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July 10, 2024

Teaching Channel Talks Episode 96: Why Teachers Need to Detach for Better Connections (w/Dr. Jen Johnson)

In this episode of Teaching Channel Talks, host Dr. Wendy Amato discusses teacher burnout with Dr. Jen Johnson, including the THRIV model—a practical burnout management strategy for educators. Dr. Johnson shares the importance of detachment, setting boundaries, and the significance of honoring one’s humanness to prevent burnout. Additionally, she highlights strategies such as mindful self-compassion and the importance of community to support educators in managing and preventing burnout.

Our Guest

Dr. Jen Johnson is an educational psychologist specializing in emotional/behavioral disorders. A former special educator and teacher burnout expert, Dr. Johnson worked in public schools as a Deaf Education teacher and an Instructional Specialist in Special Education before transitioning into higher education where she worked as a Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas and Student Teaching Supervisor at Texas Woman’s University. In 2020, Dr. Johnson founded the Teacher Care Network and has worked with school districts, individual schools, and programs to improve the emotional health, retention, and work satisfaction of staff through strategic planning & programming.

Connect with Dr. Jen Johnson on LinkedIn.

Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

This conversation focuses on the strategies for burnout prevention and recovery included in Dr. Johnson’s book, THRIVing After Burnout: A Teacher’s Compassionate Guide.

In this discussion, Wendy and Dr. Johnson talk about the Teacher Care Network (TCN) and the THRIV community, learn more and join this free, supportive group of educators on the TCN website.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Wendy Amato: Welcome to Teaching Channel Talks. I’m your host, Wendy Amato, and as often as I can, I jump into conversations about topics that matter in education. In this episode, Dr. Jen Johnson will help us identify practical proven tools that will give teachers what they need most. Welcome Dr. Johnson. Welcome

Dr. Jen Johnson: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Let’s jump in. Tell me about THRIV.

Dr. Jen Johnson: So THRIV is what has become to be a burnout management model that I use with educators. And it came about because I was doing some work with teachers that worked with students that were terminally ill and they were really struggling with student deaths.

And because that’s not something that, we learn about when we’re becoming teachers is how to cope with student deaths. And I was working with the school district and they said, is there anything you have that could help teachers cope with this? And so I started really digging into the research and And over time, this kind of model just developed based on the research that is really a resilience model.

And the acronym is THRIV and it’s just five very simple evidence based ways that educators or really anyone can learn to manage burnout. Dr. Johnson, you said five things.

Dr. Wendy Amato: So we’re talking T H R I V.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yes, there’s no E,

Dr. Wendy Amato: there’s not an E. Okay. I’d love to hear what those stand for.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Sure. So T stands for tend to yourself.

H is Harness Social Support, R is Recharge Through Detachment, I is Ignite Compassion Satisfaction, and V is Vow to Honor Your Humanness.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Now, these are areas for supporting all educators, not just educators working with a specific population, right?

Dr. Jen Johnson: So it started really just with this one population, but the research is really for everyone.

It’s not even really specific to education. It’s just, we’re all humans. We all have, we’re working with kind of the same brains in general. And these strategies really just help us. Change the way that we are and the way that we in a odd way, be at work.

Dr. Wendy Amato: When you’ve talked about research and the origins for your THRIV program, you’ve told me that a lot of research comes more from the medical field.

How are you making that leap or connection between research in the medical world and

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah. So when I really started looking at the research, I realized that we have a lot of studies that tell us that educators are burned out, but we haven’t done a lot of intervention research and figured out strategies.

So I looked at what is a field that has a very robust research that maybe has a similar demographic. So when we think about nursing and we think about education. It’s traditionally been a primarily female field. Now there are men and it’s growing, right? But it’s very similar demographic. Now there’s differences, of course, pay and all those things.

But it’s a very similar demographic and then it’s primarily women. And there are just specific types of traumas that you run into. So for example, in nursing, we’re dealing with death, but in education, maybe we’re dealing more with. Hearing students trauma. We’re hearing about their maybe homelessness.

We’re hearing about food and security. We’re hearing about, maybe child abuse that they’re experiencing in the home. So even though maybe the secondary, exposure to trauma looks different. It still is there in both professions.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Agreed. And so as you began to look at the research, what did you notice that informed your recommendations?

Dr. Jen Johnson: So one of the things I noticed is throughout all of the literature, there’s really this.Set of practices that across all of these different industries have, they found to be strategies that build resilience and I’m not a huge fan of the word resilience because it gets a bad rap.

It sounds like we’re just going to power through it. But I like to think of it more as compassionate resilience. And so there are these, the set of strategies that I think when we look at it through a compassionate lens have a really powerful ability to really just change the way that we experience life.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Of THRIV, is there one area that you have to convince people most to appreciate?

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yes, I do. And it happens to be detaching.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Oh no. Oh no. Tell me more, maybe.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Because, I think especially in the teaching profession, there’s this understanding that we’re going to have to do some work after work, that we’re going to have to maybe do some lesson planning, that we’re going to have to maybe write some IEPs, that we’re going to have to look at some data after work, that we’re going to have meetings.

And that’s just come the culture. And so when you start talking to people about detaching from email after work, or, Setting procedures or agreements around when we text each other or when we leave work people start to feel really uncomfortable because I think traditionally, we think of the teacher that works long hours is the good teacher.

And so we have these conceptions about what makes a good teacher and we have these accepted practices in education that aren’t necessarily helpful, but we feel like it’s what makes us good employees and good teachers.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Every time I hear a teacher award, and there’s some descriptor that’s pulled from the nomination, usually there is an element of, works tirelessly, puts in long hours, is always available.

And now I hear you saying, hey, this may actually be damaging and unhealthy. Tell me more.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah. So what we know is that it’s not sustainable over time. So we can push ourselves and push ourselves, but eventually we’re going to hit a wall. And while that may not show up at work, it’s going to show up in our personal lives.

So I always say, it’s, I think of the first grade teacher that shows up every day and it’s good morning kids. And she’s got, she’s learned how to almost act right. But over time, if I’m pushing myself and I’m not really setting boundaries and I’m not. Really managing my burnout.

I’m not going to feel that way inside anymore. It’s been going to be something that has to become an act. And, we’re really good at putting on the teacher hat. Like when we’re going to work, we leave, we’re really good at just disconnecting from home, but the opposite is hard. Like when we leave work, we have a hard time taking that teacher hat offd, and identifying ourselves as something other than a teacher.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I have heard it called at times game face that we put on our game face and we just get to it. Tell me a little bit about some of the organizational or cultural elements that help or hinder this mindset. Why is it people don’t feel safe to unplug from work when they’re home?

Dr. Jen Johnson: One of the things in the research that we know is that if there’s an expectation That anyone that’s working checks their email or has communication after work that drives burnout, but if we’re able to set boundaries, then that mitigates it.

And so what I think happens is we feel like, okay, if I get an email from the principal at 8 PM, I need to respond to 8 PM because I, if my principal is working at 8 PM, then it must be. That must be what I’m expected to. I’m expected to work at 8 p. m. Or if I get an email at three in the morning and the deliverable is.

That morning that I think, Oh my gosh, I’ve got to be on it all the time. I’ve got to really know what’s going on in my email. I’ve got to have those notifications on. And that’s really a culture that comes really from the principle and from the leadership in terms of giving permission. To people to detach.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Dr. Johnson, can you and I make some specific recommendations to help people detach? And I’m thinking of something even as basic as don’t put your work email on your phone.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah, so it could be not having your work email on your phone. It could just be not having notifications on. That’s what I do. I have my work email on my phone, but there’s no notifications.

So I get to choose when I go check my email, instead of my phone, triggering some dopamine that tells me, Oh, I got to go look right now and see what that is. So that’s one thing. Another thing is just setting some boundaries with our close colleagues. So if I’m on a team of people and just say, Hey, you know what, after, 6 p.

m. If it’s not something that’s emergent, like it’s applies to tomorrow morning. Let’s make an agreement among ourselves that we’re just going to wait until tomorrow morning to communicate about that. Another thing is you can schedule emails now. So if you are a person that You know, gets your big wind at like 1 to 2 a.

m. And there are people like that. There are. I work with superintendents that say my best work hours are 1 a. m. to 3 a. m. But schedule that email to go out in the morning. Don’t send. Yeah. Delayed send is a gift. Yeah. Yeah. And so there there are just a lot of ways that we can communicate with each other about what we want our work experience to be.

I remember when I was a teacher, the things I was sharing late at night were like, Oh, I found this cool resource or, Ooh, I thought about this idea for the field trip. And it’s I was afraid I was going to forget it. And that’s why I felt like I needed to do it.And that’s actually an individual strategy as well.

Like one of the things that hinders people sleep and causes people to ruminate about work is when we’re afraid we’re going to forget something. And so what I recommend is just having a note on your phone. And when you think of that thing you just write it down in your note or you set an alarm for it.

Dr. Wendy Amato: We could go old school also and have A notepad and pen next to our bed.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah. Or a post it note, anything. And the reason our brains remind us is because it’s important to us. That’s why our brains remind us. And so that worry would come up and I would say, Oh, you know what? Thank you, brain. That’s on the note card.

And I would schedule time. To worry, like I would pull out my note card and be like, okay, this is the time that I’m going to think about solutions or I’m going to, I’m going to worry about these things. And then the rest of the time when I’m really trying to focus, I’m going to redirect my brain and say, oh, it’s an, it’s in my back pocket is it’s on that index card.

Dr. Wendy Amato: One of the things I hear when you speak is, this is not a self sabotaging situation. These are all thoughts that come from the right place. There are good intentions here as we think of solutions, as we work to be good communicators with our colleagues, as we let our brain explore solutions to meet our students needs.

All of those are positive, yet at the same time, they could be grinding us down to a nub. Oh, talk to me about teacher motivations. Why are we so well intentioned yet self harming?

Dr. Jen Johnson: I think that there are just historically some cultural ideas that we’ve had in education. And first of all, we all go into it because we love kids and we want to make a difference in their lives.

We know that. And. What can happen, though, is that we develop this idea that if we’re not 100 percent in all the time, that we’re not a good teacher or that we’re harming our children. And instead of realizing that if we’re not being our favorite self that ultimately is going to impactour student outcomes.

And so the more I’m struggling because I’m trying to be everything for every child, the more I’m not able to be everything for every child, if that makes sense. Yeah.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Of the T H R I V, which item resonates most where people go, Oh yeah.

Dr. Jen Johnson: I think what resonates most with folks is just vowing to honor your humanness.

And that’s where we really talk about taking sick days and understanding psychological needs versus what we would traditionally think of as needs. Because we just don’t tend to think about ourselves as humans. We expect ourselves to almost be these robots. Yeah.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Tell me more about our humanness. I think we’re so kind in emphasizing that for our students, for the learners in our classrooms, but less kind about it for ourselves.

Tell me more.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah. I think back to when I was in the classroom and it was my second year of teaching and I had to have an emergency surgery and I postponed. Against my doctor’s advice and emergency surgery, because I thought I’ve got to go do lesson plans. I’m going to be out for six weeks. I need to make six weeks of lesson plans.

I’m going to give myself a day and then I’ll have this surgery. And I think back to how I literally risked my life to provide lesson plans that someone else could have done. But I had in my mind That this is what a good teacher is that I should sacrifice everything like almost to the sense of like a martyr like I’m sacrificing everything for these kids, even when it came to literally like a life and death situation.

And I think I learned that from my colleagues around me who I saw. Engaging in those types of behaviors, not as extreme, but I took it to the extreme because I thought as a new teacher, this is what I need to do to be a good teacher. I’ve got to be all in all the time. And I think sometimes we just forget that we have limitations.

Our bodies have limitations. We have limitations in the knowledge that we You know, contain in our brain. We don’t know everything. And so sometimes it’s, we just forget that we are limited humans. And I think acknowledging that and giving ourselves compassion for the fact that we are limited humans is so powerful and it can have such just that one thing can have a huge impact on how we really go through life, an important reminder.

Dr. Wendy Amato: One of the things I appreciate about your book is the very practical nature of the recommendations. We’re not talking just theory. It’s not a flood of research that we’d have to sift through to make sense of things. You have daily, actionable steps and recommendations. Can you share a few with us?

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yes, I would love to share a few.

So one of my favorites is called mindful self compassion. And what I love about mindful self compassion is that I remember when I was a teacher, how I beat myself up over the littlest things. And I would go home, like I would just maybe pass someone in the hall and maybe I didn’t speak because I was lost in my thoughts.

And then I would think, Oh my gosh, they’re going to think. That I was rude or they’re going to think, and I would just have these moments where I would just ruminate on things. And what I love about mindful self compassion is it just gives us three steps to help us recognize that we’re humans.

So the first thing is we just acknowledge how we feel and what happened. We try not to shame ourselves as we do. We just say, what are the facts, man, I walked past this teacher. I’ve been trying to build a relationship with her and I didn’t speak because I was lost in my thoughts. And I’m afraid that she thinks that I don’t like her.

The second one is that we recognize our common humanity and it’s just saying that we, that everyone’s had that experience. Everyone has had an interaction where they wish. And I wish that had gone differently. And also I’ve had interactions with other people who I’ve thought, I wonder what’s going on with them.

They didn’t speak to me today when I passed them in the hallway. And so it’s really just trying to wrap our minds around the idea that we’re not some defective person. Like things happen to people. And it’s a common human experience to, misspeak or to not engage in the behavior which you had.

And then the third thing is just to be kind to yourself, to say something kind to yourself. You know what? You were so wrapped up and thinking about how you could support that child that you didn’t speak and that’s okay. Maybe tomorrow you can just go by and have a quick conversation just to let that teacher know that you actually do, care for them.

And so it’s just this kind of process that allows us to see ourselves as humans and really just allow us to move out of that rumination about how terrible we are that we did this thing.

Dr. Wendy Amato: You’ve been a teacher, an instructional specialist, you’ve been a teacher trainer, you have a private coaching practice, yet you choose to approach your work by telling stories.

Why that decision?

Dr. Jen Johnson: I think when we’re able to connect with stories, one it’s, we’re better able to remember the strategies, I think, but I think it also shows us. How is, how can this be applicable to me? Like, how is, if I hear about mindful self compassion, I just tell you the strategy.

And I don’t tell you a story around it. Maybe you don’t really see how do I apply that and I think just back to how we teach kids right like when we’re teaching kids, we’re teaching them around story, we’re reading stories to them we’re, talking about word problems in math are really the way that we learn is through storying.

And so I thought it was really important to include story one to just humanize. This experience of burnout and to show that for one, like I have experienced it. I continue to manage my own burnout. And I live and breathe burnout management every day. And so it’s really just to humanize the experience, but also to help people tether to those stories so that when they’re trying to remember the strategies and situations that might work in, they can go back to that story.

Dr. Wendy Amato: That’s perfect. And then you also provide a community. Tell me about the THRIV community. How does that work?

Dr. Jen Johnson: Yeah, so I have a community that is, it used to be just teachers but now it’s all educators. And so educators can go into the community and there’s a couple of different things that happen.

One is that I do strategy videos. So I will talk about the different strategies and just short form video. We also have a lot of prompts to help people get to know each other. Folks are able to if they’re having a problem or they want to troubleshoot something they can post in the app and ask for input there’s a chat section that’s just for teachers.

So if there’s something that they want to talk about that, maybe they don’t want an administrator to maybe their administrators also in the group and they don’t want to their administrators see it just for safety reasons, like psychological safety, they can go to just a teacher strand and ask questions.

And so it’s really just a space for people to go and be real. And say, you know what, this is something that I’m struggling with, or this is something that I’d like to prevent, right? Sometimes it’s not about recovering. Sometimes it’s about preventing and knowing that, this is a trajectory that tends to happen.

And how do I get ahead of it? Like, how do I make sure that I don’t get to the point where I’m just completely burned out and feel like I need to leave the profession. So this community really just supports people peer to peer support, as well as I’m in the group and I interact regularly.

Dr. Wendy Amato: We know that everybody needs that kind of network and support.

What a nice community to build. You are supporting school districts around the country. You offer professional development, keynote speeches, you coach and support campus administrators. I’m so grateful for the work that you’re bringing to the education community. Thank you, Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Jen Johnson: Thank you so much.

Dr. Wendy Amato: To the educator community, thanks to each of you for joining us today. If you’d like to explore topics that Dr. Johnson and I discussed, please check out the show notes at teachingchannel. com slash podcast. Be kind, help others to find us, and subscribe on whatever listening app you use. And I’ll see you again soon for the next episode.

Thanks for listening.


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