Go with the Flow

Using Flow Theory to Fight Exhaustion Among Teachers

Think back to your last memory of being in school (K-12). What do you remember about your teacher? Do you remember the creative lessons they taught? How about the fun activities you did? Maybe you remember the multiple times they stayed at school way past the dismissal bell to help you achieve success? However, what you might not remember are the piles of paperwork they had on their desk or how their exhaustion increased as the weeks passed.

Tired of teaching?

Teaching is among the top professions to experience burnout and the highest in public service jobs (Williams, 2011). On a daily basis, teachers drain all of their emotional and intellectual resources to make sure their students engage with the material in a meaningful way. This often leads to the teachers feeling exhausted. If the exhaustion is experienced long-term, it can turn into burnout, which will cause teachers to leave the profession. In the United States, 25% of teachers in all levels of education leave the profession after the first three years and nearly 40% leave the profession after the first five years (Chang, 2009). All in all, the number of teachers who leave the profession is significantly higher than those who remain in the profession until retirement (Chang, 2009). The rate of teacher attrition is alarming and may continue to increase if a solution is not found. Training teachers to induce work-related flow while they complete their work tasks could be the solution to reducing teachers’ experience of exhaustion and ultimately reduce the rate of attrition.

The purpose of this article is to provide some background about work-related flow and recommendations of how to help teachers experience flow. For those not in the teaching profession, the recommendations are just as useful for other fields and industries. Thus, tips in this article are not solely applicable to teachers, though teachers are the focus of this article.

Just go with the Flow

Have you ever been doing something and got so absorbed in it that you lost track of time? During that time you were in flow! The Flow Theory, established by Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, explains that the flow experience occurs when one is completely absorbed in a task or activity and loses self-consciousness (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). The factors that allow one to experience the flow state are setting clear and achievable goals and receiving regular and explicit feedback regarding progress made (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Furthermore, the task at hand should be challenging, utilize one’s skills, and require skills that one possesses. Additionally, attention and interest in a task lay the foundation to experience flow while engaging in that task (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Interestingly, flow can be experienced while doing work-related activities and is related to reduced levels of exhaustion (Makikangas, Bakker, Aunola, & Demerouti, 2010). Finally, there is an upward spiral with work-related flow and resources (personal and organizational); increased personal and organizational resources lead to flow, which result in more resources and positive emotions (Salanova, Bakker, & Llorens, 2006).

#TeachingFlow

Research has shown that teachers experience flow often and the frequency of flow experiences might exceed that of workers in other fields (Morgan, 2005 as cited in Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). As mentioned above, there are numerous positive benefits to teachers experiencing flow. Not only will they experience less exhaustion, but they will also build personal and organizational resources, which will help keep them in the profession. So how do we help teachers experience flow even more than they already do? Luckily, I taught high school science for some time and know exactly how to apply the flow theory to the work teachers do.

Taking information from research (outlined above) as well as tying in my personal experiences, I have a few suggestions to increase teachers’ flow experience.

  1. Though the Flow Theory has been around for quite some time now, not many people, outside of the Psychology field, know what it is. Thus, my first recommendation is to educate teachers about what flow is and what it might feel like when they experience flow.
    • Teachers just need to know the basics of what it is and the necessary characteristics of the task which will allow them to experience flow (achievable goal, challenging but meet skills, etc.).
  2. My next recommendation is that teachers should keep track of their flow experiences in a “flow journal” and try to detail in their description of those experiences how often they experience flow, what they were doing when they experienced flow, and under what other conditions they experienced flow.
  3. The third and final recommendation involves teachers examining their “flow journal” to understand how and when they experience flow in order to structure their daily tasks in a way that allows for flow experiences as frequent as possible.
    • For example, a teacher may note that she experiences flow when she is lesson planning, teaching an engaging lesson, and grading creative assignments.
    • She should then determine what aspects of those tasks contribute to her experiencing flow. Once she has brainstormed that, she can then use that information to help her craft other tasks in such a way to help her achieve the flow state.

 

Class dismissed!

Due to the nature of their work, teachers may become exceedingly exhausted to the point that they choose to leave their job. Work-related flow experiences have been shown help reduce exhaustion. In this article I provided some suggestions of how to increase teachers’ flow experiences. While this method is supported by theoretical principles, it has not been empirically tested. If you try this method and it works for you to reduce exhaustion, I would love to hear about it!

References

Chang, M. L. (2009). An appraisal perspective of teacher burnout: Examining the emotional work of teachers. Educational Psychology Review, 21(3), 193-218.

Makikangas, A., Bakker, A.B., Aunola, K., & Demerouti, E. (2012). Job resources and flow at work: Modelling the relationship via latent growth curve and mixture model methodology. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83(3), 795-814.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 195-206). New York: Oxford University Press.

Salanova, M., Bakker, A.B., & Llorens, S. (2006). Flow at work: Evidence for an upward spiral of personal and organizational resources. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(1), 1-22.

Williams, C. S. (2011, November 3). Combating teacher burnout. Retrieved from: https://thejournal.com/articles/2011/11/03/teacher-burnout.aspx