Get Fired Up

By: Erin Gorter, CATA President, Cal Poly SLO

The word “burnout” brings several definitions to my mind. First, Jeff Spicoli—the quintessential surfer with disregard to authority in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (I just dated myself, but I will get over it). Second, the act of keeping a vehicle stationary while spinning the tires to create friction. Anyone who has ever visited my old Atascadero home has probably left his or her own tire marks in my incredibly steep drive. Next, the reduction of fuel to nothing through combustion. My grandma lives on a ranch in Pozo where it is critical to keep the wood stove lit during the winter. When that thing burns out, it gets cold! Last, burnout has been described as a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. Although we probably all have experience with each of these definitions, the one most frequently used concerning teaching agriculture is the last. 

We get tired. We put a lot on our plates. We want to be with our families. We want to support our students. We want to spend time with our friends. We want to travel. We want to learn. We cannot do it all. We fail. We have to get up the next morning and do it all over again. And why do we do it again? We like to work. We like to be productive. We want the best for our families. We want to be our best for our students. We want to enrich our friends’ lives. We want to enhance our communities. We want experiences. We crave activity. We understand that it is okay to fail, as long as we get back up again. As Paolo Coelho says in The Alchemist, “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” Some days, I feel like I am constantly rebounding for the eighth time. I feel like I have ran out of combustible material in my proverbial wood stove; but it is okay and I will explain why. 

Within the past year, I wrote and defended my doctoral dissertation. Through this exhausting process, I learned something: What I sought to describe had no statistically significant findings whatsoever. Some would say it is worthless, but I cannot bring myself to say that because of the hours, curse words, and the tears that went into it. If life has taught me anything lately, it is that unseen benefits are a necessity. So here is my nugget of silver: I found one quotation from one random journal that has pretty much changed the way I think about things concerning teacher burnout. Fernet, Lavigne, Vallerand, and Austin (2014) said, “…in order to burnout, one must first be on fire” (p. 283). 

Congratulations to you for feeling burned out! It means you care—about your students, about your family, about the work you do every day! These words give me hope that if I start to feel like my flame is dwindling; it is okay; because it means I was actually invested in the first place. Can you imagine going through life with no fire to keep lit at all? Can you imagine working with other people with no inner fire? We are lucky. I will quote a line from a song I heard on the way to work this morning: “Sometimes you’ve gotta bleed to know that you’re alive and have a soul.” Thank you 21 Pilots for reminding me that the pain is good. Pain means growth. Pain means I care. 

Recently, I have had the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar class with future agriculture teachers. We have spent time focusing on self-care and keeping our fires lit. We have a comprehensive list of things we can do (mostly stolen from the Internet) to practice self-care, and one of the most powerful ones I have found to use in my own life is practicing gratitude. I do not mean writing thank you notes after an event. I do not mean saying “thank you” to people. I am talking about some regular, talking to myself, reflective, intentional, do-it-when-life-sucks gratitude. If I start to feel like my flame is flickering, I do these two things: 1) I think of three things that have happened in the past 24 hours that I am thankful for; and 2) I think of three things happening in the next 24 hours that I am thankful for. Sometimes, I write those six items down. I am also a huge fan of Microsoft OneNote sticky notes and I keep one on my desktop for my items of gratitude. The point is you need to find something to be a systemic part of your life that helps you take care of you; helps stoke your fire; helps to remind you of why you are here. Not only do we have our own fires to nurture, we have the opportunity to help stoke the fires of others too. I ask: How freaking hard is it to send a text, an email, a snapchat, something, anything and ask someone how they are doing, share a stupid picture, a GIF, a funny video, a meme…something to brighten their day? 

In conclusion, those that know me understand I hate the term “work-life balance.” I have never thought of it as a balance or keeping the two on opposite ends of the fulcrum because my life is my work and my work is my life and I am happy to have both and they often interact. I believe in self-care. After a very brief but deep conversation with a coworker, I believe self-care extends far beyond the act of going to get a pedicure. Self-care is deeper and more intentional. I like to live going Mach 1 with my hair on fire. When I recognize the metaphorical fire extinguisher of life is impeding upon my flame, I pat myself on the back because it means I care enough to recognize I need to help build that fire and I feel sad for those who were never fired up in the first place. It is okay to feel burned out, now go get lit.

For more information about the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, visit