Burnout Will Break Your Heart

[April, 2017]

I felt my calling leave me, like a cold seep.


I’ve taught for over ten years, and I’ve been privileged to teach our most vulnerable students. I say privileged despite the classroom management challenges and the low-achievement challenges. Their joy, openness, and strength have enriched my life in ways that, I suspect, I’m not even aware of. 

I remember vividly the exhilaration of leaving a cubicle and stepping into a classroom. The pride with which I planned and presented lessons. Most of all, I remember that feeling of humble affection I experienced when I looked around the room at irrepressible, beautiful young people. I loved being their teacher.


About a year and a half ago, maybe two, I realized I was in bad shape. Outside of the classroom, I didn’t have much of a life. On weeknights I’d come home exhausted, unable and unwilling to do much more than recover from the ten-hour day. On Saturdays I’d sleep very late, and then go out, trying to cram my resting time, social time, alone time, and (let’s be honest) drinking time into that little window. On Sundays I’d plan for the week ahead. Grading never seemed to get done. It certainly couldn’t get done during the school day.


As I struggled I asked myself, what happened to me?

What happened to the girl who, when faced with nearly 30 English language learners in a half-finished classroom with only 25 chairs and zero resources, could just handle it?


When I taught middle-schoolers in Phoenix, we enforced Sustained Silent Reading. I’d read, too, partly because I wanted to model reading habits for the kids, and partly because reading was a tonic — I enjoyed it, and it gave me a comfortable moment of silence amid the clamor of the classroom. One day a kid who’d habitually fidget and flip pages for the mandated 30 minutes, asked me: “Are you gonna take a test on that book?” “No,” I replied.

“Then why are you reading it?” He was genuinely confused. And my heart cracked a little for the first time.


Last October I learned I had a severe thyroid disorder, asthma, and a sleep disorder — all of which undoubtedly contributed to my feeling of exhaustion. My boyfriend sat me down and told me my job was killing me. I knew he was right. I wasn’t energized by teaching anymore; I was drained by it. I felt like a rusted-out battleship. I felt very, very old.

I knew it was over when I started waking up with one thought in my mind: “OK, let’s get through the day.” When my boss came by one day to give me a talking-to about generating more energy in the classroom, I accepted what I was — what I never wanted to be! A burnt-out teacher. I started revising my résumé that night.


I’d like other new teachers to remember: As you begin to love these students, remember that you’re not teaching their minds, you’re teaching their hearts.

And when you end up (metaphorically) fighting them, understand: You’re not really fighting them.  You’re never fighting them.  You’re fighting the apathy, combativeness, and despair that they have absorbed.

But then you may absorb it, too.  


As the country faced Recession and my students faced poverty, I faced Recession and poverty, too. As my country reacted to that Recession in sometimes cruel ways, I marched with my students in protest, even as I absorbed their bitterness. As my students often thought of no future beyond their noses, I began to see no future, too.  

Fellow teachers, be on the look-out for this attitude — this absorption — because it can plant stone upon stone in your heart.  


Something had happened over the last few years. I had lost some vital something. Maybe it was the natural evolution of No Child Left Behind (all that testing) or just the natural evolution of me.

While I still enjoyed planning lessons, I had lost the drive to get to know the kids through their work. I knew that whatever the kids produced, I’d have to grade it, plot it on a chart, and prove to someone in charge that Learning Was Happening.

I still loved talking about literature, but I avoided grading papers. I avoided them until there was a permanent stack in the backseat of my car. If there were gems amid the plagiarized or hurriedly scribbled paragraphs, I didn’t have time to enjoy them.

To be a teacher means to be responsive and reflective. I was still responsive in the classroom, but I no longer had the time or inclination to reflect on what my students were learning. I loved them, but I wasn’t doing enough, and I felt that lack like a hollowness in my stomach.


Then, there’s this:  

Eventually, I didn’t want to fight with one more cell phone. I didn’t want to beg one more kid to just. read.

My empathy had hit a wall. I didn’t know where the wall came from, and I didn’t know how to tear it down.


I have a coworker, among several, whom I admire. A data nut. He’s always eager to learn kids’ test scores, and once he gets them, he’s laser-focused on how to improve them. “If we can get Kayla’s score up by two points,” he’ll say, we’ll beat the state average!” When he says things like this, I feel a strange combination of bemusement, envy, and … indifference. I’ve never been competitive; I’m just not motivated that way. But my lack of interest feels like another failure. On top of a long list of failures.

At my school, we grade according to the standards, the way Marzano recommends. We “teach like champions.” And it works. It’s admirable! But according to those standards, I’m not measuring up.

If the kids aren’t on task, 100% of them, I’m not doing enough. If, despite my efforts to make class engaging, they still hate reading, I’m not meeting expectations. I tell myself to look at the positives! But every week, when the entire administrative team marches in with clipboards to count the number of kids sneaking a peek at their phones, I feel — more and more — like a scolded student myself.

No wonder the kids hate class and try to play. I hate class and want to play, too!


Another teacher I admire has managed to turn teaching into an art form. She earns the devotion of her students by crafting creative lessons and offering them love, support, and — most of all — joy! Her lessons are now published online and she’s gaining recognition nationwide for her efforts.

I follow her career and wonder, if I were an extrovert — would I be that successful, too? If I taught at different schools?  


I began, more and more, to read for fun in the evenings. To write little poems instead of lesson plans. I even sought out a freelancing job in the hopes that something else might come along. Eventually, it did, and I accepted a writing job with a marketing agency. If it were 1997 or even 2003, I’d wonder if I were selling out. But in spring 2017, I didn’t think of it for more than a moment.


I had to walk away, cruelly. I wanted a better, more creative life. And teaching didn’t offer that anymore. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to be judged for my ability to write creatively. Not for my ability to manage a group of teenagers. My love for the kids, my love of literature — these things just weren’t enough anymore. And it broke my heart.

It broke my heart to think to myself that I wasn’t an educator after all.


I still enjoy talking about literature and writing with young people. Helping a kid, one-on-one, understand a line of poetry or write a great conclusion? I love it. I’ll honestly miss learning about new teaching apps and creating interactive lesson plans. And I’ll miss the refreshing honesty of teenagers, and the feeling that I’m learning something new about the next generation every day.

But I never want to grade another test again. I never want to enforce a dress code or explain to a hostile parent why their kid is failing English. I don’t feel like sitting in a meeting while administration admonishes grown adults not to “allow” kids to sleep in class. And I can’t bear to convince a kid, ever again, that his end-of-course test is in any way important. Because, frankly, I don’t believe it is either.


A highly sensitive person, who loves literature and would like to be useful, might go into teaching. Many do. If you’re one of them, I applaud you. I want to hold you close. And I don’t want to stop you — but I’ll tell you this:

You will absorb what’s in your classroom. At times, it will exhilarate you. It will make you feel both humble and proud, both capable and awed. And if you aren’t careful, it will break you within ten years.


Some of my teacher friends always knew they wanted to be teachers. They played “school” when they were young. Me — I was always stuck on “Let’s pretend…” I wanted to be an artist or a writer — one or the other — since age six or seven. I’d always rather create than be the warden in charge.  

This week I veer between giddy opportunity and mourning. Because I’m leaving something I had once fallen in love with. And trying something I never imagined I’d get to do for a living. I’m off to be a writer.

If I ever make my way back to teaching, if the educator in me can find her joy again, I hope I’ll remember this. I hope I’ll be able to wrap myself in purpose, so I won’t freeze up again. I especially hope, for my colleagues in education, that we won’t continually be left in the cold.