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. 

Imaginary Wine Labels

Arm’s Length


A drink that warms when held in the mouth.  Strawberry on the edges. Rounded center one would mistake for hollow—a globe.  Best on an empty stomach, with bread after the initial sips to soak up the coffee grounds one might imagine on the roof of the mouth. Recommended for people who like caves, pepper plants, and experimental films.



Earthy is too predictable a description for this mineral dormancy.  The aroma—a mixture of salt and wet paper—rises from a seed within the wine. Pairing with only the lightest-colored cheeses, this variety should be aged—not chilled.  Best with dried peaches.  Best after an afternoon that leaves the street wet with barely-noticeable pools of oil slick along the curb.

Staring Contest


Although the first flavor is a jarring thickness, this wine lightens when consumed.  Notes of butterscotch and edamame.  Particularly good for pregnant women or for women who would like to become pregnant.  If pairing with chocolate or raspberries, have a glass of water nearby.  Best with pork.  Best on a morning after.



Our darkest variety.  Too many berries to count.  We recommend drinking it with someone you don’t quite trust.  Best with crackers and oyster soup. Particularly memorable if consumed during a hurricane or blizzard.  The first flavor is a ruse—soda water.  Wait for the second and third flavors of velour and black cherry, respectively.

Changing Your Mind


Initial flavor of lemon that hardens to green chile on the way down. Amber color as seen through pink-tinted sunglasses.  Not unlike raindrops on a Cholla cactus.  Caution:  Risk of explosion if heated.  Best when paired with potatoes and cream or anything that sticks in the throat.

The Good Life


Aroma of candle wax and cucumber.  A taste that brings out lint on the tongue.  For relief—swallow.  Best with your most shocking acquaintances. Notes of antique wood carvings and motorcycle chrome.  It is only your imagination that detects a hint of lemonade.  This wine may be aged or consumed immediately.  In either case it will seem as though you’ve been drinking it for years.

What We Owe

What do we owe our animals? How can we say which relationship, animal or human, is more valuable? More necessary?  As I led him to the car and watched his legs quiver a bit before he hopped in, there were tears in my eyes because I knew what I’d have to do.


My dog, Gonzo, is a true mutt. A Heinz 57. He’s a stocky desert scavenger with thick, red-brown fur, white paws, ears that flop over, and a tail that curls up. The day I rescued him from a parking lot adoption event in Arizona, he was a scrappy-looking thing, just 3 months old, panting in the sun. It was 2001 or 2002, I’m not sure. I do remember that he rested his chin on my knee the whole way home. I had adopted him with my then-husband, but when we split up there was no question about who would get the dog. Gonzo was mine.

My post-divorce period was rough, but I was glad I had a faithful friend by my side. When I threw a glass down on the floor just to hear it smash, then slid down along the kitchen cabinets, plopped my butt on the cold tile and began to cry, Gonzo pushed himself onto my lap and licked my face. We lived for a while near a rocky preserve in Phoenix, and every day we’d hike it, sometimes stopping warily when a coyote trotted by. I never feared to live in this semi-rough neighborhood called “Sunnyslope,” the only place I could then afford, because Gonzo’s heavy growl and sharp, sudden bark hid his gentle, mama’s-boy nature.

Time passed. When I put on a record and sang along, Gonzo was there, too. He’d leap with me as I danced, thinking it was a new form of play. At night, he’d settle down on my feet or stretch out along the length of one of my legs, leaning his entire body against me. We vacationed together, driving from Phoenix to Mexico, from Austin to St. Louis, and back again. On the Mexican beach, Gonzo’s herding nature would take over. He’d nip at my ankles when I went toward the water. When that failed, and I unadvisedly dove into the waves, he’d whimper at the shore. Then, desperate, he’d paddle after me and nudge me with his snout. My favorite picture of us is on one of those beaches: I’m leaning down to scratch his head, and he’s smiling up at me with a doggy tongue hanging out one side of his mouth. Over a decade together, Gonzo became my little furry son. We were like Velcro.


After moving back to the Midwest, settling down, dating again, I met another dog-lover named Chad. We felt comfortable together. We wanted the same things. And so we began talking about cohabitation as we gradually fell in love. There was just one problem: He had a rescue dog, too. A big, lovable problem child named Braunschweiger.

Brauni was – is – a brindle-black Rottweiler mix. An irrepressible, slobbery, 95-pound love beast. The kind of pup who’ll throw both paws over your shoulders when you walk in the door, and then run for a stick or a rope or anything that you’ll throw for him.

When I first met this pair of gruff loners, I couldn’t approach Chad when Brauni was in the room. The minute I tried to hug or kiss my boyfriend in front of him, he’d leap between us and bark. It took quite a while for Brauni to get comfortable with me sitting on the couch next to his human.

The whole experience reminded me of the time, after months and months of sleeping alone, I brought a man back to my place. Gonzo tolerated this … this other creature in my bed. But he chewed up one of my most expensive bras to express his disapproval. Clearly, I’d been through this before. I figured I’d have to give Brauni time to warm up to the idea of another person in the house. Not to mention another dog!

Unfortunately, unlike Gonzo, Brauni wasn’t socialized or trained as a puppy. Chad was away at work too often to fully fix the problem when Brauni was young, but it didn’t really matter then! Brauni had a home, and love, with a single human he clearly adored. Then I came into the picture.

So. Two loners like us, and two very protective dogs. What to do?

We took it slow. After consulting a dog trainer, we began walking the two dogs, side-by-side, several times a week. Brauni would leer at Gonzo with the unsettling expression of a playground creep on his face.

“Does that look mean he wants to play with Gonzo, or kill him?” I asked.

The dog trainer introduced us to a halter-like device for the more-aggressive Brauni and gave us instructions that sounded hopeful. We figured the dogs would either fight it out once and then become fast friends, or simply tolerate each other in their golden years.

As weeks of this uncertainty dragged on and we doggedly (pun intended) walked our two grumpy old mutts, I started to sort-of move in. I brought over books, pictures, a comforter, a few towels. We both became rather impatient. I was tired of driving 25 minutes (40 with traffic) whenever I wanted to visit my boyfriend. It felt silly to leave his house at night when his home felt so much like mine – my art on his walls, a few pieces we’d both picked out waiting to be hung up behind the sofa, a new shelf for our shared bedroom… We helped each other mow the lawn. We wandered through Ikea, bickering mildly and then holding hands, like a comfortable, middle-aged married couple. We had become one another’s family.

But our pets were family, too. And whenever I thought of my 15-year-old best friend, I worried for his well-being. We could not reconcile our happiness with the incompatibility of these two furry stepbrothers. After all, what do we owe our animals? How can we say which relationship, animal or human, is more valuable? More necessary?

The day we decided to “get the dogs together” – that is, let them loose in Chad’s fenced backyard and hope for the best – we prepared. We called the dog trainer, a friendly man with years of experience. We wore Chad’s dog out, walking him around the block several times and pacifying him with treats. Then we walked him again, side-by-side with Gonz, like we’d done for weeks. Finally, we nervously led the leashed pups through the gate.

The trainer watched as Brauni strained on his leash, panting, his eyes fixed on Gonzo, his legs taut. As Gonzo sidled away from Brauni again and again – glancing at me, ducking his head – the trainer frowned. Finally, the man shook his head.

“You guys. This just won’t work. I’m sorry.”

He explained to us that Gonzo, at 15 or so, was too feeble – and Brauni too aggressive – for them to “fight it out” and eventually get used to one another.

“It would be like a really muscular 45-year-old beating up on a 100-year-old man,” he said. “I just can’t in good conscience recommend it.”

Chad mumbled a few sentences about the possibility of our families caring for Gonzo, and I looked down at my old friend who was, at that moment, biting at some grass and trembling a little. I interrupted the men.

“Well, I’m gonna take Gonzo home. Chad, I’ll call you.” Then I led my dog away, closing the gate behind us. As I guided Gonzo to the car and watched his legs quiver a bit before he hopped in, there were tears in my eyes because I knew what I’d have to do.


Gonzo and I sleep late on Sundays. My little full-size bed is pushed against a big window in this turn-of-the-century flat, and we open the curtains and look down on our neighbors. Gonzo growls low at the cats and wags his tail when I say, “what a good guard dog.”

I get tired of living here sometimes, in a rented apartment, while my sweetheart lives in a house that he actually owns, so far away. I left half my belongings there! My lonely place, with its bare walls, resembles a student’s garret. But my loyal doggy friend is happy. So, I try not to feel impatient or resentful, even when I’m driving across town to visit Chad. To be honest, I’ve always felt like a student anyhow.

I took Gonzo to the vet the other day and she told me that he has arthritis in his spine. There will come a day, probably in the next year or two, when his back legs will simply give out. Already, one leg spasms at times, which startles Gonzo more than anything else. I give him anti-inflammatory treats, special food for his joints, and lots of meat because he loves meat and I love him.

Sometimes, I swear, Gonzo knows. He looks steadily at me, and then licks my face when I start to cry.

There’s no question. I’ll be his friend until he’s gone. And then, after, I’ll have time to make a home with the human whom I also love.

2 Short Poems


A half-moon caught in the trees, / the desert emptied of birds, / my father’s voice: “You don’t have / to call me back…” and this thing I’ve / imagined, tangling up / the burnt parts of two secrets–struck match / smell, the wind-tunnel / of a glass cave bringing the heat. / I was missing and I’m still missing.


As if you were reclining–sideways, big as god– / Lightening strikes the first hill, flames hopping to the next. / How it moves through your soul, the burnt spots making vulgar and strange anything green! / Don’t worry. When you’re marooned in a corner of your office wondering how the stones of the walls outside / Made it in–remember, there’s no insight like the rule of your hills compulsively burning.

Swimming Down

An armored shark in lava, I move on all fours across the rug as your daughters leap over me shrieking. With an unblinking eye, I feel the heat of the earth rise—its erupting egg, yolk-rug, and the shore of the bed—as we play. 

That night you wake up to tell me you are sinking underwater. Half-asleep, I say water in dreams always means emotion. I think I feel a pair of cool hands pressing on my temples, a vial of cooking oil in my pocket…

I think of your girls and my hands flutter to tangled hair. Nearly asleep again, I’m listening to myself as a child—sloshing water in the bath, catching a fluff of bubbles in my hand.

I leave before they get up for school, and I take in the sky as I unlock my door, steam puffing up into the black. I was pulled from a car once at this hour, the middle of a soybean field, to look at Haley’s Comet. My father urging me, wake up, wake up! It’s the only time you’ll see this in your life! This piece of cotton in the sky. This fireball, this chunk of ice.

It burns! And as I seize myself in mock pain, I fall into the lava. I fall—through the rug, the ceramic tile, the layers of ground—into a core that shines, impossibly, white.