A desert extends in front of me
A plateau of emptiness
I feel the burning
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.