In response to a recent Well-Balanced Teacher Facebook post about teacher burnout, a teacher quipped: “When it’s only a month into the school year and people already feel burnt out, stressed, and overwhelmed, there is a problem!” So why is October such a hard month for some teachers? After all, the year is still young, the weather is often beautiful, and the craziness of the holidays are still a ways off. What gives with the October blues?

A Competence Crisis

There are many different factors that impact our overall health and workplace happiness. Our colleagues. The physical environments in which we work. Our compensation. And so many more. Any of these can have a serious impact on how we feel about going to work each day, for better or worse. Yet there’s one factor that is more important than any of these. In fact, it’s so important that no matter how good any/all of these other factors may be, if we don’t have it, we will almost surely burnout. It is a sense of competence.

We must know that we’re good at what we do. Or, at the very least, if we don’t think we’re good at what we do, we need to see a path to becoming better. If we don’t think we’re good, and we don’t see any way we can get better, we simply can’t maintain positive passion and energy for our work as educators.

In fact, if we are to think simply in terms of teacher health and balance, it would be better to be a terrible teacher who thinks you’re good than to be a good teacher who thinks you’re not.

And right now in the United States, we have a lot of really good teachers feeling incompetent. Here are just a few reasons this is happening:

  • Flavor-of-the-Month Professional Development: When professional development is disconnected and haphazard—when a one-day workshop last spring is followed up by a completely different one over the summer and is then followed by yet another unrelated day in September—teachers feel dispirited. A one-day PD usually offers just enough to gain a glimpse of a promising strategy or approach without the practice and implementation needed to improve teachers’ skills.
  • Constant Curricular Turnover: It takes time and practice to get good at teaching a new curriculum. The generally accepted amount of time that I hear (and agree with) is 3-5 years. The first year, you’re totally on the steep end of the learning curve. The next year, you’re able to improve on the first. In the third, you can start personalizing the curriculum—not following it in a lock-step way, but making adjustments based on what you know about the content and what your students need. In way too many schools, new programs are introduced every year or two, leaving teachers always on the steep end of the learning curve, and never allowing them the time and reflection needed to master them.
  • Political Rhetoric: As elections near, national and local politicians stir up frustration and anger—invoking the “need for change” mantra they think will energize people to vote. They look for issues that people care about—ones that touch them personally. Education is almost always near the top of the list. As teachers, it’s hard to turn on the TV or the radio without hearing about someone’s concern about our failing schools or someone bashing the Common Core. Interestingly, most people actually rate their own local schools favorably, even as they think schools elsewhere are failing. Regardless of reality, the constant negativity directed at schools and educators can make us feel defeated.
  • Teaching is Incredibly Hard: Let’s not overlook this important point. Teachers must have an incredibly strong set of skills to be good at this work. We must have strong content knowledge, have the social and emotional skills to work well with all students, be flexible and adaptable, be able to work with a wide variety of other adults (colleagues, parents, administrators, community members, etc.), and be creative and passionate. And we must do all of this in not enough time and for not enough pay. This profession is not for the faint of heart.

After the buoyancy and enthusiasm of the first few weeks of school, in October our emotions and energy dip. As our energy wanes and the intensity of the year picks up, the reality of these (and other) daunting challenges feel more real. October is often when we start to question our competence.

5 Ways to Boost Your Sense of Competence

There are many ways, in the course of our busy school-lives, that we can nurture our sense of competence. Here are a few to try:

  • Keep a journal.
    Each day, write for a few minutes about some things that went well. Use free-writing and keep it light and easy.
  • Accept that we can’t do it all. When feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remind yourself that there’s just so much anyone can do in a given day. Give yourself permission to be human.
  • Prioritize. Spend time on tasks that are most important to you and your students—the ones that will truly make a difference. Let go of some of the less important tasks.
  • Focus on a specific goal. We can’t be great at everything all at once, so choose a goal to work on. Perhaps it’s shifting your teacher language to make it more child-centered. Or maybe it’s tightening up your direct teaching lessons to reduce teacher-talk. Whatever the goal, make it meaningful and practical. Create a plan for working toward the goal and notice/record progress.
  • Check out many additional practical ideas in The Well-Balanced Teacher.

One More Powerful Idea: Try Collegial Coaching

Educators in the Frontier Regional and Union School Districts in Massachusetts have been engaging in powerful collegial coaching to help support each other in their professional growth and development. This year, in K-12 classrooms, teachers are learning how to observe each other purposefully and give each other supportive and constructive feedback. The overall focus for the work is on using student choice to differentiate learning and boost engagement for students. A powerful benefit of this work is that teachers are getting meaningful feedback and coaching from each other, boosting their skills and increasing their self-efficacy. I have truly enjoyed facilitating this powerful professional development.

As teachers, when we gain more power and control over our practice, we can boost our sense of competence and recapture our drive and passion for teaching. With a long, challenging, and potentially joyful year ahead, October is no time to give up. Your students need you to not only feel competent but to be competent. Pick a strategy and try it out. And please, give yourself permission to feel proud of your success when it happens!