About a month ago, I was processing my decision to take this year off with a fellow teacher friend and I said, “I love my job, but I just can’t do it anymore.” To which she responded with, “If you really loved your job, you’d still be doing it.” When I heard this, I got defensive and tried to explain the truth about how split in half I really was about what I loved and how I wasn’t able to work within the same conditions anymore. How the way Special Ed students are placed and essentially ignored because of the lack of resources or energy was unethical and I couldn’t do it anymore: watch it, participate in the injustice. How class sizes were too large for this English teacher who had to grade essays monthly. How testing has overtaken the curriculum. The conversation ended with her understanding my point of view, but me still feeling defensive.
It’s been quite a month for me. One in which I finally feel full again like I could work again. In this time, I’ve also realized that although there are many things about my job that I have trouble making peace with, it’s me as much as the job. I have to change if I want to feel and be different as a teacher. Whether this is really possible, I’m not sure. But it’s about progress not perfection, I’ve decided.
So here are the top five traits that burn me out faster than a votive candle:
- Yes— From day one of my teaching career, this simple word has got me in trouble. I said yes to sponsoring the yearbook and to helping the new cheerleading squad, and to co-direct a girls mentorship program. I said yes a lot. Sometimes because I didn’t know how to say no. Sometimes because someone had manipulated me into thinking that I was the only one who could do a good job. Sometimes because a student asked and I felt too responsible for their dreams to say no. Within a year and half, I was so burnt out that I switched schools mid-year. Even just last year, when a student brought me a petition of student signatures asking me to sponsor the photography club, I couldn’t stand up for my need for rest and space from work.
- Giving 400% instead of 70–This trait has been something that I used as child with my family and friends. I am not sure why I thought I needed it. Perhaps it was because I thought it would get me friends or keep them. But learning when to give my all versus not is such a challenge. When I see a group of students looking at me with apathy, it is close to impossible not to energize the room. The reality is when I save my energy for the right moments, its so much more worth it, however. And when I give too much energy even on field trips, I eventually crash and nowadays its so much harder to recover from those. I will also say that when I share this trait with people their instant response is to find examples of when I did it as if I am not aware of these examples. Although nothing is more infuriating than another friend telling you what you already know, the fact remains that I do this and it burns me out–fast.
- People-Pleasing–This is a trait I started using as a child as well. One who grew up with separated parents. When your parents separate, it is inevitable that you end up wanting to make things better by being the best person you can. It is also connected to number one. When a co-teacher or teammate or principal asks you to help with something, my first instinct is to drop what I’m doing and listen and support. Sometimes because I really do want to help. Other times because I don’t want to displease the other person. It seems simple don’t do it, if you don’t want to. Yet, for me it is incredibly hard to say no I can’t stay after to a student who may need a little support even if I’m too exhausted to do it. Last year, I finally put my foot down because I was so burnt out from overextending myself. As a teacher, parents and administrators and even other teachers have clear expectations of being available to support students in class and out. Now, my husband is a doctor and while every now and then he has to call in a prescription for a patient, if he is done with work there’s two options for his patients: 1. Emergency room; 2. On-call phone service. N doesn’t have to stay at his job and wait for patients who may need him. Okay, I know what you are thinking: that’s an unfair comparison; it’s apples and oranges. The truth is though that this expectation while well-meaning doesn’t take into consideration how overworked public school teachers are.
- Planning Period Therapy–Okay this is a touchy subject because teachers definitely need time to vent especially because we have very little down time during a school day to relax and recharge. However, when I used my planning period as therapy sessions either for myself or a colleague, I always started my classes just a little more exhausted than before the therapy session. On one hand when I vented, I felt a release but I left the other teacher with the baggage of emotions. When I was on the receiving end, because I am not a professional counselor, I didn’t have the tools to not absorb the other person’s emotions. Thus I was exhausted before I taught. Now, I don’t know that this is something that I can completely let go off, but setting a few healthy boundaries for myself would have helped me tremendously. For example, instead of planning period therapy, maybe a happy hour therapy or going for a long walk or yoga session together would be a healthier option.
- Working While Sick–Again, guilt places a huge role in this one. That and our cultural standards that unless you are on your deathbed, you drug up and go to work even if you are contagious. When you are a teacher and sick, it’s probably the hardest to take an unplanned day off. This is mostly because when a group of teens whom you have developed relationships with is waiting for you, you feel responsible. When your team of teachers shows up and you don’t, you feel responsible. When you have a test coming or a project or the holidays, you feel responsible. Bottom line: You. Feel. Responsible. Learning to take care of my body as a teacher with an autoimmune condition has been my ultimate challenge in life. While I’ve gotten better at taking a day off when I am sick or have a bad headache, the back and forth of guilty feelings leading up to this decision have not lessened. It’s about progress not perfection in the end.