Recovery from teacher burnout is something that I know a little bit about through first-hand experiences with feelings of overwhelm, isolation, and utter defeat that comes with being burned out. You see, my teacher burnout caused me to leave teaching not once, but TWICE and it’s through those messy moments that I was able to recover, to better myself, and to return to teaching (twice) and LOVE it!
So, this episode is going to be a little different - I’m going to divulge with you my journey of recovery from teacher burnout by sharing with you an interview that I did for my good friend’s podcast.
My good friend Alexa Shepard, from The AfroEducator on Instagram, met close to four years ago, and since then she and I have become really great friends. She's been on the podcast a couple of times and Alexis has had me on her podcast - The AfroEducator Podcast - a couple of times as well, and she asked me to be on the podcast again because of a conversation that she and I were having on Marco Polo about our journeys and what brought us to where we are. During our conversation she was like, I've got to bring you back on the podcast and ask you some of these questions! She asked some amazing questions and really pulled a lot out of me about my very messy journey from leaving teaching twice and returning twice and everything in between, so I asked her if she could share that interview with me so I could share it with you all!
In this episode, you’re going to hear me get really vulnerable about how much shame was behind all of these changes that happened in my life and teaching career, especially from the years of 2014 through 2016. I felt like it was really important that you hear sort of what was happening backstage while all of these changes were happening very publicly. I want to help you to understand how hard it was on me mentally and emotionally to go through these changes and to essentially make mistakes and fail publicly. If you've been listening to the podcast for a while, you've maybe heard me talk about my very emotional breakdown back in 2014 which triggered me to decide to leave the school that I was in for eight years. You've maybe even heard me talk about the fact that I left that teaching position to take on a role as an executive director of a nonprofit that I was at long enough to close. You may have heard me talk about those things or talk about what happened, but I haven’t really gone in depth on how I felt and all the crying, how hard it was and the stories I was telling myself, and how it made me who I am today. There was a lot happening behind the scenes and I really want to share this with you because I don't for a second want you to think that making a transition or change is easy, or perfect, or without feeling like you failed a little bit. Life is messy and no one has all the answers. Know that nothing's perfect and changes bring challenges - some of which are roadblocks while others are speed bumps. And I you to know that I've been there and you're not alone. So let's dive into this interview with Alexis. I can't wait for you to hear about all the messiness that I've been through on this journey.
Alexis: Amber, thank you so much for coming back onto the show. You know, I look up to you so much. We are friends, but I also see you as a mentor because I admire you so much. So much of what you do and what you have done for me has been such an instrumental part of my journey.
Amber: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. It's been a long time since we got to actually speak face-to-face live. I see you almost every day on Marco Polo, but it's really nice to get this one-on-one time with you.
Alexis: Exactly! And if y'all don't use Marco Polo, I highly recommend it. It allows you to have asynchronous video conversations with your friends, and it has been the primary way that Amber and I have been connected for the past three or four years. We've actually never met in person, but we are BFFs we are determined that this is going to happen. I have a goal this year to meet in person, I think the world might legitimately explode when that happens! We just see eye-to-eye on so many things and I think helped to sharpen one another in our journeys.
So I invited Amber on the show back when I first started the podcast to talk about trendy self-care versus real self-care, and at that point, Amber was actually at a different stage in her own journey than she is now. So I invited her back on to the podcast, because she is one of those rare unicorns, at least in my space, where she has left teaching not once but twice and has gone back twice and is currently teaching. I thought this is a great way to not only bring in the K 12 educator teacher piece but also to talk about the larger aspect of the journey and doing what's right for you in your particular season.
Amber, for the folks who maybe don't follow you or haven't heard your story, just give us a synopsis of how you got to where you are now.
Amber: So right now I teach kindergarten. I’ve only been teaching Kindergarten for a year and a half, but I actually started teaching back in 2007 in a different district as a first-grade teacher.
I have ridden the roller coaster of burnout over and over again, and I have made a lot of changes in my career. As you and I have talked about before, being a teacher is not who I am, it’s what I do.
To share a little about me outside of teaching, I am married to my high school sweetheart and we've been married for almost 19 years. We have two girls, a 21-year-old who is a college student at IU Bloomington and a 14-year-old. We really are living the dream. My husband is a principal in the same district where I work and we love being active; we love hiking and we love traveling to national parks. And I love what I do with Burned-In Teacher, and I feel like all of that contributes to how content I am now for the first time ever in my career with teaching.
Alexis: So you talk about being content in your journey with teaching and certainly, your time as a teacher has been a journey because you've been teaching for technically 14 years, but all 14 of those years have not been continuous. There have been some breaks in there.
So let's dive into those breaks, especially this most recent one because you have relatively recently returned to the classroom. Can you share a little bit about your decision to leave the first time, you know what you did after that, and then your decision to leave the second time and how now you are back and loving it?
Amber: Yeah and I think the first time I was on your show, I talked about my journey, so I’ll give a synopsis of what it looked like leaving and returning twice
So the first time that I left was in the winter of 2014 into 2015, I left midyear. I left that position because I had a really embarrassing breakdown in front of my co-works that fall and I knew that something had to change. At that point, I realized that I was the one that needed to change and that I needed to change my environment, which are two things that have to change with you’re struggling with burnout.
I had ridden the roller coaster of burnout for so many years and it just all came to a head in October of 2014, which is when I started to look for different jobs and was hired as an executive director at an educational nonprofit. I thought this change was going to be awesome - it was an educational nonprofit, I was still able to work in schools, and I got to try new things. I just knew it was going to be exciting, and for a hot minute, it was.
So I left the classroom in December, as winter break was starting, and then I started this new role at the beginning of January 2015. And I was really good at it. I found a real knack for business, which I never thought I would have. But unfortunately, about a month and a half in they were in severe financial trouble. You see, they had lost all of their funding but kept running like everything was the same, which was problematic. So I was there 6 months, which was just long enough to close it.
Before you hit record for this episode, you asked if there was shame involved at all, and I want to get into that a little bit. As I closed the non-profit at the end of July 2015 and took on a role as a teacher because at that point I was saying telling myself, What else can I do? At that point, I had tried to do something different and I failed, so I decided that I was just going to go back into the classroom. I got a position in a different district teaching first grade, which is coincidentally the same district I'm working in now. I love this district.
So I returned to the classroom in the fall of 2015, and the first few months were great. I had decided that I was going to put blinders on and just do my work and leave. But unfortunately, that's not how it worked. I ended up totally burned out, again, and totally frustrated with my situation in that specific school.
In the spring of 2016, I was lucky enough to attend a Google conference here in Indiana. The district I was in had a big technology initiative. At that time they were one-to-one, and they had been for a long time K through 12. Attending that Google Summit inspired me to become a Google Certified Educator. I wanted to be that person with the badges leading breakout sessions and I wanted to inspire teachers the way that I felt inspired.
And after that conference, Burned-In Teacher was in my head because I was feeling 180 degrees differently from the way I was feeling before the conference - totally burned out and not wanting to be in the classroom anymore. But after this conference, I couldn't wait to get to school the next day. In the past, I had been to many conferences, but I had never felt that level of excitement or that motivation as I did in this particular one.
So within six months, I was Google Level 1 certified, and by the end of the next year, I was Level 2 Certified and I was a Google Trainer. I worked my butt off, and that's where I learned the power of finding something outside of teaching that can ignite you and how it has the ability to reinvigorate your love for teaching.
Also that year, I started blogging, I bought the domain Burned-In Teacher and I used Google Blog because I was using all of the Google tools to get good at them and so I could teach how to use them. And during that time I started telling my story and let go of the shame. I started having conversations that I was always so afraid to have because I was really ashamed of my story. And now that is totally different. Now I'm an open book regarding my story of burnout.
So then, I started leading Google Trainings in 2017 and became a Google Certified Innovator where I took Burned-In Teacher as my project. I started leading training sessions for schools and districts, especially at our educational nonprofit in the city where we live now. But I started having to say “No” to a lot of opportunities, so in the spring of 2018, I told Jeff, Instead of saying ‘No’ to these opportunities, and saying ‘Yes’ to teaching, I think I'm going say ‘Yes’ to these opportunities. So we talked about it for a while and figured, that since I already had things on the books that I could say “Yes” to, why not? So this time I left teaching, not because of burnout or a breakdown, but because I wanted to see what I could do with Burned-In Teacher.
So, I left the classroom again in 2018 to take the GoogleTraining route and work on Burned-In Teacher to build my website and create my course and write my book, and build a community to support burned-out teachers. But you see, I’m an extrovert, I love being connected, I love working with people, and I love being up and around and busy. When I was in college, I was a server at Texas Roadhouse, and it is still my favorite job to this day.
Alexis: Y'all, this is exclusive because I've been friends with this woman for four years, and I never knew this! So please, do continue…
Amber: I just love being up and around and greeting people and the: How can I help you with this? Yes, let me get that for you. You know, I can carry three glasses of anything in one hand - I'm very proud of that! But in all honestly, I loved the interaction and that's what I love about teaching, and that’s what I really missed when I was working from home. At first, working from home sounded really sexy and cool, but in the end, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. The grass was not as green as I thought it would be.
Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the work, but I didn’t love working alone - it was just me and Oliver every day. But a dog is not a team of teachers. A dog is not a classroom full of students. So I really started to explore teaching positions, which the list of teaching opportunities just continues to grow, and I told Jeff in the spring of 2021 that I was going to apply for this kindergarten position. Jeff had actually been a principal there in the past and I knew a lot of teachers and the current principal (who I get along with), and he was like Are you sure you want to do both? And I was like, Yeah, I think I do. So I applied and I got the job and I have never looked back. I've not regretted it once; it has been the best decision that I've ever made career-wise.
Alexis: A lot of what you said I already know, but hearing it back in this synopsis kind of form, just really, to me, highlights your willingness and courage to take on the process. And I think that's one of the things about you and your journey that inspires me the most because I am very much a results-oriented type of person. I always share that I have done a lot of DIY projects, but I have this love-hate relationship with it because I'm only going through the process because I have a very clear idea of what I want this end result to be. And I know either through research or just by a gut feeling that I'm not going to get what I want unless I do it myself.
And what's funny is that, over the years, the process has evolved. When I started my DIY journey, I would try to cut corners and do things as quickly and cheaply as possible, but through the process, you learn to take your time. But I have always been very resistant to the process and the discomfort of the process and I think that's where you sharpen me. In your story, it's so evident that you are not afraid to pivot and do what feels right for you based on the season that you're in at that time.
I also love that your story, especially the pieces about leaving teaching, wasn’t about leaving teaching because you hated it or were burned out, you just were in a different season where you wanted to be able to give different answers to opportunities. You wanted to be able to go all in with Burned-In Teacher or you had the self-awareness to know that you needed to change your environment. That piece sticks out to me and it makes me correlate this idea of self-care to a process, and I feel like those are almost two juxtaposing ideas because the process is often uncomfortable, and messy. And I think a lot of the messaging that's out there about self-care and wellness and mindfulness seems very aesthetic, right? It seems very pleasing and comforting. And your story definitely isn't that and the fact that you stick with what feels right for you is unique, and awe-inspiring, and that's the primary reason that I wanted to have you back onto the podcast because I think sometimes we get caught up in these limiting beliefs that once we pick something, we have to stay in that lane for a little while, even if we don't feel like it because there are these messages that we receive that say, Just hang in there. I think there's a time and place for those messages, but I think we have to be careful about how we communicate them.
Amber: Absolutely. It’s so interesting, as you were like describing my journey, you basically just laid out exactly what Burned-In Teacher is about and that's what I'm trying to get other teachers to understand is that we don't have to have all of the answers. And yes, we can sometimes just go with our gut or follow our heart (sometimes, you know, that can be dangerous), but it can be done with guided flexibility and careful/constructive risk-taking. But it is messy.
And for me, there was also a lot of shame involved. When I left mid-year I felt very ashamed, I was very close with the families that I was working with and the kids and I had a wonderful community built up in our classroom. My desire to leave had nothing to do with them, but I was still ashamed and embarrassed about leaving, but I knew that I needed to do it at that point that season in my life.
I was extremely ashamed and embarrassed when I had to close the nonprofit because it looked like it was my fault. And I failed very publicly. It was in the newspaper. My picture was on the front page of the newspaper as the face of this nonprofit that was closing six months after I had taken on this role. That was just mortifying. I was so ashamed and there was no way I could go back to the district that I left, that’s why I applied at a different district, but I was still so ashamed to even show my face there because they knew about my failure. That was really hard. Not only did I go back with the shame of failing so publicly, but I was also ashamed that I had tried something different and failed. I felt like it was set in stone that I was destined to just be a teacher, that that was all that was in the cards for me. But right now, I am so content with being “just a teacher”. I think I've got it made.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen the movie Moana, but I feel like that movie was made for me because, like Moana, I just want to see how far I could go. I just wanted to push myself to see all of the things that I'm capable of.
I just tried and failed so hard, but I just felt like I was being called to do something with my burnout story and what I had gone through. And it turns out that everything that happened when I left mid-year happened for me. Closing that nonprofit led to me taking on a new role in my now-current district, and eventually going to that Google conference. Alexis had I not taken these risks and fallen on my face, I would not be here. All of those things were part of my journey. And it was messy and ugly and unsexy. And I cried A LOT. And I wondered A LOT. This is what I want for other people. Do I want other people to feel like failures? Absolutely not, but I wouldn't be where I am in my career as a teacher and I wouldn't be the person that I am today had it not been for all of that hardship before. And it turns out that a lot of the beliefs I have now about myself as a person and myself as a teacher have shifted because I have seen so much and I've done so much and I've met so many incredible people along the way.
I'm so grateful for that messy, hard journey. I want to show other teachers, maybe not even just teachers, I want to show everybody that this one life is messy. It doesn't have to be linear, it doesn't have to be super well-planned. Yes, we need to be responsible, but we also shouldn’t put a cap on our abilities.
See how far you can go. Go out and find what your life’s work really is.
Alexis: When you speak, I hear and I think about the way that this is coming together for me. There is a level of competence and clarity that you have from having gone through the process that allows you to show up the way that you show up now because you did stretch yourself. And even though you failed and even though you felt shame and embarrassment around that incident at that time, being on the other side of that now you have this confidence of knowing that you will make it through and there still be a positive impact on the other side.
Then there's also this level of clarity that you have about what you're doing now as well. There's so much that comes from the messiness of the process. I'm very much in a season, myself of really learning to lean into the process and to embrace it, and it is very affirming and reassuring. We’re always in the process, but it’s so empowering to be connected with someone who has been through their own process. We've been friends for a short three or four-year timeframe, and it’s been helpful because you feel like you're not alone and you're also almost given permission. And it’s not that you needed the permission, but it's always nice to know that you can make it through this because someone has been through it before.
Yes, it's messy, and it's hard, but there is something that comes from that. I feel like so many of us struggle with limiting beliefs that keep us boxed into teaching, not that I'm saying that it's bad to want to continue to teach. There's something to be said for feeling confident that you could leave that classroom and do anything if you felt so led, or that you could step back into that classroom as the next best version of yourself for you and your students.
Amber: Right. What I tell a lot of teachers that I work with is that number one, this is a season, and number two, this hardship is not forever. It’s not about being toxically positive and saying We’re going to get through this together or It’s going to make you a stronger person. At that moment when you are at rock bottom, you feel like you don’t have any power and that you don’t have the strength to pull through, so what I say instead during those seasons is: I see you. I’ve been there, and I have no guarantee that this won’t happen again but I’m here to listen. I understand what it feels like to be powerless and I want to be that model of hope so teachers know that there is hope.
So if right now, leaving teaching is the best decision for you, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you have to leave the classroom forever. It’s also okay if you just want to love teaching 2nd grade again. No matter what your goal is, it’s awesome and we can work towards it together. Let’s see what we can do. There are so many options, and you don’t have to remain where you are. I’m living proof of that. I’ve left teaching twice, returned twice, and taught in different districts and grade levels.
There are so many lessons to be learned through a messy journey. One of my favorite quotes is If you don't if it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you. For so long, I was fighting against the challenge, rather than embracing it and thinking about how it was changing me. And who's to say, if I was the person with the beliefs that I have now and the confidence that I have now, that I would have gone back to that first district and be fine and have a blast? Who's to say? I don't know, but I know that there's been a lot of changes that have happened over the past seven/eight years had I not gone through that ugliness and that hardship.
Alexis: This is going to be a big question, and I’m not expecting you to have the “end all, be all” answer. But the thing that I think about is how do you start to embrace the process? How do you start to develop some acceptance around the messiness of what that looks like, especially when we so often don’t see the process, especially on social media? I think there’s a little bit more of a trend, now, of people being more transparent and authentic, but in general, you see folks who are curating an image of their lifestyle and of their process. So with all of that in mind, can you talk about it from your perspective or just your opinion in general, how do you start to become okay with the messiness of the process?
Amber: So I can't answer that question without talking about my own process that I walk teachers through in my book and in my course, and that is to, number one, begin where you are. Embrace the idea, and maybe the reality, that you are where you are, and stop fighting it. Lean into it. Accept it. And that's something that I refuse to do for so long. I just couldn’t admit it, I just kept my blinders on and put on a happy face. And it was during that breakdown that I had in 2014 that I really accepted that I was not okay. I actually think that one of my very first blog posts was about me admitting that I was burned out, hurting, and struggling and what I could do about it - what was my responsibility. Burnout is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. No one else is going to come in and save you, and that's what I kept waiting on. I kept waiting for a different principal. I kept on waiting for a different assistant principal. I kept on waiting for policies to change or for our superintendent to make a difference. I kept waiting and waiting and blaming and victimizing. All of that toxic BS kept dragging me down further into the depths of burnout when I could have done things differently. Instead, I could have been saying, All right, I am burned out, So what's my next move? What can I do differently? What do I need to learn? What do I need to explore? At that point, I just wanted to get out, but I did not process it in a healthy way.
The next step would be to reflect on how long you have been feeling the way you are. Is it just a quick season? Or is it something that you’ve been dealing with for the entire year (or years)? It is because of a change in administration or curriculum? Have you changed grade levels? Had a baby? Take the time to reflect on what could be keeping you stuck in burnout, how long you’ve been experiencing those feelings, and what triggers them. The reason that doing this is important and healthy, is that you are giving yourself the space to backtrack and reflect, something that we don’t give ourselves time to do because we are constantly going. That was certainly not something that I was doing. I was focused on the misery of now.
And I think that the act of reflection itself helps us to embrace the messiness because it’s helping us to unpack where the messiness started. Ask yourself: When was I happy? When was I happy in this role? When was the last time I felt content? Reflecting on those questions, I never really felt that way in the first school I was in. There was always something happening and some sort of turmoil or drama that kept dragging me down. The first year I was teaching there, I had a terribly toxic team, so there was never any time during the first eight years I was teaching that I felt like I was “good”. There was always something. So, it turns out I really did need to leave that environment, and I just wish I would have seen all the signs, but at that point, I was so in it that I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. It really wasn’t a good place for me, but I kept fighting to stay there because it was so close to my house and that’s where my family was - I had so many excuses I was telling myself that were keeping me stuck.
Alexis: Right. That’s that classic feeling of when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of the change, and I can see where that resistance would come from in you. And I can also recognize in me that the resistance to the process comes from the fact that there’s going to be difficulty in the mess and you’re going to struggle. It’s like you’re almost trying to avoid dealing with that.
And I think that there comes a point, though, where you are so ready for whatever that next thing is and you are willing to go through the process in order to get to that result, or change, or whatever is on the other side. As you said, your burnout is not necessarily your fault, but it is your responsibility, and I do think that there is a level of accountability that we have to take as individuals in exacerbating that as well because there are limiting beliefs or narratives that we tell ourselves that perpetuate burnout cycles when we tell ourselves: I'm just in this miserable position, so I'm just going to continue to be miserable, it is what it is. You have to get to a point where you are willing to look yourself in the mirror and say, Something has to be different because I don't want to keep struggling and telling myself this same narrative. That leads me to the piece that you're talking about, which boils down to mindfulness and having this deep knowing of self that allows you to act in a way that serves you.
Amber: Yes, and I've had that conversation with myself twice, if not more. One of those times was in 2014 just after I had that breakdown when I realized that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Jeff was so tired of me crying and he was so tired of me complaining and venting and I don't blame him. I was tired of it too! But at the time, there didn't seem to be any other way of being.
Before I had that breakdown I just vented and complained and blamed and victimized. But after I had that breakdown, I realized I had to do something different because I couldn’t keep living the way I was. That's when I made the decision to find a job and leave. And then I had that same conversation with myself after I went back to the classroom the first time. There was a situation, after my first year of being there, where I realized that I was right back where I was before. Different districts, different schools, different leaders, different teams, but here I am again, complaining, venting, and victimizing. That’s when I understood that I was part of the problem and there was a lot to unpack, and that was right before I went to that Google conference, or maybe it was right when I started blogging. This was when Burned-In was just a name on my blog, it was a prayer turned into a process.
Another important step to take is to understand your teacher brand. This was where I had to work on and raise my self-awareness. I did a lot of thought-catching, reflecting, and paying attention to the things that I was saying because that was destroying me. And it was destroying my career. It was destroying my love for what I did. And it’s really hard to change your beliefs and your habits around what you think and say every day. That's why I say the process is simple, but it's not easy. There really is a lot of internal work to do before we can even get to the external changes that need to happen.
Alexis: I cannot wait to turn what you just said into an Instagram post - you said the process is simple, but not easy. I just feel like I need to sit with that and swirl that around a little bit because I think that's so poignant. And I think that's a perfect place to end our conversation. And for me to express my deepest gratitude for you spending time with us today.
Alexis is a former middle school English teacher. She used her experience with burnout early in her career to create The AfroEducator, where she strives to empower teachers to challenge the good teacher narrative so they can show up as their most authentic selves.