Happy New Year! I'm so excited to share the first episode of the brand-new year with you!
In an effort to help to inspire you in this brand-spankin’ new year of 2023, I thought it'd be a perfect time to introduce you to my friend Amy. Amy is a Burned-In Teacher University student. She's been teaching for 16 and a half years and is currently working as an autistic support teacher in grades K through three. As she shares her story, my fellow Burned and Bored teachers - those of you who are figuring out what you really want to do in your career - out there will totally relate to her story. If you’re feeling like you’re stuck in a rut and you’re wondering how to get where you want to be in your life and career, then this episode is for you!
Amy was burned out for years and she didn't even know it. As she tells her story, you’ll be able to identify that she had a desire for change, but she just was so afraid to take that leap because she was comfortable. Do you find yourself wondering how to embrace change and go for what you what? Career changes for a teacher can be scary, but when it’s aligned with your values and what you really want out of your career and life, then it’s worth it! I have been there before! I especially felt that way back in the years 2011 through 2014. During that time I was just really comfortable with my day-to-day, and yet I was miserable. If you've been listening for a while, then you may already know that part of my burnout journey.
All right, without further ado, let me introduce you to my friend Amy. I cannot wait for you to hear her story.
Amber: Amy, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I'm so excited to hear your story! So tell us a little bit about you.
Amy: I'm so excited to be here! I'm a big fan! I am a special education teacher, but as we know, being in special ed, you wear many, many hats and you teach many different students. The term “special ed”, to me, is pretty broad as I feel like I have done learning support, I’ve done emotional support, I’ve done life skills, and I’ve worked with multiple disabilities. Currently, I'm an autistic support teacher. In my district we have a tiered program, So I have the student that needs the most intensive support.
I have been a special ed teacher for going on 17 years.
Amber: I can’t believe you’ve been in special ed for 17 years. You're an angel!
Amy: There's also been a few breaks in there - my maternity breaks and whatnot. At my current district, just got my 15-year recognition. For 12 of those years, I was at one school and I’m currently at an elementary school, and elementary seems to be where my heart really belongs. I loved middle school, but moving to elementary is a big part of my burned-out journey. Middle school is different than elementary school, it's just a totally different ballgame, but my heart is definitely in the elementary world.
After 12 years at the middle school, I started our program now in the elementary school.
Amber: How commendable to say that you have been doing this for 17 years. That's amazing.
Amy: It is amazing. The IEP process has changed so many times and the way we progress monitor has changed. I’ve had to learn many gen. Ed. programs that I had to be able to modify for the special ed program. It has been quite a journey, and what has led me here is that I really just love it
Amy: I also would love to hear too about Amy outside of teaching. What do you enjoy doing?
Amy: I have two kids, and they're very close in age. It's also really fun being a teacher-mom, for example when we have conferences and I have to sit on the other end of the table, it's very interesting.
Also, soon I'm actually running a half marathon. Running was something that was always on my bucket list, I don't know why. I don't really love to work out, but I love the feeling after I've got a good workout in. I work out pretty consistently over probably the past seven years. That's kind of what I do.
I also volunteer at my kids' schools. We're in a very interesting time of my kids are finding what they like. My daughter does horseback riding. I know more about horses than I could have ever imagined in all my years. And then my son's a big swimmer. I know more about swimming than I've ever known.
I love to read. I always say walking is my favorite exercise. We have an Australian Shepherd Dog, so she loves to go with me on our walks.
My sister and her husband live up the street and they have little ones, so whenever I need a baby fix or my sister needs help with something, I can be right there.
I also love to take naps.
Amber: I agree with you. They are such a luxury.
We have so many commonalities! I grew up with horses. I don't ride anymore, but I love talking to people who are in the horse world. I love to run. I’m a parent - my girls are older now, but I remember sitting on the other side of the table as a parent at parent-teacher conferences, and just it's a different experience.
Now that we know a little about you both inside and outside the school, tell us about your burnout story. What did that look like and feel like for you?
Amy: I wish I had found this podcast a long time ago because I was burned out and had no idea I was burned out. I was actually ready to leave teaching at one point, and that was pre-pandemic. I couldn't blame my burnout on the pandemic.
I didn't have any processes for any of my paperwork, which was really challenging, and part of it was my fault, but there was really nobody there to guide me in that. All my paperwork would just pile up and then it was due so I’d have to bring it all home. At that time, my kids were really little, my son was just a baby, and I would put on an episode of Blue’s Clues for the kids to watch and I would be on my computer trying to catch up.
I work in a small district with a good reputation so everybody was coming to us. The class sizes felt like they grew overnight, and we just kept growing and there were a lot of needs coming in. We were just changing all the time.
I always wanted to be in an elementary school, but I had a really supportive administration, and I built a great team of support staff, so even though I was suffering and unhappy, I would tell myself, This is easy, and you what you're doing. I'm a great teacher, I know how to teach all different abilities, likes, and dislikes, but I was so unhappy. I would wake up in the morning and just not want to go, and I’d tell myself that I have to go because I have a family at home that I'm supporting and I have people at work that are depending on me. When I would be out for even just a day, everyone would tell me, It wasn't the same without you. So then, I wasn't using my personal time. I was taking sick days when I was just really sick, or if my kids were sick - which you know a sick day with a kid is the least relaxing thing!
It was just such a time when I had the highest highs and I had the lowest lows. I wasn't managing anything, I was just flying by the seat of my pants, and I wanted something more for myself, but I didn't know if it was ever possible to actually have that.
I think that I've gone through all of the stages of burnout without really even knowing that I was going through it, really just pushed through to the other side.
But that's not what I want for me, especially now.
Amber: What was the breaking point that then caused you to choose to take that leap to the elementary school even though you and the people around you keep telling you that you needed to stay where you were at? People think they're paying us a compliment when they say, Gosh, it was so different when you weren't here, but they are almost accidentally guilting you into staying and making you feel like you can’t not be there because things will just turn into a dumpster fire. That puts extra pressure on you.
What caused you to go ahead and make that change?
Amy: I pretty much said, If I don't make a change now, I'm going to find a new job. I had talked to different people that I had trusted and had been there for a while and they were almost trying to talk me into staying and telling me, But next year will be better. At the time, I had been in my role for over a decade, and I was like, No. I went to my principal at the time and I told them that I was ready; we had talked about this before because different opportunities had come my way and I was always turning them down because I was stuck feeling comfortable. But at that point I finally said to myself, It's now or never. It was just one of those opportunities and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I was going to leave teaching, and I love being a teacher-mom.
I was only changing schools since I was staying in the same district, so that also made it a little bit easier. I knew I could still go back if I didn't like it.
Amber: That is so interesting. This seems like a common theme - even though people thought they were encouraging, they really were tearing you down, essentially. They were tearer-downers because they wanted you to be safe, they wanted you to stay the same.
Amy: I really had no other option.
The other thing I learned is that so many people depended on me, but I couldn't depend on anybody. I wasn't always getting the credit that I felt I deserved and it was such a dark time for me on the inside and I put on a great facade. On the outside, appeared happy, but really, I wanted more. I always wanted more, but I was able to talk myself into not wanting more and staying where I was.
Amber: I know how hard it is, and that was me when I taught third grade when I had that infamous breakdown. At the time, I kept telling myself, You can't want more. You shouldn't want more. Your kids go to the school and your husband teaches down the hall. You should be so happy, what is wrong with you? You're being so selfish! You should not want more! There is nothing more!
It just crushes you.
Amy: It does and that’s what was really happening. I was in a holding pattern.
Change is hard. In special ed, we always preach about flexibility and then here I was being so rigid and not wanting to take any chances or try something new even though it was best for me.
Oo one day, an opportunity fell in my lap, they were like: We're starting this new program and we know you’ve been wanting to move. What do you think?
And I was like, I'm in!
Amber: Good for you! So that was four years ago, but you didn't join Burned-In Teacher University four years ago.
I'm curious about what has happened in the last four years that caused you to find Burned-In Teacher.
Amy: What really happened that led me to Burned-In Teacher was I had the best summer of my life. I was so happy. I was setting boundaries. And on one of your podcast episodes, you made us set a goal for ourselves for the upcoming school year, so I set a goal that I wanted to enjoy my school year like I enjoyed my summer. So I asked myself, Okay, how do I do this? That’s when I found the Burned-In Teacher.
I needed help in setting boundaries. I needed help leaving on time I needed to know it was okay. I needed that reassurance because as a special ed teacher, I felt like I always needed to be there for my students or my families and I wasn’t turning myself “off”, and I just had enough.
I want to enjoy this job. So first I started with the podcast, that was enough for me. Then I did a deep dive and went into Burned-In Teacher University and just haven't looked back.
Amber: What steps resonated with you the most?
Amy: The batching and blocking have been the biggest game changer for me. I sat one day and I wrote down everything that I needed to do, everything from vacuuming my floors, to getting the laundry done, to IEP progress monitoring, to staff evaluations - everything I could possibly do that would make my life easier, and I know how well organized Amy runs!
I did all that and put them into little blocks, and then I set reminders in my phone - I called it “success for work” - and I do that before I leave on Friday so I know that my plans are done and everything is ready to go so when I walk in Monday morning, for the most part, it’s there and we can get going.
Amber: That’s amazing! I know exactly what you're talking about - that feeling when you leave on Friday knowing that Monday is waiting right there for you. There's nothing like it.
Amy: And I'm able to enjoy my weekend more because I'm already set up for success. I set aside a little bit of time on Wednesdays to clean the floors so then I'm not spending my whole weekend doing all of those tasks that I was doing before. It gives me time to actually enjoy life. I get to go out with my friends and I get to take my kids places.
I have been able to - in the last few weeks - open up my life to be organized, and productive; and by doing that, I'm so much happier.
Amber: I love to ask the question: Why do you want to make a change? If we don't start with that, we won't we won't make a change. For you, you wanted to feel like summer you all year round - that was your why. And it sounds to me like you really, truly do come back to that in all of your decisions about what you're spending your time on.
Amy: That is completely true. I had weeks where I got to see my friends when I usually only spent time with my friends during the summer, and that’s not healthy.
Amber: Not only is it not healthy, but it's also not guaranteed. That's going really deep, but we're not guaranteed summer. We're not guaranteed weekends. We are only guaranteed today. We're only guaranteed right now.
Amy: But I had to put the work in. You have helped me in such a big way by giving me the outline. You're not saying to me: Amy, you should be vacuuming your floors on Tuesday. You're not saying that to me, but I was able to take what you taught me in the course and put it into my own life. That's why I recommend this to everybody. I see people who are in education right now that are completely burned out. Also to some new teachers that I mentor, I’m telling them to start now. Learn now!
Amber: And in the course, I talk about allowing yourself to feel the feelings. Your feelings are real. Your feelings are valid. So then use them to ignite your curiosity and to learn. That's what this process is all about. I'm teaching you the strategies and the skills that I had to learn just by doing research because there was nothing out there for me when I was struggling and I was crying in my car all the time. But we can't just stop there, we can’t just learn the strategies, we have to actually apply them. We have to try things and take calculated risks. As you said, it's it is your personalized burnout plan.
In the last module, you'll learn that this process is cyclical and that you can use these steps anytime you are faced with hardship by having those steps to decide what your next best step is. The thing that is so hard for me to watch is when people are just stuck and sit in that unhappiness and that burnout. It’s so sad to me because it's such a waste of potential to live such a beautiful life. You can use those challenges as an opportunity to grow, which it looks like you have done.
Amy: As a special teacher, and as a teacher in general, we're always teaching our kids to use different tools so that they can use that tool to then make something better. And often, I feel like, nobody teaches teachers what to use. Nobody takes the time. Nobody gives us the tools, but you have! And I'm sleeping better because I have a plan, and I think that's what was missing for all of those years before. And I wish I had just found it when I was in the depths of burnout.
I wish I had had something to help me see what could be. I just think I feel like I'm a stronger teacher now because I'm more organized. And it's not always easy. But I’m able to just get to be myself and do what I love. I feel for the first time in a really long time: Hey, I can continue with this for years to come. And there is nothing like that feeling.
Amber: There isn't. I can relate to what you're saying so deeply. In a podcast episode released back in September, I talked about how I’m not afraid to share how much I was struggling. That was the first time in my career that I wasn’t looking for a way out of teaching, or was wondering if this was my career for me. I really truly - from the bottom of my heart - mean every word I say when I say I want to do this job for a long time.
I've always been a goalpost mover. My number one strength is Futuristic - I'm always thinking ahead to the next thing. Now I'm so content with what I'm doing as a kindergarten teacher. I know that I have room to grow and I know that there are going to continue to be challenges. But in any career, you’re going to be faced with challenges that stretch you, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm not dreading it for the first time in my 14 years of teaching.
Amy: And that's such a gift in itself.
Being a special ed teacher feels like it’s often two jobs. We have the paperwork aspect of it and then the teaching aspect of it. There was a time when I was like, I'm either a good teacher or on top of my paperwork. There's no happy medium. But now, I feel great. I set an alarm to let myself know that it's 3:45 and I should be leaving, and I'm like, Oh, it’s 3:35 and I'm already set up for the next day
Amber: For a special education teacher to be able to say that - that's insane. I feel like people who are in special ed listening to this are like, She's crazy! There's no possible way.
Amy: There is! I hope people know that it's not always easy. I still make myself a time budget and I spend the time to make a plan. It wasn't always easy finding a nice time to actually reflect on everything that I had to do and what I wanted to do. But when I budgeted my time, I would give myself a little bit of free time over the weekend, but I don't always need it anymore because I am that on top of things.
Amber: You are capable of amazing things, but you have to believe that you are first.
So, two more questions for you. Number one, what plans do you have for yourself moving forward?
Amy: Moving forward I really just want to keep doing what I'm doing. I'm really happy with where I am and the school I'm at. I really just want to maintain right now and continue with being able to leave at 3:45 and I go for a run, and then I come home and I'm able to enjoy my family. So I really, my goal is to just maintain.
As for school, I want to keep growing my program. I'm learning about all the new programs that are out there and learning about new strategies. I feel like you can learn so much, I just want to make sure I take the time to continue to learn. I want to set aside the time to learn stuff that's of interest to me. I don't have the desire to go back to school, I just want to strengthen my own teaching.
Amber: I love that so much. I'm there too - I just want to maintain this. My two core values are kindness and joy. In my classroom, I want to teach kids to be kind and I also want them to just feel joy. So that's exactly how I feel as well.
All right, last question. So what advice would you give a teacher who is struggling with burnout right now?
Amy: I would tell them to just stop and really put the time into thinking why. I often think that we just push through our burnout. We keep thinking, I'll wake up tomorrow and it will be better, or Once I get to this break it will be better.
My advice would be just to stop because it's not going to get better until you put the boundaries in and you put the changes in, but you can't really do any of that until you know WHY it's happening.
I think sometimes we don't want to have those hard conversations even with ourselves. Way back when I was my own worst enemy because I allowed myself to bring work home, and I should have stopped that.
Also, you have to put time into it. Even the smallest changes can make such a big impact.
I think a lot of times in teaching, we think our goal is to be an administrator but look at us. We've been teaching for a while and our goal right now is to maintain what we're doing and I think that's okay. You don’t have to try to be the superintendent of the school (unless you want to). I am very happy being an autistic support teacher and you're very happy being a kindergarten teacher. And that's okay.
Amber: I love that you said that because I think something that is misunderstood about what Burned-In Teacher stands for, is that I am here trying to tell you to suck it up and just enjoy where you are right now or I'm trying to get teachers out of teaching, and it's neither of those things.
Burned-In Teacher is about figuring out what you want. If you want to be a superintendent, that's awesome! We need some really great superintendents out there. If that is what you truly desire, then what is it that you need to do to get there? It’s easy to get stuck in the belief of I could never do that, or It's too expensive to get my doctorate, or whatever negative self-talk that’s working to keep you safe doing the same things you’ve always done. But if it’s something you really want, you’ll find a way. Of if you want to leave teaching, that’s fine, just thinking it through because as someone who has left twice and returned twice, I don’t want you to make a knee-jerk decision.
I also love what you said earlier when you left middle school to pursue this position, you knew that you could go back if you wanted to - and that’s such a privilege to be able to say. I think, for a lot of teachers, they feel if they leave to pursue a different career path then they can’t go back because they would feel ashamed and it would look like they failed, or it would look like they wishy-washy… Life is messy. We're learning as we go - no one has this crazy life figured out.
Amy: Nobody has it figured out. And really, you should do what's best for yourself. Sometimes when you do go you find a missing piece of yourself and you come back and you’re so happy.
I'm in a small district and I just recently went to a training at the middle school and I ran into so many people that were so happy to see me. It made me feel good, not that they miss me, but like that, I left an impact. I never would have had that experience if I had not gone to elementary school. And I love elementary - I feel so lucky that I learned my heart belongs in elementary school.
But I also know that I wouldn't be where I was if I had not gone through everything that I've gone through before.
Amber: It seems like your burnout really has made you a stronger and more resilient person and you've really taken ownership of your burnout. That's the ultimate goal, right?
It's not your fault that your burnout happened, but it is your responsibility, and you have taken full responsibility for your burnout and for everything that's going to happen from here on out.
Amy: I totally took responsibility I learned from it. And while I would never want somebody to feel burned out - I wouldn't wish that on somebody - I do want teachers to know that it does get better and you get better. The teacher that I was 17 years ago is definitely not the person I am today. Now, I'm able to enjoy every area of my life, because I've made the changes and I am totally Burned-In!
Amber: I can't think of a better way to end this episode! I really do feel like you are the epitome of what a Burned-In Teacher is and you've not even finished the course yet!
Amy: My life changed in just a little bit of time, and I don't say that lightly. I had a lot of goals and a lot of things that I wanted to do, and I didn't know where to start so it was easier for me not to start. Then I just did a little batching of work and it was the best feeling.
Amber: Well, Amy, I am so so grateful that you were willing to spend time with me today and that you were willing to be so brave and to share your stories. I know it's not always an easy thing to do. I just really appreciate you sharing just your transformation over the last couple of weeks or months.
Amy: And thank you for all the hard work that you've done. It's so nice that you do these Burned-In Teacher Spotlight episodes so that other people can hear other teachers' stories and resonate with them. Maybe a special ed teacher will listen to this episode and be like, There is hope through the paperwork.
Amber: I'm just really so grateful that you're seeing results in your own life because that has been my goal. Even way back in 2016 when I wasn’t really sure what Burned-In Teacher was going to be, I just knew that I didn't want people to feel the way that I was feeling. It is the hardest thing to go through by yourself and to feel like no one understands you and that there's no way out.
Amy: But there is. Here I am!
Amber: I'm so so glad to have met you Amy, thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so grateful!