This year I will embark on my ninth year as a public school teacher. Because I am in my early 30’s, many educators look at me as if I couldn’t possibly have experienced burnout yet - I’m “too young”. However, burnout is a well-researched issue within the education community. We all agree that teachers can and do burn out, but we all cannot agree why. I truly believe that we cannot pinpoint the reason teachers burn out because there are too many of them and they are far too personal.
The one word that always comes to mind when I describe my time teaching in this environment is intense. Everything was intense. When a student lashed out for receiving a bad grade, it was intense. When there was a shootout in the parking lot, it was intense. When a teacher had to call out sick, it was intense, mostly because everyone else had to cover for them – there were no substitutes. When we ran out of paper in the beginning of October, it was intense. When a teacher quit after three days yet again, when my first period class reeked of marijuana, when I tried to physically stop a fight – it was intense. When I attended my first student funeral, it was intense... and so was every one thereafter.
The intense feelings weren’t all negative, though. Sometimes, when a student laughed – really, truly laughed from the bottom of their belly – it was intense. When a student came back from an extended absence and wanted nothing more than to run in my room and hug me, it was intense. When a young couple beamed with excitement as they announced they were expecting, it was intense. When a student decided that you were worthy and they were going to accept you into their world, it was intense.
Everything about teaching in a high-stress environment is intense and very, very few teaching environments are anything but. My stressors may have included things that not every teacher is subjected to, but as I have come to realize, all educators experience stress on different levels and for different reasons. The reasons do not diminish the stress. Schools are a reflection of the communities they serve. No community is without their fair share of struggles.
Teaching is inherently human. Our job is to connect with other people on a level that will inspire them to grow. When things become so overwhelming that we lose our connection to that humanity, burnout is inevitable. Sometimes it is hard enough to connect with yourself. Add to that the expectation to motivate and inspire others on a daily basis and it becomes unbearable. That feeling — that lonely ache — is what inspired me to tell this story.
If you are an educator and you have been struggling with that feeling, know that you are not alone. So many of us, at so many different stages of our careers, and for so many reasons, have experienced burnout. I was lucky. I knew when it was time for me to move on from my first teaching job and find a new place to develop. I had the unwavering support of family and friends who helped me to recognize what I needed to do and helped me get there. I was also lucky enough to find a new environment that allowed me to grapple with these feelings and eventually find my way back to my passion for teaching. Know that if I can do it, you can, too.
Next week, I will outline ten things that helped me recover from burnout and led me back to my love of teaching. If you are an educator struggling with burnout, I hope that they will help you, too.
Teachers — have you experienced burnout? How did you cope? Share your thoughts in the comments below.