Now, More than Ever, Teachers Must Embrace their Values or Burn Out

I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. I find myself awake at 3 a.m. with all manner of thoughts running through my head, from the mundane to the truly scary: I seriously need to finish tiling the downstairs bathroom. Do we need more laundry detergent? How can I teach while wearing a mask all day? I can barely make it through grocery shopping without ripping that thing off my face! What if I get COVID? What if one of my daughters gets COVID? How could we quarantine in our 1200 square foot house to keep the rest of the family safe? How will I move a good chunk of my curriculum online?

Several times I have resigned myself to just getting up and making a cup of coffee because sleep isn’t coming again soon. Luckily, I have a loyal labradoodle who always drowsily follows me downstairs and lays at my feet while I sit with my coffee and thoughts.

Anyone else in the same boat?

In this time of extreme uncertainty, it is easy to become paralyzed by worry. In fact, in a recent NY Times article, mental-health experts outlined why it’s normal. I know it’s the reason my bathroom has sat half tiled for 4 months. It’s also the reason I have resisted working on online curriculum for next school year. I’m struggling mightily to find motivation. All I want to do is distract myself with books and silly Netflix shows (Nailed It is on repeat at my house…) and snack on anything made from white flour and then take long walks with my family and dog to burn off the calories.

Again, anyone else in the same boat?

Luckily, about a month ago I was asked to participate in a book club with my school’s director and a group of colleagues. We meet once per week to discuss Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. This past week we dove into part two of the book entitled Living into Our Values. In this section, Dr. Brown (she’s earned the title) encourages readers to get clear on their core values, which she defines as “a way of being or believing that we hold most important.” (186)

Her argument is, if we aren’t clear on our core values, when we find ourselves in really tough moments (like a pandemic quarantine), we have no guiding light to help us through. She sums up the importance of core values like this:

“More often than not, our core values are what lead us to the arena door – we’re willing to do something uncomfortable and daring because of our beliefs. And when we get there and stumble or fall, we need our values to remind us why we went in, especially when we are facedown, covered in dust and sweat and blood.” (186)

She uses this metaphor of “getting into the arena” throughout the book to describe any situation where you need to show up and do something really scary or uncomfortable. I would argue that teachers are being asked to get in the arena in more ways than ever before. We have to teach in ways we’ve never taught, use technology that’s foreign to us, create and implement new safety procedures, etc, etc, etc. If you are a teacher with kids of your own, you have layers of challenges: on top of all your professional responsibilities, you are trying to figure out how to keep your family safe and cared for.

If we want to be able to show up for our families and students and get in the arena next school year, I think we will need core values to guide and motivate us.

Getting Clear on Your Values

Obviously, we need to start by figuring out what our core values are. Brene Brown offers this list of core values in her book and on her website. It’s a big list, and she recommends you drill down to only two or three core values. Yikes. I found this hard because several of the words on this list resonated with me. What I ended up doing was listing all those words on a piece of paper. Then over the course of a couple of days, and with the help of my husband, I started to nestle certain words under others. For example, I decided that Generosity is really a form of Kindness and that Connection is born out of a Curiosity to know people. In the end, the three overarching values I came out with are Faith, Curiosity, and Kindness.

Once you have your core values, Dr. Brown asks readers to then break each value down into three specific behaviors that support the value and three slippery behaviors that are outside of the value. This is so crucial because if our values don’t translate to behaviors, they are worthless. I took my value of Curiosity and broke it down like this:

Three Supporting Behaviors:

  1. Be open-minded and reserve judgement.
  2. Follow your intuition, especially in new situations.
  3. Don’t let discomfort stop you but ask for and take breaks when you need them.

Three Slippery Behaviors:

  1. Wasting time and avoiding necessary tasks searching for novelty.
  2. Letting others talk you into ideas, situations, etc. when your intuition screams “no.”
  3. Trying too many new things at once and overloading your system.

Some of you may decide you need to establish two sets of core values with coordinating behaviors, one for your personal life and one for your teacher life. This is fine. After some thought, I decided this wasn’t necessary for me.

Letting Your Values Guide You

We all know it’s one thing to write some values and behaviors on a piece of paper and a WHOLE other thing to actually practice those behaviors on a daily basis. One strategy I’m using to make this happen is regularly referring to my list of values and behaviors. I wrote them into the front of my planner and typed them as a note into my phone. I am trying to remind myself to glance intentionally over them every morning as I start my day.

Another strategy is to share your values and behaviors with a trusted person; Dr. Brown refers to this person as an “integrity partner.” This is someone with whom you can check in and who will call you out if you become stuck in slippery behaviors. And, sure, you can have more than one integrity partner. For me, at home, this is my husband, and at school, it is a trusted teacher friend.

Speaking of slippery behaviors, a final strategy from Dr. Brown is to identify RED ALERTS for yourself. These are defined as feelings or even physical symptoms that occur when you are not living into your values. I again consulted my husband and finally decided my personal red alerts are brain fog, feeling resentful, and being impatient.

Knowing your red alerts is so important because when we feel them, we can start to program ourselves to be more mindful and to ask questions: “What is going on?” Maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe you need to eat something. On the other hand, maybe there is a deeper issue and you aren’t living into a core value and are engaging in a slippery behavior. You can’t get to this point if you don’t recognize and acknowledge the warning signs.

The Consequences of Not Teaching into Your Values

As we all know, teaching is an intense and complicated profession. Educational researcher Phillip Jackson found that elementary school teachers have between 200-300 student interactions per hour (that’s a dizzying 1200 – 1500 per day) the majority of which require teachers to make split second judgements and decisions. The mental capacity it takes to do this each day is exhausting. Rewarding, but exhausting.

Now add in a global pandemic, moving curriculum online, learning all the accompanying technology, and trying to support students and parents (not to mention our own families) through the abrupt change. Many teachers are moving beyond just exhaustion to total burnout. Some are even choosing to leave the profession.

Nevertheless, here’s the thing: burnout isn’t just the result of being asked to do so many things and support so many people. I would argue that burnout is more likely due to the fact that some of the things we are being asked to do or not do directly conflict with our core values.

Interestingly, in the NY Times article I referenced in my introduction, psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman says that during the pandemic quarantine, “Doing what’s meaningful – acting on what really matters to a person – is the antidote to burnout.” Hmmm. So if we can’t do some of the things most meaningful to us as teachers, no wonder we’re shutting down.

This is not a new idea. In her 2018 book Demoralized, Doris Santoro, chair of the education department at Bowdoin College, documented the stories of 23 teachers who burnt out and, ultimately, left the profession. Her core argument is that encouraging teachers to become more resilient to relieve burnout simply won’t work because the root cause of burnout is actually teacher demoralization. On page five of her book, she explains, “the process of demoralization occurs when pedagogical policies and school practices…threaten the ideals and values, the moral center, teachers bring to their work…”

Santoro goes on to argue on page 109 that “teachers’ professional moral centers may require that they push back with resistance rather than bounce back with resilience.” In other words, trying to practice more “self-care” and find more “me time” or develop a better “work/life balance” (whatever that is) are not valid solutions because they don’t get to the heart of the problem.

Instead, each of us needs to get super reflective and identify what we are being asked to do or not do that feels inherently wrong. Then we need to question why it feels wrong. What core value is not being honored? Could the task or policy be altered so it would honor your core value?

For example, when teachers in my division were told back in March that online learning activities we assigned during the COVID -19 shutdown should be review of previously taught material, I was frustrated. In reflecting on it now, I think my frustration stemmed from the fact that this mandate didn’t support my core value of Curiosity. How could I get kids curious about and engaged in the review of topics we’d already covered? I would have liked the opportunity to instead allow students to complete passion projects where they could delve into new topics they were curious about.

Right now, all across the country what “school” looks like is rapidly transforming. Administrations must create intricate plans for reopening in the fall with so many puzzle pieces on the table, from how classroom spaces should be structured, to how students will get to school, to how content will be delivered. Teachers need to be pulling up a chair at that table and helping fit the puzzle together. As Brene Brown said on page 194: “…daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.” We need to take every opportunity to speak up and give our feedback.

However, I think we will be heard a lot more clearly if we approach administrators and school boards with thoughtful feedback to their plans that refers back to our core values. It’s much more convincing to argue they should make a certain decision because it supports a core value rather than to fall back on platitudes like “it’s what we’re comfortable with” or “what we’ve always done.”

For example, teachers at my career and technical center are pushing hard for us to have students in the classroom a minimum of twice per week. We are asking for this because one of the core values of our staff and school is Growth. We are all about helping students grow their skills and abilities in their chosen trade. If we can’t guide them through hands-on training at least twice per week, we won’t be able to teach into this value.

I hope teachers will not be silent but rather step up and give this hard but important feedback based on their values. I also hope that school administrators will use this unique opportunity to shape classrooms (whether they be virtual, face-to-face, or blended) into spaces that simultaneously keep everyone safe and honor their teacher’s core values. If they do not, I fear that teacher burnout could become another pandemic.



Megan Panek is a secondary Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. She currently teaches and coaches at a career and technical education (CTE) center in Virginia and believes in CTE with all her heart. She considers herself a life-long learner and is always looking to improve her craft.”

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