Teacher Burnout: Filling the Once Empty Cup

You cannot pour from an empty cup.

Her cup - once filled with passion to change the world - was left without a drop. And it had been for quite some time.

Amidst her first year of teaching, she came to realize that all of her time, energy, and love went into her teaching, her students, and their well-being. She never once sat down and asked,

"What about me?"

After graduating with dual certification in Early Childhood and English as a Second Language, she took a leap into international education. Her dream was to teach for and through social justice: impacting low-income communities from the ground up and leading youth to create their own better tomorrow.

But now she found herself sitting in a circle of educators in her hometown of Madison, WI, eyes flickering around a community that all seemed interested in something very foreign to her: her own well-being.

Her voice began to shake: "My intention for joining Breathe for Change," she paused, "has changed drastically."

Two months prior, she had lost a parent figure to cancer. Her aunt, an educator herself, was diagnosed with and taken by Acute Plasma Leukemia within a span of two weeks. Living three thousand miles away in Copán Ruinas, Honduras, she had never felt so far from home. She made the difficult decision to resign from her overseas teaching community, return back to the United States, and support her family through the trials and tribulations of death.

"I initially joined Breathe For Change's 200-hour yoga and wellness training to bring wellness practices to my classroom. I wanted to give my students the social-emotional skills to regulate their emotions and overcome the challenges they face."

She reflected on her year teaching abroad. The times she had lost control and criticized her kids. The moments of frustration when parents wouldn't show up to scheduled meetings. The decline in her own physical and emotional health, especially over the last few months in coping with a family tragedy, and the feeling of helplessness to do something about it.

Finally, she let go. "So much has been taken from me. At times, I don't even recognize myself. My intention, for the first time in my life, is simply to allow myself to receive."

"My name is Lauren and this is not only my story; it is likely your story, or the story of an educator you know."

Like me, teachers both old and new around the world are feeling the effects of "burn out." The chronic fatigue, the feeling as if you can never do enough - never give enough. Teachers today are bogged down by heavy workloads, lack of compensation, no job security, and minimal in-and-out of class support. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 15 % of teachers leave their position within the first year and 50 % leave within the first five years.

Half of our nation's teachers are choosing to exit the classroom.

Educators know this, administrators acknowledge this, students feel the impact of this ... yet, in my experience, nothing had been done to change it.

Until now.

June 2015 marked the beginning of my life-long journey to wellness, and to finding greater balance and fulfillment in my everyday life as a teacher. I participated in Breathe for Change's 200 hour Wellness and Yoga Teacher Training designed specifically for educators. The program infuses wellness practices such as yoga and mindfulness into a 16-day training that focuses upon the transformation of self, teaching, and community.

The program provided me with the tools to address trauma and wounds that I did not consciously know were left unhealed. I now carry a deeper understanding of how to be a model for my students, and how to guide them through their own struggles.

Some days still feel dark, as if I am barely keeping my head above water. However, now I know how to find and share the light within myself and my students to elevate us to higher ground.

In our classroom, we utilize the power of breath and mindfulness to calm and center ourselves. During moments of frustration, I watch in amazement as students sit, bring their hands to their knees, take deep breaths, and focus their attention on the present moment.

In our classroom, we share an affirmation, intention, or moment of gratitude as a means of beginning our day. I cannot help but smile when students ask to participate in visualization or yoga during free time, beaming as they transfer their learning to play.

That smile turns into a deep sense of fulfillment as I watch their ability to focus grow, their relationships improve, and their grades and test scores rise.

It is no secret that teaching is an arduous profession, but it is my calling - my purpose. As natural caregivers, it is easy for teachers to put the needs of their students before their own. What I have realized, however, is that putting myself last is putting nobody first; I cannot provide to my students unless I first take care of myself.

My well-being, and the well-being of teachers across the nation, cannot remain a secondary issue. If we are to fight for a brighter future for all of our students, we must give our teachers the support they deserve.

Breathe for Change has given me the tools to tap into my own inner strength. My cup, once empty, is slowly refilling.

Lauren Ott is a 1st grade teacher in Madison Metropolitan School District.