Fostering Creativity

Teachers of Young Children: Use Your Creativity to Find the Beauty of Burnout

10 Creative Exercises to Get You Started

By Abby Connors | Posted 7/25/12 | Updated 5/10/24

I'm talking to you, there, hiding under your blanket. You've forgotten how many times you've hit the 'snooze" button. You feel apathy, fatigue, overwhelmed by the relentless responsibilities of teaching. You just don't want to go back to that classroom. If you teach young children, you've probably been to Burnout Land — at least once.

The usual suggested "cures" for burnout: Take a vacation, or at least a day off — make time for yourself and your needs. Try meditation, exercise, hobbies, time with nature. All good things, all vital for mental and emotional well-being. They can help us return to the classroom refreshed and ready to teach.

The only problem with this approach is that we may be missing out on the beauty of burnout. Burnout can be a gift, a reminder that we're losing touch with the joy and meaning in teaching. It can be an invitation to reflect on our own personal strengths and weaknesses, to challenge ourselves in new and exciting ways, and to experience teaching on a deeper level. It can be an opportunity to use our creativity to teach with new ideas, new energy, and new inspiration.

I've found the following creative exercises to be tremendous boosts to re-create myself as a teacher and renew my positive feelings for working with young children. You may use these or invent your own — whatever you can imagine that brings out your best creative efforts.

1. Write a new job description.

Most preschool teachers have job descriptions that are dry and factual, with items like "attend regular staff meetings" and "assist with snack preparation." Why not write a personal job description, for your eyes only, listing the "tasks" that are meaningful to you? For instance, my personal job description includes "spread the joy of literature, music and dance," "appreciate children's efforts and accomplishments," and "give and receive smiles."

2. Use each day's teaching to honor someone.

Think of the individuals who have inspired you as a teacher and as a person. These may be professors, parents, colleagues, public figures, or anyone important in your life. Then take a moment each morning to dedicate, in thought or in writing, the coming day's teaching to one of your heroes. Your mind will be attuned to the positive thoughts they've inspired in you.

3. Divide and conquer.

Often, what seems like one huge, unsolvable problem can be broken down into three or four (or twenty) problems which, when taken on one at a time, are actually quite manageable. Make a list of everything that's bothering you at work — just list them quickly, without dwelling on them or looking for instant solutions. You may come up with items like:

  1. Constant interruptions
  2. Two or three children with behavior problems that distract the other children
  3. Negative, gossipy co-workers

Chances are you already feel somewhat less overwhelmed, just by writing things down instead of letting them stew inside your head. Now you have clear, isolated issues you can take creative action on. For instance, with the interruptions, you can experiment with different ways to cut down on children's interruptions: you might remind them ahead of time (every time, in different ways, if necessary) that we don't talk during story time but can save our questions and comments for after the story; you can speak louder or more softly; you can give children more time to talk without interrupting them; or try ideas of your own that you feel might work.

4. Meet your new favorite kid.

You've probably guessed who I'm talking about — that child who drives you crazy with behaviors such as yelling, fighting, whining, tattling, and so on. Decide that this is now your favorite child. Notice her positive behaviors (when she responds to directions, spontaneously shares with others, waits for their turn without complaining) and compliment her. Then tell another teacher about the positive behaviors you saw (and not in a "I couldn't believe it" kind of way). Decide that you will never speak about your new favorite child negatively. This trick really works wonders to brighten your attitude.

5. Write your "Teacher of the Year" nomination.

Imagine someone (an imaginary director or colleague) is nominating you for Teacher of the Year. What wonderful attributes would they ascribe to you? What special moments would they cite to describe your dedication, caring, and talent? Be detailed and specific. Remember, this is someone else nominating you, so now is not the time to be modest!

This exercise will help you to remember what a special, excellent teacher you really are, and what's important to you as a teacher. The next time you walk into the classroom, I guarantee you'll feel more confidence and enthusiasm.

6. Be your own best friend.

If you're feeling overstressed and unmotivated and no shoulders are available to cry and/or lean on, imagine how a best friend would counsel you. I bet they'd tell you not to take children's or co-workers' comments personally; that you may have just had a few bad days in a row; and that you shouldn't be so hard on yourself for making mistakes. They'd probably also ask you if you've been eating healthily and getting enough sleep. So tell those things to yourself.

7. Be an observer.

Study yourself and your students as if you were a scientist. When do children get rowdiest? When are they quietest, most engaged, most cooperative with others? When you stand back and look at these things, it may suddenly seem obvious that some changes in environment, timing, facial cues and other nonverbal communication, when you introduce novel and/or challenging experiences and when you do easier, more confidence-building activities may make a huge difference in children's behavior and the general atmosphere in the classroom.

8. Lose your lesson plans.

Uh-oh! Everything you've ever done in the classroom has disappeared. Pretend you have to plan a week's (or month's) worth of completely new activities — games, songs, crafts, writing, dance, stories, everything. For your new lessons, look at books and websites you've never checked out before. This challenge can bring new life and energy to your teaching — and a lot of fun, too!

9. Keep a journal — even a mini or micro-mini journal — of Good Stuff.

A day in the life of a teacher can zoom by, and the good moments can easily be forgotten. When a child finally "gets" a concept, writes his name for the first time, tells you she loves you, or spontaneously helps a classmate — when a colleague, director, or parent compliments you — write it down. Make a special effort to remember these great moments and jot them down in a notebook when you get home. Then look at that notebook frequently! It can remind you what a wonderful teacher you really are.

10. Don't forget to be grateful.

You truly have one of the best jobs ever, the opportunity to change the world, one child at time. Every moment of your day can brighten a child's life. The children may not remember your name forever, but they'll remember the world of stories, songs, art, and laughter, the safe and supportive atmosphere you created for them. Your work is important and meaningful.

It's too easy to sink into burnout like quicksand and let it become your everyday state. It's also too easy to deny its importance and take a "band-aid" cure, a day off or a bit of relaxation, and declare the problem solved. Let burnout be a welcome mat. Step into a new world of possibilities, for your teaching, your students, and for yourself — to rediscover the joy and fulfillment in teaching young children.

Next: Prepare to Be Amazed!

©2012 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.