…just not professionally anymore.
“Miss Kitten,” one of my students said to me one day, “Can’t you just work here for the rest of your life?” Those words really sting in a bittersweet way. My god, it’s heartbreaking when I think about them. My students. My kids. I see their eager little faces, rapt with attention. Hanging on my every word. Enjoying the Miss Kitten show. Their eyes lighting up with laughter.
I was that teacher, you see. The one the kids all love. The one the kids all want as a substitute teacher.
“You’re my favorite teacher.”
“You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
“You’re the coolest teacher I’ve ever had.”
“You don’t talk to us like you’re our teacher; you’re more like a friend.”
When you’re a teacher, the kids are everything. They are why you do what you do. And they are amazing, inspiring, and truly remarkable young people. Particularly the latest group of kids I had the great pleasure and privilege to teach. There are no behavioral cases among them. Even the ones who try to get away with being naughty are no match for Miss Kitten. My greatest weapon is my sense of humor and it’s been sharpened and perfected over the years.
“Shut up.” I tell a student who keeps whisper-yelling during a test and hasn’t responded to anything less direct and more polite.
“Hey, you can’t say that to me!” He responds with feigned dismay, which I know is entirely for the benefit of his classmates. Every class has its clown.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Please shut up.” I say, and the entire class erupts in laughter. You can’t out clown the master.
But I am tired. Sick have I become. Old and weak. Well, maybe not that old. However the sick and weak part is true. Sort of.
In January of last year I experienced a breakdown that led to me having to stop work. I was diagnosed with acute stress reaction, which was caused by a number of factors, all of them work-related. It’s very common for teachers to experience this due to the nature of teaching as a very demanding high-stress job, but usually you can transform the stress into productivity. In my 15 year career I never experienced anything like that before, what I can only describe as a kind of paralysis. I simply could not do it anymore. I had to stop working and went on sick leave. The doctor prescribed me some anti-anxiety medication and told me to get as much rest and relaxation as possible. It was incredibly hard, because I was also dealing with depression and guilt for having abandoned my students. Every day I questioned whether I was really sick. I was convinced I was faking, that this was all in my head. That I just needed to pull myself together, forget about my stupid problems and get back to work. My students needed me. I realized much later that this reaction is completely normal for highly productive people (aka: workaholics).
The medication and instructions to relax were the only treatment I received. I only found out later that usually some kind of therapy is recommended in such cases. In Sweden they have a system in place whereby if an employee is injured on the job, they are referred to a company health care service. The company is responsible for rehabilitating the injured or sick employee and for fixing the problems that caused the injury or sickness in the first place. No such assistance was forthcoming from my previous employer. They had this service available, but they elected not to refer me to them, saying I should get treatment through the local health care service. I was told that this is their prerogative. In the end I was put on paid leave because they either could not or simply would not fix the conditions that led to my breakdown. I couldn’t go back to work, so they decided to pay me for the remainder of my contract.
This arrangement seemed reasonable and fair. Eventually I started feeling like myself, ready to start teaching again, but determined to be very selective in the type of school at which I wanted to work. I wanted to work at an international school, so I applied at all three of the international schools in the area. I got interviews at two of them, and was eventually hired. It was only a part-time position, which was perfect because I was in no way ready to jump back into a full-time position after my breakdown.
The school was wonderful. The students were, as a previously described, amazing young people, and my colleagues were fantastic. It was an international staff, reflecting the profile of the school. Yet, even though the work was satisfying and rewarding, after a few weeks the symptoms started creeping back. My employers were well aware of my previous breakdown. I informed them during my interview, and they were not at all surprised, knowing full well how common it is for teachers to suffer such breakdowns. They were very reassuring and supportive.
During my initial interview, they gave me a tour of the school. It was a small building but there was an atmosphere of positivity and happy looking students working on projects everywhere. However, there was something very unusual about this school and that was the location of the Home Economics classroom. This was the position I was interviewing for. There was, in fact, no Home Ec classroom at all. There were four kitchen units set up, oddly enough, in a busy hallway. I’d never seen anything like this before. The practical Home Ec lessons were taught in an area that was completely exposed. I would find out later how just how impractical it was to teach in that space.
However, at first, it was kind of exhilarating. Home Ec lessons are usually very lively, smelly, and noisy. I was used to teaching Home Ec so all the chaos didn’t really bother me. We were reminded on several occasions to try and keep the noise level down, since there were other classrooms nearby. We were also located right in front of the principal’s office, and just around the corner from the assistant principal’s office, as well as student toilets, staff toilets, and the staff lounge. This meant that colleagues were walking through the area constantly. Students weren’t supposed to go in there during practical lessons and were instructed to use different toilets when lessons were taking place. Our solution to prevent students from walking through there was to place traffic cones at the entrances to the hallway. The older students knew to keep out, but the younger ones frequently walked right past the traffic cones and right through a lesson. It was also normal for a colleague to walk through the hallway during a lesson, pushing a large cart of iPads or laptops, and forcing me and students to move out of the way. In addition, when lessons were happening, we were very entertaining. Students and colleagues alike tended to stand just outside of the hallway and watch the show.
It sounds completely crazy, and it was. However that was simply how Home Ec lessons were taught at this school. I actually enjoyed it. The exposed situation made it really exciting. At least at first. After a while, however, it made it increasingly difficult. I had no control whatsoever over that area, even though I was responsible for it. On the days when there was no Home Ec, the hallway was used by other teachers. The kitchen counters were used to place computers and books, pretty much anything. Each kitchen was equipped with a set of utensils, dishes, and cookware, and these were constantly being removed when I wasn’t there. At least once every lesson, I would have to hunt round the staff kitchen for a missing whisk or a skillet or something that was definitely there before, but which had since disappeared. No one seemed to understand or respect that that hallway was, in fact, my workspace. To them, it was just another public area.
Eventually it became unbearable. My anxiety level increased and I started having panic attacks. I couldn’t stop thinking about work. I obsessed about those kitchens, and the state they would be in the next time I had a lesson. Before each lesson I would have to spend time putting them back in order, checking that each kitchen was fully equipped, tracking down items that were missing, removing books or other items that had been left on the kitchen counters, make sure we had enough clean dishtowels and start a load of laundry if we didn’t, empty the dishwashers from the previous lesson, check to make sure we received all of our grocery delivery, and whether it had been put away, anticipate a trip to the grocery store in case anything hadn’t been delivered (a regular occurrence). It was a lot of responsibility for one person, and too much for me.
During lessons, I had to supervise up to four groups of students working in the kitchens, while attempting to minimize disruption from other students and colleagues walking through the area, as well as trying to keep the noise level down so as not to disturb other ongoing lessons. In other words, we (the students and I) had to accommodate everyone, but no one would accommodate us. I still enjoyed the practical lessons very much, but after a while, the conditions made it almost impossible to maintain a proper classroom environment. I’m usually a very effective teacher who has no problem with classroom management, but under these conditions, I had no control and ownership over the environment and this made it extremely difficult to have control and ownership over the class.
I know I’m making it sound like it was complete chaos, but it wasn’t actually that bad. The worst thing about it was the psychological toll it took on me. After this experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to get out of teaching, for my own sanity. It’s time for another career. What that will be, I have no idea, but after fifteen years I’m pretty sure my time as a professional teacher is over. I don’t make this decision lightly. I always promised myself that I would keep working until it was no longer “fun,” that I would quit before I turned into one of those totally burnt out and bitter teachers, who obviously hates their job but keeps on working out of spite or lack of ambition.
The kids deserve better than that and I won’t let that happen. Who knows what the future holds…