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.

Teachers Know – a personal application letter

Dear Sir or Madam,

Sometimes it’s hard to be a teacher. You have to deal with stressed out parents, students, colleagues, and administrators. At times it’s a completely thankless job, and you feel undervalued and under-appreciated. It’s like that most of the time, in fact.

Yet, for all of those moments where you find yourself sitting on your couch crying after a really difficult day, there are those other moments that make it all worthwhile.

Those moments are why I have been a teacher for fifteen years. When I see a student’s face light up like a pinball machine, I know I have reached him or her. The kind of joy a teacher feels at those moments can’t really be described, but teachers know. Only teachers know.

When it comes down to it, teaching is about the students. It’s not about meetings, and exams, and statistics. It’s about helping students to see, and to understand, and to think, and to learn, and to create. If I have only the slightest effect on the future of young people, then I consider it a job well done. I take that responsibility very seriously.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a teacher. You have to really want to do it. You have to care. You have to realize that nothing is more important.

Yours sincerely,

Gwen Maddy

Teaching is hard. Teaching well is even harder.

The 1969 side describes what I endured in school.

Whenever I suggest that teaching is a difficult job, there’s always someone who says that being a teacher is nothing compared to, say, being a police officer or a firefigher or a soldier. Fair enough. Those jobs are more definitely more difficult than teaching. Though, I do find it oddly satisfying that the only examples of occupations they can think of that are more difficult than teaching are those which involve dealing with criminals and junkies, running into burning buildings, and fighting in wars.

The “1969” side pretty much describes what being a student was like for me. I remember  how awful and humiliated I felt when I had to present my parents with substandard grades. Yet, they would never dream of blaming my teachers for my poor academic performance, even if it was partially their fault. And whist it is true that today’s students are more narcissistic than they were in my day, the issue is not as black and white as the above image indicates.

Now that I am a teacher I know that teachers, parents, and students are all responsible for a student’s education and results. Getting students through school is a team effort, and each member has to do his or her part. Therefore, all the blame for poor academic performance cannot be placed solely on the teacher or the student.

Having said that however, it’s true that there are “bad” teachers out there whose jobs are protected, and who keep on working long after they’ve burnt out and should have retired. They get to keep their jobs because of seniority, and the younger teachers are often let go, even if they have union protection. The unions can’t always protect you if the school can convince them that they don’t need you anymore and can give your duties to another teacher.

This happens all the time. It has happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to colleagues, many of whom are extremely capable and popular teachers.

Whenever someone suggests to me that teachers have it too easy, I tell them that they should consider becoming a teacher. If it’s that easy and you get off work early and get all those vacations off, then what are you waiting for? It sounds fantastic, right? Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Most people, actually, because teaching is hard. Teaching well is even harder.

Adventures in Teaching Poetry

“Don’t do it,” my English teacher colleague said. “They can’t handle poetry.”

I’ve been wanting to do a poetry unit with my first year English students for quite some time. As I’m sure most readers are aware, poetry is one of my biggest passions and I wanted to share it with them. This is despite the fact that the average age in the group is sixteen and they could very well be bored to tears, as my colleague assured me they would be.

On the contrary, a lot of them really seemed to get into it, and it think it’s because of my enthusiasm for poetry. It really rubbed off on them. The same thing can be said about most subjects; if you’re exited about it then they’ll get exited about it, no matter what it is. And I made my students exited about poetry.

I introduced the subject by showing them a few of my own pieces, and had them try writing their own. I showed them how to write a haiku and had them give it a go. Some of them chose to write longer pieces too, which of course pleases me immensely. There was one boy who kept writing more and more pieces. He’d write one and turn it in, and then a few minutes later he’d bring up another one. He said it was hard to stop once he got going and I said that writing poetry is sometimes like that, almost like a drug.

They are now working on an assignment that entails choosing an well-known English or American poet and writing some brief details about his or her background. They are then to read one of their chosen poet’s pieces to the class. They’ve chosen Shakespeare, T.S.Elliot, Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Byron, Keats, Whitman, Oscar Wilde, etc, etc., some of the most brilliant human beings ever to walk the planet.

Maybe some of them were bored to tears, but I’m still glad I did this lesson. If by doing so I have kindled the poetic flame in one or two of them, then that’s absolutely wonderful.

For anyone thinking of becoming a high school teacher…

Remember that to be a teacher is to be despised,
You’ll be hated by your students
And by parents, criticized.

You are never thanked when grades high, though,
You are always blamed
When grades are low.

You’ll learn to face a room full of indifferent teens,
Trying to engage them
By almost any means.

Ignore their rolling eyes that look at you and mock.
And pay no attention when
They keep watching the clock.

Just remember that your job is for the greater.
They may hate you now
But they’ll appreciate you later.

The Teacher’s Lament

This was written during a time when I still took it personally when my students asked me if I minded if they blew off my lesson and left early. Now I’m not bothered as much. After all, I’m only a teacher, not a real human being with feelings.

You have some time today, I see.
Your teacher’s canceled Chemistry.
My class won’t start till three-thirty.
And would it be okay with me,
Since there’s some place you’d rather be,
You ask, I hope, facetiously,
Whether I would mind terribly,
If you skipped my class and left early.
I try not to take it personally,
But it’s very plain for me to see,
You don’t care about the class or me,
But I know you want me to agree,
And so I do, but quite sadly.