rock bottom” in a year that has turned everything upside down to develop routines and practices that work for you - so you can be the teacher and person you want to be.

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