A desert extends in front of me
A plateau of emptiness

I feel the burning
that comes
from being
exposed to the sun too long

I am parched
In need of hope.

I wrote the above poem several years ago, when I found myself feeling the approach of burnout in my teaching life. I am both an artist and an educator and for several years, I had not created any art. Gone were the long stretches of time where I could allow ideas to germinate and emerge through trial and error. In its place, were longer hours devoted to administrative duties and nurturing the lives of teachers in search of renewal at the center for teacher renewal where I worked.  I soon realized the demands of my work schedule were leading me slowly down a path straight for burnout and that my experiences were not isolated, but part of a larger challenge faced by many teachers of all grade disciplines.

Teachers have one of the highest attrition rates of any profession. Teacher dissatisfaction has been linked to many of the challenges teachers face, such as the constant demands of accountability and standardization. The effects from these pressures over time can take its toll on teaching creatively and autonomously using one’s own gifts and talents.  Working at a center for teacher renewal, I knew the importance of creating a space that allowed for reflection and nourishment, both physically and emotionally. To meet the needs of teachers, the vision of the center, and my own desire to work in a creative environment, I would design arts-based professional development seminars that enabled teachers to explore their own creativity, while simultaneously learning about methods for integrating the arts into their curriculum. Through the arts, teachers could explore multiple languages for teaching content and improving student understanding while simultaneously nourishing their own creative spirit. Arthur Efland, an art education historian speaks to the benefit of the expressive nature of the arts. He explained: “that there are certain subjects that are good for thinking (logic and mathematics), whereas the cultivation of feelings [lies] mainly in the arts.” A teacher who attended one of the seminars I offered supported Elfland’s statement and explained, “my experience included an enhanced attachment to the creative process (rather than the finished product) and the need to set time aside to create.  Moments like that remind me of the teachings of the seminar, the focus on the interconnectedness of people through expression.” As I witnessed teachers awaken and become engaged and inspired through arts-based professional development I became more convinced of the transformational power of the arts to restore teachers’ fulfillment, motivation and potential to offer creative renewal.

Simultaneously, while offering these workshops I was exploring the impact of art in my own life.  During a workshop I attended that explored surface design for fabrics, I was introduced to the dramatic effect left on white fabric when small metal objects were strategically placed and the flame of a propane torch burned away the areas not protected.  I couldn’t stop burning the fabric; it was a visceral, aesthetic and cathartic experience of burning and seeing what emerged after the metal objects had been removed from the surface. The tones of browns ranged from solid black to ochre and earthy brown. Different fabrics burned at different speeds, leaving behind frayed, singed, and uneven edges. I began to journal. What was this process telling me? What became most apparent was how the process was so deeply cathartic-releasing frustration, while visually giving voice to my experiences about burnout in my professional life.  I’ve posted an example of one of the pieces I created.

Do you feel burnout in your professional life as a teacher? What changes take place-emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually-when you engage in expressive experiences?  Share your thoughts and images.





4 thoughts on “Burnout

  1. Thanks for this interesting read, not only is the poem and message intriguing, it is informative to anyone experiencing burnout in their life. As a visual artist, I find what sustains me through tough patches of burnout is the integration of music, and literature, into my visual language. The arts are indeed an integral live saver in so many ways. I love this piece of art you created too. Great message.

  2. In my career as a student, I have found that I feel the effects of “burnout” all of the time. In making art for studio classes as well as some education classes, I feel that I do not have time to create things that I want to create rather than things that I have to create, so I usually do not make any art in my spare time. Sometimes I feel depressed because I am making art for the sole purpose of pleasing a teacher and it can be frustrating when I feel that a project has met my artistic vision, but the teacher does not understand the piece. I hope that when I begin my teaching career that I will not be one of those teachers. I hope to try to see what they see in their pieces. I would like to share a poem I wrote that I feel sums up my frustrations with burnout and its causes:

    But what does it mean?
    Can it really be
    A single thing?

    I feel the desire
    To create
    Taken from me
    When eyes ever only
    See not what I see

    It’s easy for you
    To say it’s not art
    But it pains me when
    It’s a piece of my heart;
    A reflection of me

    Because ‘nothing’ to you
    May be everything to me

    • Cassondra,

      I really love your poem about art making and the burnout feeling that often comes after a piece may not be received by the audience in the way you were expecting. Making work for an audience other then myself, friends, and family, is a concept that was not really strengthened until UNCC. Its a fine line to balance to make work you and your audience loves. Whats worst is when you think your work is so fantastic and gets torn to shreds in critique, or stranger yet, when you hate it and it gets into a show, or is well received in critique. We always have to remember though to include ourselves and our passion in our artwork, even if the audience hates it. Maybe they are just not able to handle the insight, or maybe they like cliche art that the mainstream seems to love. But just like every piece we create holds a part of us, every audience is going to be different– just because a piece gets torn apart in critique, it may be admired or even imitated in another setting.

      Your poem will stick with me for sure, it is a topic I wrestle with quite often, but I couldn’t put it into words like you did.

  3. I am currently getting burnt out with my load of 3 studio art classes and preparing for my BFA show. I am not feeling the burn out effect in the education department yet, I guess that is saved for student teaching. I can image it happens to all teachers no matter the discipline though. Trying to juggle students’ issues, behavioral problems, classroom management, grading, paperwork, as well as the teacher’s own life, etc. must be a difficult to process. I think the burnout comes when that pile of weight and baggage we all carry overflows or topples over- the stress of work, personal issues, life, etc.
    When I am stressed out and/or burnt out I tend to react at situations verses looking and thinking them over in a thoughtful way. I tend to get less sleep, which makes me grumpy and slower- physically and mentally. I also just go through the motions of making art when I am burnt out rather than being engaged with my piece and thinking critically about it or evolving it. I think my best work may not come out of these situations. I make things I am just required to not things that I love or really have meaning for me.
    Teachers need to aware that students they teach are experiencing burnouts too. It could be beneficial for everyone to just take a breather day and not have to worry about work and school work. If teachers are mindful towards these situations then students will appreciate the teacher. I know I wish we could have these days in college as well.

    I made this piece is response to burnout. I sometimes feel un-human when I am burnt out, feeling like I am mindless zombie. I wanted to visualize that is some way.

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