Burnout Will Break Your Heart

Personal Essays, Teaching Notes

[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. 

Soft Skills: A Thank You Note for Wayne Zade

Poems, Teaching Notes

In 1995 I wore long shorts and a class ring and I stepped into your office with a handful of poems.

By 1999 I was a traveler and a deconstructionist and I returned to your office to sit, embraced by your walls of books, and hear the jazz.

You told me about Rilke, Ashbury, and Coltrane. We listened to Seamus Heaney, to Quincy Troupe, to Ornette Coleman. And I kept coming back—

From New York to Iowa—by way of Norman Dubie, Murakami, Lady Day—From here to there! New poem to another new poem. You told me, without telling me, how to keep your calling close, like a halo of lamplight around the fragilist part of you.

In 2002 I was mountaining and floundering and businessing and marrying. But I didn’t forget.

In 2006 I was a poet and it was because of you.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I thought life was breaking me—But then I remembered that, once, you said my poetry reminded you of Chet Baker. So I came back.

In 2014 an 8th grader bested the high schoolers in a Poetry Slam that made my whole body smile and I—I was his teacher!

In 2015 I brought my own students with me and sat beside you at a classroom table and talked about books again.

Though I still hope I’ll be remembered for my angel-throated words, my revolutionary, post-punk ideas, I realize it will really be because of the artists I teach from my own life-crafted room.

And whenever I think I don’t need mentors anymore because I have become one, I realize that the soft skills in my life originated in your lamp-lit office. And I’ll always want to come back.

What Teaching in St. Louis Means to Me

Personal Essays, Teaching Notes

This morning, as I grabbed a quick coffee before meeting the onslaught of student needs that seems to greet me as soon as I walk in the door, I experienced something that first cheered — and then disturbed me.

My school, a refurbished bank building from the 1930s, sits next to a paint store, a dollar store, and — perhaps incongruously — a St. Louis Bread Company.  If you’re not familiar with St. Louis Bread Co., it’s sometimes called Panera and it’s one of those high-dollar coffee shops that serves pastries and sandwiches, and is usually filled with businessmen and women or grad students on laptops.

I hadn’t had my dose of liquid energy that morning, so I walked in, in a rush, and ran into a group of students that were probably mine. Since it’s the first week of school, I’m still getting to know the young people I’ll be spending time with this year. But they knew me, and they smiled and waved as we passed one another.

I continued to watch them through the plate-glass window as they jostled one another and giggled — God, was I ever that awake at 7 am? — on their way to our building a few doors down.

I should probably mention now that I am white and nearing 40, and I teach mostly African-American teenagers in St. Louis.

As I stood in line with the businessmen and women to get my coffee and blueberry muffin, my kids out the window were clowning.  Two of the girls made those silly duck-lip kissy faces and held up peace signs (held sideways, of course) to take a selfie, as teenagers do.  I watched them hold their phones up to their faces as they walked, and I, predictably, felt very old.

I’m sure I made a face, a fond, “oh, those goofballs” sort of face, as I watched them.  I’m sure I smiled ruefully.  Having grown up in the late 20th century, I didn’t quite understand the millennial urge to document every little walk to school.  But then, I caught eyes with a woman in front of me.  Her expression wasn’t fond, it was hostile.  She met my eye as if to say, “can you believe these kids!?”  Her disgust was unmistakable.  So unnecessarily negative, in fact, that I took a step back.

Now, I’m no angel.  When I’m off work, as my boyfriend will attest, I sometimes do everything I can to avoid the irritating behavior of teenagers.  I’ve grumbled plenty about my students’ narcissism and lack of self-control.  But — that woman’s anger!

I’m sensitive to that kind of prejudice, I guess.

When I taught in Phoenix, I took my students — first and second-generation Mexican immigrants — to a theater performance in Scottsdale, Arizona.  We arrived early, smiling and shaking hands with the volunteers.  But, although the theater was empty, they led us up to the balcony and seated us there.  As I led my eighth graders to their seats and filed in behind them, I exchanged glances with my fellow teachers.  “Can you believe this?” we mouthed at each other, as we watched white children take the front-row seats below us.

How much of this is so ingrained as to be automatic, I wondered.  How is this still happening?

My first few years in St. Louis have been tough.  I fled the Phoenix housing market crash only to arrive in south-side St. Louis right before the summer of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, a St. Louis teenager who had just graduated from high school.  I remembered supporting my Latino students as they marched against laws (since overturned) that they believed were unfair.  And here I was, a few years later, navigating a brand-new (or, maybe not so new) civil rights uprising — while trying my best to understand and empathize with my students of color who were caught up in the middle of it.

I have a lot to learn.  I’m white, and I grew up in white suburbs, going to mostly white schools.  I am conscious of my difference, of my privilege, of my ignorance.  But I’ve developed enough, over my years of teaching, to feel a righteous sense of anger when I see the kind of reaction I saw in that gentrified coffee shop.  I mulled over it the rest of that day, cheeks burning.

What I should have said was:

How dare you look at children that way?  Don’t — please don’t — don’t be that bigot who makes assumptions about the kids that I teach.