Gratitude: The Antidote to Teacher Burnout

Little slips of paper saved me, my first year in the classroom. I was ambitious, fresh out of college, and humbled by a restless class of 5th graders. They taught me what I didn’t know about classroom management, and what I needed to learn about teaching. I worked dawn to dusk, and took kids on field trips on weekends. There were days I went home and cried.

Creating change in struggling schools is tough work. It stretches us, and leads many to quit the profession. I almost quit, too, but on Thanksgiving 19 years ago I remembered the power of gratitude.

In my first year teaching, Thanksgiving break was the first time I came up for air. I flew to see family, and in the space of uninterrupted thinking, I got enough perspective to realize I needed a change.

I made a pledge to myself that every day after school, no matter how busy I was or how I thought the day went, I would sit and write down one thing to celebrate from the day. On tiny slips of torn paper, each day I wrote a small detail:

  • Esmeralda got excited about the new book today.
  • Ruth, after months of being afraid to speak up in class, volunteered to read her poem in the author’s chair.
  • Rogelio took a deep breath and counted backwards from five instead of hitting.
  • Delia trusted me enough to talk about about her parents’ divorce. We connected on our shared experience.

In the minute I spent writing, I stopped being the teacher-doer-planner, and took a breath to notice. I saw the small details that sometimes get lost in the shuffle, the important tiny flickers of evidence that perhaps I was making a difference.

The moment spent writing was the best part of it, and the bonus was having a box of folded paper strips I could pull out anytime I needed a pep talk. The Sunday evening after a vacation, for example, I read though the notes to muster the courage to teach on Monday morning.

That first year was the only time I used the strategy of writing on slips of paper, but the practice of gratitude remains. In struggling schools, especially, it is key that we look—every day—to see what is working. Small celebrations on folded strips of paper remind us what we love about this work, and fuel our collective courage to address the challenges we have not yet solved.

May you feel gratitude for your work in education.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Photo: Autumn Reflection by Julie Kenward (2011) (CC-BY 3.0).

I lead professional learning and design curriculum to realize the vision that every kindergartener who enters public schools will graduate high-school prepared to thrive in a changing world.

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