When I was a teenager, my family took its first vacation to San Francisco, the area where my mother grew up. The vacation was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first time my family had vacationed anywhere besides visiting my grandparents. As a corn-fed Midwesterner, it was the first time I had ever seen an ocean. And, most importantly, we visited and toured the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, CA.
I don’t remember many details of the tour. Essentially, I remember that the factory smelled like a dream come true, and at the end of the tour we had the opportunity to sample two jelly beans. Now that may sound a little underwhelming, but this meant we could sample any two flavors that Jelly Belly had ever produced. The flavor scientists at Jelly Belly work tirelessly to create jelly bean flavors from my favorite, Juicy Pear, to a horde of less desirable flavors like vomit, grass, and even skunk. So, presented with the opportunity to taste any two flavors we wanted, my family all decided we would choose one yummy flavor and one with less appeal. I made the unfortunate choice of selecting roasted garlic for my undesirable bean, and was amazed by the flavor’s accuracy. I also gagged.
The Flavor Graveyard
This experience was so notable to me because you can’t buy garlic Jelly Belly beans at the store. This is surprising because, according to Jelly Belly, “It takes 7 to 21 days to make a single Jelly Belly jelly bean.” The research required to produce such a close replica of the garlic flavor is certainly immense. Yet, my local grocer carries a wide variety of flavors that have proven themselves as crowd favorites, and no garlic. So why not push garlic beans if they have required numerous resources to produce? Jelly Belly teaches us an important lesson for avoiding teacher burnout; it is okay to bury some flavors, even if they took a lot of work to create.
Other companies have similar methods for getting rid of unsuccessful products. Ben & Jerry’s has a flavor graveyard, and many of their “buried” flavors seem much more appealing than garlic. But their graveyard flavors, which certainly required a great deal of time, energy, talent, and money to produce, are no longer in production. I am confident that at least one reason Ben and Jerry’s no longer mass produces them is because they can’t viably produce every flavor they have ever created. As with any human endeavor, these companies have limited resources available and have to be strategic in choosing the direction those resource will go. That means when they take on a new project, or want to produce a new flavor, they have to forego something else.
The late Steve Jobs of Apple said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
As educators, we put a lot of sweat and soul into creating amazing resources for our students’ benefit. While this endeavour is honorable, endlessly working to create these resources comes at a price: teacher burnout. I remember toiling over a two-week unit to expose my students to great civilizations around the world during the Middle Ages to give them a broader perspective than just knights and the Black Plague. While the finished product yielded some encouraging results, my students were unable to demonstrate they had learned much about life during the Middle Ages. So, the next time I had to teach the Middle Ages, I set that unit on the shelf. Was my idea a bad one? Was the unit poorly thought-out? I don’t think so. It adhered to many of the concepts and principles prevalent in effective lesson planning. But the fact was, it didn’t work. In a way, I had produced a garlic-flavored jellybean, and I had to bury it.
To Say Yes to Something, Say No to Something Else
In my work with educators, I use reliable data to make recommendations of strategies they can implement to improve outcomes for students. The strategies I recommend have ample research evidence to indicate they should be successful, and I strive to make recommendations in response to valid data. In short, I try to be thoughtful and deliberate in these recommendations. And I always encourage student teachers and teacher candidates to experiment and try new things. But often these educators, who are doubtless overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid, express the concern, “Where will I find time to do this?” This is a valid concern. Public officials, district or charter administrators, parents of students, and we as educators ourselves place enormous pressure to accomplish more than is possible with our students. We don’t need to attempt to constantly add more to our goals list, but sacrifice those practices that are proving themselves ineffective.
So here is my plea to educators. If you have a great idea, act on it wholeheartedly. But before you begin, ask yourself a few questions.
- What real evidence do I have that this activity will be necessary or helpful? (And for the record, real evidence does not include one observation you made of a few students at one point in time. Make sure you collect data in an intentional way before acting on it.)
- What am I hoping to improve through this activity? What specific change do I want to see in my classroom? Can I clearly articulate and write down the result I am aiming for?
- What will I give up to make time in my already overloaded schedule for this activity? What am I going to stop doing?
- How will I know if I am reaching my goal and making a difference for my students? (Again, real evidence should not be limited to one student proclaiming “I love this!”)
- If this new activity isn’t working, when will I bury it?
Avoid Teacher Burnout
In my own instruction, I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the number of things that I had to do. I also felt guilty about the great ideas I had that went unimplemented. This inner turmoil created feelings of burnout and frustration. However, if I would have buried activities that I knew were not proving effective, I would have avoided much of this anxiety.
There are a lot of reasons why you might cling to ineffective practices. You may feel too attached to a lesson plan because you loved doing it when you were in third grade. Perhaps you feel pressure from other educators to teach fractions a certain way. Or maybe you may have a vocal parent who insists that their child cannot do timed activities. While these reasons are valid to an extent, if we don’t have reliable data that what we are doing is effective, for the sakes of our students, we need to heed Queen Elsa’s immortal words, and let it go.
So please, to help yourself be more effective for your students and avoid burnout, stick to the rule that whenever you want to try something new that you will give something up to make time for that. Make it a habit to regularly inventory your daily schedule, and bury the things that need to go. Many practices in education bear buzzword labels, from research-based to student-loved. But remember that your class is a unique unit of student with a diverse skill set. Helping all of them make academic, social, emotional, and behavioral gains is an intimidating prospect. Yet it is possible, if you are willing to intentionally and objectively evaluate your own performance and bury those practices that fail to satisfactorily serve your students. Doing so will help your students, and it will help you to avoid becoming a victim of teacher burnout.