Thoughts of a Teacher Heading Towards Burn Out Bridge

Most schools I’ve worked at have a full time student councilor, and those that don’t at least have a part time one who comes in once or twice a week. This is someone to whom the students can talk when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the various pressures of their adolescent lives, such as having to deal with school, parents, friends, crushes, that sort of thing. Very rarely is such a service offered to the teachers. Basically if they are feeling overwhelmed, overstressed, or overworked, then they’re supposed to handle it on their own, which I think seems a little unfair. Teaching is a particularly stressful job, especially for newcomers, and it would be incredibly helpful if they could have someone to talk to when they are having “one of those days.”

Alas, no. In my fifteen years as a teacher, I’ve seen many fresh out of school teachers arrive full of enthusiasm and eager to begin their careers, and then witness their slow decline into misery. The bright-eyed look on their faces at the beginning of the year is gradually replaced by a deer in the headlights stare of bewilderment, as they are eaten alive by their students and offered little to no support from the administration. They thought they wanted to become a teacher because it would mean job security and long breaks and it would be fun to work with kids. But they weren’t prepared for the reality of dealing with a room full of obnoxious and indifferent teenagers, most of whom don’t really want to be there. To use a military term, they wash out.

If you can get past this stage then you can look forward to a long career as a teacher. You develop your own teaching style and methods for managing unruly and disruptive students. You learn to be effective, and inspirational, and learn ways to stimulate your students’ thirst for knowledge. These kinds of skills can only be developed over a long period of time. In teacher training, you study methods of “classroom management,” but pretty much all the education and training you receive is useless once you enter the classroom. I consider myself to be a pretty decent classroom manager, but I still make mistakes from time to time. Sometimes there are students that you just cannot reach, on whom all of your tried and true methods do not work. Those are the students that stamp out the fire that burns within the teacher, the flame that burns with a passion to bestow one of life’s greatest gifts: knowledge.

Unfortunately, once that fire is out, it’s very hard to get it going again. As a teacher, that’s when you’re burnt out. That’s when you have to make a difficult decision, whether to continue to work in this burnt out state, when you are nothing but a tiny wisp of smoke, a shadow of the confident educator you used to be, or you can admit you’re burnt out and you can quit. This is the crossroads at which I find myself now. I’ve had a long and varied career as a teacher, but right now I feel like I’m on a train heading towards Burn Out Bridge. Once I cross it, my career as a teacher will be finished, or at least on hiatus for a while.

It isn’t just one or two particularly obnoxious students that are pushing me toward that bridge; it’s a variety of factors, personal and professional. The stress has taken its toll on me, physically. I’ve become overweight and unhealthy. I’ve recently developed a headache that hasn’t gone away for over a month. It might be related to an accident three months ago that resulted in a head injury. I was hit over the head by a malfunctioning railroad crossing boom at the train station, but that’s a story for another time. The doctor said it was more likely a tension headache and he advised me to stop taking pain relievers and try stretching and massage instead, which does actually work, albeit temporarily.

Professionally, I feel overwhelmed and inadequate. I have a teaching credential in one subject only, which is English. Yet, I am teaching four subjects, in three of which I have no credentials, and even though I’ve been assured repeatedly that I’m “doing fine,” I don’t feel confident that I am. The students deserve someone who knows what the hell they are doing, who knows how to teach these subjects, not someone who was asked to teach the subject because there was no one else available. At least the subjects I teach aren’t very crucial ones. They are practical subjects, so I try to make them as interesting and fun as I can, but I know next to nothing about the theoretical content I’m supposed to teach, since I never read most of these subjects, nor have I received any training in how to teach them.

Finally, the school at which I work has recently changed ownership and not all students and staff are entirely on board with it. We chose this school because its name, image, and philosophy all appealed to us. However, that all changed at the beginning of the year. The school that we knew and that we chose over all the others is now gone. It went from being a small neighborhood school to part of a large corporation. Additionally, our principal, the man who hired me last year, resigned because he didn’t agree with the demands placed upon him by the new owners. It’s a lot to take in. We’re still in the “let’s wait and see” phase of the transition, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

So here I am, uncertain about whether I want to continue working at this school, or indeed whether I want to continue working as a teacher at all. I don’t want to leave my job, and yet I do. The work is still fun and stimulating, and my colleagues are good people, but I feel that my career as a teacher is nearing its end. I’ve always held firm to the belief that one should only be a teacher as long as one’s heart and mind are completely committed to it. There’s nothing worse than being taught by a sad, overwhelmed, and jaded teacher who crossed that bridge a long time ago.

I feel like I should get off the train before I get there.

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