Amy J. Cattapan looks to wisdom of the Gospels to combat teacher burnout in new book

Detail from the cover of Amy Cattapan's "Sweet Jesus, is it June Yet?" Detail from the cover of Amy Cattapan's "Sweet Jesus, is it June Yet?"

Amy J. Cattapan is entering her 26th year of teaching this year. In her book Sweet Jesus, Is It June Yet?, Cattapan shares how the Gospels can help teachers at any stage of their career fight burnout. CNA had a chance to learn about Cattapan’s experience as an educator, the inspiration for her book, and why teachers look with longing toward the month of June.

CNA: How long and in what capacity have you been teaching?

Amy J. Cattapan: I've been teaching for 25 years. I started as a high school teacher, and then 24 years now at middle school. I'm starting year number 26. 

CNA: What are some reasons you think teachers leave the profession?

AJC: Teachers leave the profession, I think, mostly because they are not feeling like they can be as effective as they had hoped when they entered the profession. We sometimes start out with unrealistic expectations for what we're going to be able to accomplish. We might think we’re going to be the next Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, or Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus. 

We get these ideas that our teaching careers are going to be glorious in the way that we can impact all the students. And while I think we do impact the students, a lot of our impacts, we don't see right away.  

Then, simply the frustration of not always being able to do what we believe is in the best interest of our students. There are forces out there we can't control. We can't control if our students have a good environment to do their homework. We can't control things that happen at a higher level in administration. I think that lack of control sometimes also leads to burnout. 

CNA: In your book, you share your own experiences as a teacher, offer scripture for inspiration, and conclude each section with reflection questions for the reader. Why did you set it up that way?  

AJC: I decided to prayerfully read through the Gospel of Mark during a five-day silent retreat. I was teaching full-time and working on my doctorate at the time, and I was feeling some of that burnout. As I was reading [the Gospel], I was looking for inspiration I could draw from as a teacher—from Jesus—the greatest teacher of all time. 

The book naturally became this series of Gospel reflections. Then, I hope the reflection questions at the end will help the reader see how they can relate my stories and the Gospel stories to their own teaching career.

CNA: Do you have plans to do a book club or discussion group, virtual or in-person, with the book? 

AJC: There are definitely schools where the principal bought the book for the entire staff, and are going to be reading through the book with the staff over the year. I’m certainly open to doing virtual book clubs with any groups of teachers who would want to. I also have a one-day retreat for teachers at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House outside Chicago in February of next year to help teachers take a day of rest and reflect on their teaching. 

CNA: Thinking back on your first couple years as a teacher, what is something from your book that you wish you knew back then? 

AJC: I wish I knew that I didn't have to do it all. I think, again, one of the reasons teachers burnout, especially in those first few years, is because we think we have to do everything. I've learned to let go and let God a bit more as I’ve gotten older. 

Also, learn to pray the serenity prayer as a teacher. Take that to heart—have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change. I can't change everything for my students. I can't control what happens when they leave my classroom, so I have to have serenity about that. But, also have courage to change the things that you can, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. When do I just have to let it go and let God, and when do I have to have the courage to speak up and question the status quo?

CNA: The past year and a half has been especially challenging for teachers. What have you noticed about how the pandemic impacted teacher retention? What do you hope for teacher longevity in the future after a time like this?  

AJC: It's definitely been a very hard time. I know some teachers who made the decision to retire because for health reasons they just couldn’t come back into the classroom. For those who have remained in the profession, it has been challenging. Some people think I wrote this book because of the pandemic—teachers were suffering from burnout before the pandemic. We now have burnout on top of burnout, which is really, really hard. 

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I’m praying that with my book and with others who are reaching out to teachers and supporting them, that teachers can find the strength to keep going. Hopefully, by God’s grace, this will just improve us as educators by opening us up to new possibilities for education and giving us the courage to keep moving on.

CNA: Can you tell us a little bit about the actionable items you included in the book that could make it a better environment for teachers?  

AJC: There is a chapter in the book about how Jesus set the stage for learning. In that chapter, one of the things I talked about is the fact that he really got to know the people he was talking to, the people he was teaching. As teachers, if we’re really going to impact our students, we need to have relationships with them where we meet them where they are. We need to know how to speak to them. It's about getting to know them and reaching them in a way that they're going to understand, so that they can really grasp onto whatever the content is that we're sharing with them.

CNA: It appears that there are some harder months as a teacher, notably October and February. How would you talk to a new teacher about what to expect in those months that are seemingly impossible to get through?

AJC: Many years ago, I had a principal who, during a faculty meeting in the middle of February, said, “Well, here we are in February, the armpit of the school year.” It's a pretty terrible month. But you know, sometimes just joking about it helps. Now, I joke with teacher friends about it, and realize, okay, I’m aware that this is a tough time, but we’ll get through it. We’ll have March and April, and June will come eventually. 

That’s also why we scheduled the one-day retreat in February. It's a terrible time of the year. We need a chance to get away, to do something different, and to spend a day not grading papers or planning lessons. Just like Jesus would do by going off to a mountain to pray right after he healed a bunch of people, we need to take those mountain-top moments too when we get into those “armpits of the school year” kind of moments. 

CNA: Is that how you came up with the title, Sweet Jesus, Is It June Yet?  

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AJC: Sometimes we hit that point in the year where we mutter to ourselves, “Oh, sweet Jesus, isn't it June yet?” We all get there in February. I wanted it to have a little bit of a humorous feel to it because I hope my stories come across as being a little humorous and lighthearted at times. One of the greatest ways we combat burnout, I think, is through a sense of humor. 

CNA: What are some daily routines or reminders that you would offer to teachers as a way to combat burnout? 

AJC: One thing I do is I always make sure to pray for my students, my coworkers, and everyone involved in education. Then, throughout the day, I try to offer it up whenever I have a challenging moment, to take a deep breath and say, “Ok, Lord, I’m not sure how to respond to this student right now, or I’m not sure what to say in this faculty meeting.” A quick little, “Come, Holy Spirit,” can really lift your spirits when you realize you’re not alone in the classroom. Jesus gave us the advocate. He gave us the Holy Spirit to help us, so call on Him.

CNA: How can teachers support other teachers?

AJC: We have to make time for adult conversations. We spend our days with the kids and we love them, but we also need to take time—even if it’s just five or 10 minutes—to seek out a coworker who you know is a positive influence and speak words of encouragement to each other. We need to connect with each other in that way.

For teachers who maybe aren’t in a great school situation, don’t be afraid to seek help outside of school. There are many professional learning communities online. There’s a great Twitter chat that happens on the first and third Saturdays of each month with the hashtag #catholicedchat. It’s a great group of teachers. 

CNA: What about non-teachers? How can people who aren’t teachers support teachers?

AJC: For non-teachers, give the teachers in your life some grace. When they come home and they’re exhausted and they can’t even talk about it, don’t take it personally. We appreciate it when people say, “All right, you’ve had a rough day, haven’t you?” Just give us some grace in those moments when we’re feeling burned out. 

CNA: Who is in your support circle? Who builds you up so you can keep going in your work? 

AJC: I’m fortunate in that I have a few different circles that I can turn to when I need support. Some of my family members are involved in education in different ways. I have coworkers I can go to, and I have teacher friends at other schools, which I think is really helpful too, to hear about what is happening at other schools. 

CNA: It’s clear that your book is a faith-based book. Do you see it going beyond Catholic and Christian education into secular schools as well? 

AJC: I think anybody who is familiar with the Bible stories or has an interest in Jesus would get something out of it. I've also heard of some homeschooling parents who were like, I want to check that out too. I think anyone who's involved in any sort of education, any sort of teaching, whether it's directly of the faith or just any kind of content. There’s a lot of burnout in lots of levels of education, and people are hungry for anything that will give them a little encouragement.

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