Healthy Teachers: Jenny Rankin PhD on How to Grow Resilience and Reduce Stress

In our multi-part interview with Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD and author of First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and SuccessEngaging & Challenging Gifted Students, and How to Make Data Work: A Guide for Educational Leaders, we explore her journey from teaching to writing, the best ways for teachers to leverage resources, how she addresses burnout, and how her work aligns with The Teaching Well. 

Kelly Knoche: Your book's written differently than many books, whether we think of a dense textbook or a narrative self-help book. Not many are a hybrid as thoughtful but still succinct enough to be bite-sized pieces that I could digest. How did you structure the book to make I digestible for teachers?

Jenny Rankin: One big thing that goes in line with what you said and sets the book apart is that teachers are so busy. To sit down and read a whole book, that's a commitment. So it's organized to allow teachers to jump chapter to chapter based on what their needs are. Since every chapter is devoted to a big stressor that contributes to burnout, if a teacher starts in on that chapter and thinks, "You know, I don't connect to this. That's not a problem for me. I have really great grading habits in place, so it's not a big deal to me."That teacher can skip to the next chapter, which he or she might totally relate to. That way it honors the fact that teachers are busy and it honors your time.

Also, they can jump to their biggest stress, even if they connect to the whole book. Let's say their biggest problem is classroom management, that's where they're tearing their hair out. Those teachers can jump to that chapter and start there, start seeing some change. Then come back. "Awesome, I have a little more time now. I'm going to tackle that next chapter on administration, or on technology."

The intention was that it reach teachers at all levels, including aspiring teachers about to start so they can have good habits up front that increase their chances of sustainability.

I really tried to make it work for them. The same thing with how it's broken down with the checklist or bullets of a strategy. Not every strategy is going to be best suited for every teacher or every situation. But having those check listed strategies very bold and clear, backed up with information and research cited, is really straight forward on what those things are to try.

Kelly Knoche: Yes. I really got that. There were chapters where I was underlining every part of the book with strategies I had created for myself, but named differently. Then, there were other portions of the book I thought, "Oh my God, that took me four years to figure out with my planning team." I think this book is very accessible for the teacher who is struggling in the classroom but also for the teacher that's thriving in the classroom. Because it really creates a bunch of avenues for that teacher to continue to hone and grow excellence.

Jenny Rankin: That's great to hear. The intention was that it reach teachers at all levels, including aspiring teachers about to start so they can have good habits up front that increase their chances of sustainability.

Kelly Knoche: The Teaching Well is an organization committed to supporting teacher sustainability on school sites by focusing on the well-being and the health of teachers. So the chapters on mindset, over-stimulation, and tedium address a lot of what we do. We also do a lot of inner personal work—working with teachers on how to collaborate, how to work with behavior in the classroom, how to work with the administration. I really felt my scope was broadened by how you covered logistics, grading, volume, environment, and technology. What was your strategy when you laid out the chapters of the book? Why do you think those are the first line of care that need to be addressed for teacher burnout?

Jenny Rankin: I approached that in a few ways. One, I have my own ideas to start with, so I kind of have my outline—these are the things that I've seen teachers struggle with and I remember being challenging.  Then there's this odd thing about my entire pack of high school friends: we're all teachers.

Kelly Knoche: Wow.

Jenny Rankin: Some have gone to other roles, but they've been teachers. At Illuminate we have a lot of teachers. I talked to everyone. I had my list to ask them up front, "What do you think the challenges are?" Sometimes they might say, "I didn't struggle with that," so I got a lot of feedback. And there was a lot of research. I'm a bit of a research geek, so I read a lot online, studies on what teachers are rating as stressful, studies on everything. All of it shaped the list.

Some things were surprising. For example, in my experience, tedium or monotony was never an issue. My experience was the opposite of that. The same things with the teachers I know. I think if we were in an older age bracket, that would more likely be the case because we would have been teaching for longer. So I was surprised that as I read the research, boredom is actually a huge reason for teacher burnout. Some people don't have that at all, but some people really have that. Doing the same thing year after year after year, they're just, "Oh, I don't want to do that exercise again."

I think to have that be the problem is actually a win because that's an easier one to solve. There are so many exciting things you can do to switch that up. Those are kind of the ways I came at shaping the list. I'm sure each person who reads it thinks, "Oh, I also struggle with this," but these are the most popular amongst teachers.

As far as having the biggest impact on burnout—there might be some other things that all teachers hate, like the parking situation as they come to work, but that doesn't really add that much to burnout. I went for the meatiest and most common ones.