There are many, many educators in this country dealing with stress and burnout. The reasons are many, as are the blog posts out there that address this issue. Many rightly point to the combination of poor funding, unscientific testing expectations, overbearing administration, and un-creative scripted lessons as reasons for teacher burnout.
I don’t see any point in re-hashing those issues here. Rather, I’d like to speak to the burnout that I specifically experienced, which doesn’t fit this mold, as there may be others out there with a similar experience. In a future post, I’m also going to speak to my approach to transitioning away from being a teacher, as many teachers feel “stuck” with no other marketable skills.
Why I Left
I loved my job as a music teacher. Getting hugs from little Kindergarteners, watching students master a difficult concept, blowing away families at concerts with our performances. I was respected by my principal and district colleagues, and even a leader and mentor to many other music teachers around the country. Easily 90% of students that I worked with enjoyed music class, and trusted me to lead them in interesting experiences. When things didn’t go according to plan, we would laugh and try again, or put that aside for something else. I had an excellent schedule and every instrument I could conceivably want to teach with.
In the end, none of this was enough. Every day I had levels of stress that were making me physically and mentally ill. It wasn’t the principal, or my colleagues (although there were a few that were difficult), or state mandates. It was the kids. The same kids that I loved and respected were literally driving me nuts.
If you’re not an educator, you may not get this, but every day, every single day, there was at least one student in my classroom who was angry and defiant. I saw 150+ students per day, in groups of at least 20, and sometimes 30. I was often the only adult in the room, trying to educate these children. What happened in my classroom was largely in my control, but what happened before that was not. Students would come with a lack of sleep, or having been in a huge fight with a parent, sibling, or other teacher. And even with carefully planned, differentiated activities, some students would get frustrated by their failures in my class, or have a negative reaction to another student in a group. Whether the problem started inside or outside the room, these students would shut down. At best, they would sit out and refuse to participate. At worst, they would act out, yelling and interrupting to the point that continuing the lesson was impossible.
(BTW: I am aware that not every school environment has quite as many children with such challenges, as I’ve taught in all types of schools: rural, urban, big and small. This is definitely a problem that is connected to poverty and other social ills. But I think these issues still exist, to a varying extent, in most schools.)
My natural reaction to a shouting or defiant child is to get angry and yell. After years and years of working on my own classroom management and building one-on-one relationships with students, my inclination is still to yell. Maybe it’s testosterone, maybe it’s a sign of my neuro-atypical brain (I’m genuinely curious about the experience of other teachers, especially men). Controlling my reactions to student behavior required a firm and proactive discipline approach, support from the school office (I could send a student out if I really needed to), and forcing myself to always wait when reacting to a situation. I became very good at management, a model for other teachers even. I had proactive routines, consistent expectations, and firm yet unthreatening consequences (such as sitting out for one activity).
Even with all this, I would occasionally get upset with a defiant student. What happened when I held in my anger? An adrenaline surge with no outlet, which as modern medicine will tell you, is a dangerous thing to have happen every day. If I let go and yelled at a student, an equally strong dose of guilt and shame would be my reward. It was a no-win situation, and I was harder on myself than anyone else could be. Eventually, I decided that something had to change for my own personal health. Moving to a less economically-stressed school community would have helped, but it is hard to find new job openings when you are a veteran teacher who costs twice the amount of a new teacher.
So I left teaching, my lifetime career. I still completely believe in the purpose and promise of public education. Private alternatives are not viable to replace the scale of our public schools in this country. They are band-aids put on specific sore spots, at the expense of the rest of the bleeding body. No, improving our schools requires more financial commitment, teachers who are prepared for these huge challenges, and a systemic governmental approach to guiding families out of poverty. And I feel that contributing 18 years of my life to this cause was a valuable contribution. But now it’s time to take care of myself, re-focus on my family, and have a much-deserved change in stress levels. I hope to continue mentoring future teachers as an Orff Schulwerk instructor in the summers, and I am thoroughly enjoying my developing skills and career as a software engineer!
PS, It turns out there is a medical/scientific diagnosis, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, that describes the way I personally react to stressful and noisy situations. I did not know this when I left, but having discovered it, I am glad that I made the decision I did. If you feel the same, you may want to look into this. Even if you decide to stay, understanding your own reactions will be crucial to planning out a successful class, day, and year.