In this episode, I'm going to share with you my interview with a Burned-In Teacher University student, and member Melissa. My heart broke as she shared her story - she had so many challenges coming at her from multiple places in her life, but she kept trying and she continued to show up for herself and her students as she tried to find the right fit for her.
I know that many of you are going to relate to her burnout story. I really appreciated how real and raw she was about the challenges she has faced both professionally and personally, and how she decided to change her perspective and really think deeply about what she can do to change her own reality.
I’m just so excited for this interview (I know I say that every single time) but each interview I do with a Burned-In Teacher student proves that this program - Burned-In Teacher University - was built for different teachers going through different challenges. You can use the strategies and steps along the way that you feel would best support you in your season of hardship. There’s always a way for you to use these strategies to help you to move forward rather than stay stuck in your burnout. From Melissa’s story, you’ll see that this program was built for teachers like you and me who don’t want to leave teaching, but we know that things aren’t going the way we hoped and we just need help.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to Melissa. She’s currently teaching 1st grade and is in her 12th year of teaching. Here's how she described her burnout story in just a couple of sentences:
“It started when I was placed to teach pre-K at a head start center, I had a terrible relationship with my co-teacher, and I was bullied and harassed at another school. A few years later when my two-year-old niece was diagnosed with leukemia, it became even worse.”
Melissa shares with us her deeply personal and traumatic experience with her niece and how she handled it at the moment and how she’s going to handle future hardships as they come up because as a Burned-In Teacher, we know that it’s not sunshine and rainbows all the time, but there are steps we can take to set us up for success for when these challenges do come up in our lives.
Amber: Melissa, thank you so much for joining us in The Burned-In Teacher Podcast to share your story of being burned out to becoming Burned-In!
Tell us a little bit about you as a teacher and a little about you outside of the classroom.
Melissa: I grew up in Miami, and then I moved to Pensacola, Florida. Eventually, I moved to Dallas, Texas when my oldest niece was born because my brother needed help raising a little girl. Right now I have three nieces. They are seven, four, and two weeks.
I’ve been teaching for 12 years, and I've taught everything in an elementary setting except for 3rd and 5th grade. And I’m currently teaching 1st grade in Dallas.
Amber: That was a connection that you and I both had - you've taught kindergarten and first grade and I've taught kindergarten and first grade, as well as multiple other grade levels like you, have.
Tell us a little bit about your burnout story. I’ve heard it and it's heartbreaking, but I know that it will resonate with other burned-out teachers who have something outside of teaching that really was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Melissa: Most of my burnout started back when I was in my seventh year of teaching when I was teaching pre-K. At the time, my co-teacher was very mean and confrontational and would talk about me all the time to everyone - it was just a very hostile environment. This is when I really started to notice that I was getting stuck in that spiral of burnout.
Then when my niece, Madeline, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) leukemia. She went through three rounds of chemo and had a bone marrow transplant, and this is really where my burnout started because I struggled with balancing it all. At the time, I went from being single to a full-time parent of a four-year-old (my niece), and being a teacher and a parent at the same time was a hard transition for me. Normally people have time to prepare themselves to become a parent - I had a day.
My niece had two rounds of chemo and when she went into remission, we were so happy and everything was fantastic. Everything just got better - it got better at school and I got better at teaching.
Our world crashed again when she relapsed. And this time wasn’t good - the news wasn’t good, and the reports weren’t good. My niece actually ended up being on a trial drug that took her ability to walk for a while. This week, she finally went into remission! But I remember being at school one day and having one of the worst days ever because one of the kids in the room next to my niece had died - he had the same kind of leukemia my niece had. I just broke down in my classroom during my planning period, and when my colleagues found out, they went and told on me and I got written up about it. I would come into work every day struggling with dealing with Madeline’s situation, and then I would get written up. It was almost like they were trying to use the write-ups to get rid of me.
Last year, when Madeline was getting her radiation and chemo, I had a horrible year. I just couldn’t handle everything. At the time, my sister-in-law was texting me - I was sort of my sister-in-law’s only contact - and she would need me to talk through and help her make decisions about Madeline. It was so hard. I would be telling her what to do and getting updates and then I’d have to teach. Planning went out the window. I was so frustrated all the time and mad all the time and I was very short with my students.
My burnout was the worst last year because I really didn’t want to teach, I didn’t want to be in the classroom, I just wanted to be with Madeline. At one point last year, Madeline only had a 5% chance of survival. And that was very hard on me. At the time, my burnout looked like I did not want to be there, crying all the time, being very short with the kids, and just not happy at all. I would get angry and I would get frustrated. I was just completely burned out and done, and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore and I thought I had to quit.
But my mom, one day, told me to go out and do some research before I quit and I went on Pinterest and that's where I found you. And at first, I was hesitant because it was a little expensive for my budget, but it was so worth it. Just do it, it’s worth the investment. And decided that I’m worth the investment and I decided that I was done with the school I was in and it was just my time to find a different school I just put everything into the Burned-In Process and I feel so much better.
And just as a little update, Madeline has had her second bone marrow transplant and she's getting better every day. She still has mobility issues, walking but not like a regular child. She's our miracle.
Amber: Wow, that is a lot, Melissa.
One thing that I took away from what you just explained is that when you had Madeline’s older sister in your care, she was going through trauma too. You two were going through this trauma together and trying to process these things. And as the adult, you are trying to nurture her and be there for her, but who’s there for Melissa?
Melissa: That was the hard part.
Amber: You know, I can relate to you - but definitely not as traumatic of a situation. Back in 2011, I went through a traumatic experience with my uncle. And it made me someone I did not know. Trauma changes you.
And I remember that I would get into crying fits where I just couldn’t stop. But what’s different in my situation is that I had people in my school that rose up to the occasion and helped take care of me. I was in a very supportive situation, but - in your situation - they didn’t show you any empathy or support at all.
Melissa: It was actually the complete opposite. They would tell me to just get over it. I remember one person telling me, It’s not like it’s your kid and I remember thinking How would you feel? There was no empathy, no understanding, no sympathy.
Amber: I’m so sorry that was your experience. I know that there are teachers that can relate to what’s happened to you, and I appreciate how open you’ve been about what’s happened to you.
So I know that last summer, you made a transition to change schools again. During the group coaching calls, you were worried about switching districts because you were worried that what you were experiencing would happen in the new district.
Melissa: I was terrified of the principles - and I still am - but I’m trying to be trusting. I took your advice when you said Trust a little bit at a time and things have been much better - and all of this is because of my burnout and because of my trauma.
I am still scared to do anything wrong - I worry that even the smallest mistake will get me put on an improvement plan again.
Amber: I can relate to that to the PTSD that you have from certain leaders - there's probably a better way to put that but it is like post-traumatic stress disorder. And my fears from instances with past administrators caused me to have a really open conversation with my new principal last year. I told her If I ever do anything or say anything that you’re unsure about or that you don’t understand, please come to me right away. I’m an open book and I’d never say anything disrespectful or upsetting on purpose she really appreciated that I went and talked with her. That comes from just trusting a little bit at a time and being open and honest at the beginning about what you need in order to feel successful.
Melissa: I still have days where I am worried. I’ve talked about this during the group coaching calls before - I’m worried that I’m slipping back into my burnout and being the person I was before, but I think that it’s just me being a perfectionist - you know, Perfectionist Patti!
Amber: You are so self-aware of your own past patterns, and that's a good thing because you're able to catch yourself if you start to fall back into those negative patterns that set you up for failure. And you’re also able to set yourself up for success as well. Through your burnout, you’ve become a stronger, more self-aware person and you know what your core values are and you know what you want.
And, as someone who has gone through this process, when you recognize that when things are hard for you, you know that you need to stop right away and ask yourself, What’s triggering this?
Melissa: Right. And a lot of times - as much as I hate to admit it - it goes back to Madeline and I don't want it to. My principal last year would say to me, You have to leave your problems at the door, you can’t bring them here. And I struggled with that.
But in my burnout, I realized that I had to fix myself. I realized that something was wrong with me and my habits. I was not the teacher that I would want my nieces to have. And that’s what made me join Burned-In Teacher because I want to be the teacher that parents want their kids to be taught by.
Amber: I just about got emotional because I go there too. I’m an aunt, too, and a mom, and I consistently come back to, If my daughter was sitting here, would I want her teacher to talk to her that way? I think that is such a healthy place to come from because you want to be the teacher that you’d love to have, right? And this all comes back to your Teacher Brand, the legacy you’re leaving and how you want your kids to remember you.
Melissa: And that's part of the reason why I came into this process because I realized that I needed to fix myself. When I was switching schools I would often think It’s them, but then I realized that it’s me and I needed to fix myself. I needed to fix what I’m doing because if I’m going from school to school, I’m bringing my burnout with me. I realized that, If I wanted things to get better, I needed to fix myself, not them.
Amber: You and you're absolutely right. And that's not to say that everything is your fault because your burnout really is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. And you are taking responsibility, you are noticing patterns and you know that the only thing that we can change in a situation is us and our habits, whether it be our teaching practices or our perspective. That is something that's so hard for so many of us, it was hard as hell for me to try to change those things because it was easy for me to blame everybody else.
Melissa: Right? It was easy for me to say, It's just the principal's fault or It’s the assistant principal's fault or It's my teammates' fault, but then I started doing some deep digging and going through this process and I realized that it’s me, I need to fix me.
Amber: And that’s a really hard thing to admit to, right?
For the listeners, I want to be clear that sometimes you’re just not a good fit for where you are. And I think that it’s really phenomenal that you kept trying to find your place, you kept trying something different amidst all the trauma that was happening in your life. And it sounds like you’ve used some strategies to balance your emotions and process the hardships. I know you’ve had some things happen this year that we’ve laughed off together and talked through how to move on and to have open conversations with your principal, and it seems like things have been really successful for you.
Melissa: Definitely. I feel more comfortable, I feel happier. I don't have a short fuse anymore. I feel more comfortable in my own skin.
Amber: I’m so glad to hear that.
You've already - without me even asking - laid out so many of the benefits and the changes that you have made in your life. You even mentioned that it was an investment for you.
Melissa: The course was one of the best things that I've ever invested in. It really changed my every day because I was miserable, I hated going to work, and I hated getting out of bed in the morning. I was crying all the time and I knew I had to do something because I was even starting to get frustrated around Natalie - my niece I was taking care of. I was burned out everywhere.
Amber: Is there anything else that you'd like to share about your transformation, maybe something that you do every day that is helping you to take one step forward, or is there one big light bulb moment that you'd like to share with everybody about your experience with Burned-In Teacher?
Melissa: Batching your time. Part of my burnout was the lack of planning and not having the resources that I needed when I was teaching. When I’m not prepared, I feel uncomfortable and frustrated. That part of the program really helped me gain an understanding of what I need to do and when I should do it. I’m no longer spending every night or the weekends working. Instead, I’m able to spend that time with my family.
I really appreciated the support in not only identifying my weaknesses but then having the support in solving them. You were able to provide me with the steps that I needed to fix it.
Amber: I really appreciate how willing you are to be very open and honest and you've done all of this work in the midst of a lot of personal challenges and professional challenges. You are the epitome of the exact person that I want to help - you were willing to address the hard stuff so that you could do better for the sake of your own well-being and to create sustainability in your career. We're losing teachers every single day because they don't know where to start.
Melissa: Right? This gave me the tools that I needed to fix the things that needed to be fixed. And, it's not perfect. We have days where it just doesn't work but I have strategies that I can lean on in those moments.
Amber: I know you know this, but I want to say this for all of the listeners out there - the process is not about perfection. The process is about growth and that looks different for everyone.
Melissa, you have really done a very good job of sharing all of the growth that you've experienced personally and professionally. Thank you so much, Melissa, for spending your time with us today and sharing your journey. We really really appreciate it.