Mar 18, 2023

Overcoming a Toxic Work Environment: From Burned-Out to Burned-In with Sherree

Overcoming a toxic work environment is challenging. The number of emotions and feelings that one has to endure could cause one to think that it’s easier to just stay and “deal with it” and pile on the self-care. But depending on your situation, no amount of self-care can fix or help you overcome a toxic work environment.  And sometimes, one has to make the tough decision to leave if it’s in the best interest of them. 

In today’s episode, I’m talking with Sheree, a Burned-In Teacher University student.  I interviewed Sheree a while ago and I’ve been holding on to it because I wanted to share this episode at a very specific time of the year - March.  The reason that I wanted to release this episode in March is that March is the time to start taking action if you’re looking to change your position, your district, etc… 

When you’re dealing with burnout, there are two things (one if not both) that need to change when you’re taking on your burnout journey - yourself and/or your environment. but I get it, change can be extremely scary. If you've been around for any amount of time, you know that in my career in education, I have changed both (myself and my environment) multiple times. And it's messy.  And it's scary. And it causes you to do things that you'd never do before or have conversations you've never had before. 

I just love Sheree’s testimony and her story so much that I felt like this was the perfect time to help you to understand that, there is no way that you can self-care your way out of a toxic work environment.  Sheree is proof of that and I am proof of that. 

So let’s dive into the interview. 

 Amber: Hi, Sherree! Welcome to the Burned-In and Teacher Podcast.

Sheree: Thanks for having me.

Amber: I’m so excited for you to share your story with the listeners of the podcast. Can you please tell them a little bit about you?

Sheree: Sure.  My name is Sheree. I live in Connecticut. I've been married for 21 years, not to my high school sweetheart. We ended up dating after I came home from college, but I've known him for as long probably as you've known your husband. I'm a mom to a 13-year-old boy, so it's kind of weird this year that I have a seventh grader and I teach seventh grade.  That dual-ness is new for me, but we're working on it and we're doing okay.  Seventh-grade math is hard for me, so I'm learning it as fast as I can! But it's hard for me to keep up with him. 

On a personal level, I volunteer for my local boy scout troop. I'm on the troop committee there and I serve as a merit badge counselor. In my free time, I love planning trips for our family. Last year, we actually got to go to Disney World twice - it was so great! And I also love to scrapbook and relive those memories while being creative at the same time.

As far as teaching goes, this is my 15th year of teaching, I've been teaching middle school science the entire time, mostly biology. And it really has been a roller coaster ride over those 15 years. 

I wanted to come on the podcast to hopefully encourage anyone out there by letting them know that burnout isn't your sentence. The lies that people tell you that this is what teaching is and it's like this everywhere just simply aren't true. When I went back and looked at my reflection journal for Burned-In Teacher University, the quote I wrote on the front page was: I can make my burnout a success story. And I really feel like I've done that.

Amber: I love that you just shared that! It was almost like you put it out there into the universe. And that was almost you know like your word of the year, you just put it out there and you're living it right now.

Sheree: I am. I am a success story. And I want to let others know that they can do it, too. 

Amber:  So, let’s jump into your story of burnout. You've been teaching for 15 years, how many times have you experienced burnout? Tell us a little bit about what that looked like for you.

Sheree: Sure. So I went into teaching full-on - that's just my personality. Teaching is actually a second career for me. I did 18 credits in six different schools for one semester just to get my qualifications to be a science teacher. And then I did an accelerated master's program and jumped right into teaching. I just went at it with everything I had and I was just working so hard all the time. Honestly, I'm surprised it took as long as it did for me to burn out, but it all came to a head in 2017. 

In the summer of 2017, my dad got ill, and I spent a lot of the summer visiting him at the hospital and dealing with family and doctors. By the end of the summer, I was toast. At the time, someone in the community shared that they felt like they had “lost their Christmas break” and how they felt like they were “toast”, and I was mad.  I became resentful because I felt as though I had “lost” my summer break, a time that I needed to rest and revive myself for the upcoming school year. 

Then, the Tuesday after Labor Day, halfway through the day, I got the call that my dad had taken a turn for the worst and that the end was near.  So I got everything arranged, left early, and got sub plans ready for the next day, and I was able to be there when my dad passed.  It was essential to keep him comfortable and peacefully pass, so we just sat in the room because interacting with him would cause him to panic.  

But then thinking about it afterward, I was sitting in there writing lesson plans when my dad passed away.  I got home and I was like What in the world am I doing? Something needs to change. That was just crazy to me and I realized that is not what teaching life is supposed to be like.  

So I started to look for free resources.  I became friends with Meredith Nuland (from The Transformed Teacher) and she helped me a lot.  I was also able to go to a teacher self-care conference in Philadelphia thanks to Meredith who gave me a free ticket to go.  While I was there, met a lot of people; I met Alexis Shepard there, and Angela Watson was the keynote speaker.  Through this work, I realized I was burned and unbalanced and needed to make some changes.  

To get started, I really started working on my mind by making changes in my mindset. You know, not ALL the work is going to get done, and I have to be okay with that, which goes against my personality so it took me a really long time to get to that place.  I also realized that a lot of the things that I thought needed to get done didn't even matter. We do things - as teachers- thinking that the kids will be upset, or the parents will get upset, but come to find out nobody cares. As an example, I was keeping a homework calendar online, and then at the beginning of December, I asked myself, Who actually uses this? So, I decided to put a note on the document that said that if they actually use the document, to let me know.  And you know what, no one has reached out to me.   

I started working on a few other things. One thing was to make a to-do list for the week, but make a plan to only focus on getting, at most, getting three things done a day. I would write down the days of the week, choose three things that I was going to get done that day, and continue to fill out the week as I went. When I worked in my previous district, I would have to have lesson plans done three days in advance, so on Monday, I would write down “Thursday's lesson plans”.  I also created a “brain dump space”, so if I finished the three things I decided on, and I still had time, then I go over to that brain dump section and try to get some other things done.  I would also allow myself the grace and space to move and shift things as needed. 

The other big thing I started to do was I just shut my door. We've talked in the community and you've talked on the podcast that tasks will take up as much time as you let them. So if I brought home essays or projects to grade and I didn't set a time limit, they were going to take all stinking night. But if I was going to sit in my 45-minute prep period with the intention that this is what I'm doing, I would get so much more done in that 45 minutes than I would at home. 

Amber: I love everything that you're saying! 

First of all, I'm so sorry to hear about your dad. It's unfathomable to lose a parent. I really appreciate you sharing that tough realization that you had. To be creating lesson plans when your dad passed, that's a huge wake-up call. I'm so glad that you looked at that moment as showing and trying to teach you something.

And then for you to take responsibility and say, I have to do something different. Nothing else is going to change unless I change, is pretty amazing. 

I love that you're sharing your strategies for prioritizing and for really paying attention to the things that are truly most important. You're only going to realize what is and is not important through that act of really analyzing what you've done. 

You said that the first time you struggled with burnout was in 2017. So was there another round of burnout you struggled with?

Sherree: There was. I went into pandemic teaching pretty okay because I was doing all this work right before the 2020 pandemic. I had the mindset that I knew that I couldn't focus on things that were out of my control. Things like passing all the kids no matter if they showed up and if students did the work were out of my control. I had to let it go, and I know a lot of teachers didn't and it caused a lot of stress. 

So I was really okay through asynchronous teaching, and then dual teaching, and everybody's coming back. It was just crazy. But I was okay up until the summer of 2022. The 2021-22 school year just slapped me in the face. It was rough. I was crying at least once a week in my classroom or driving to work, and literally bawling driving to work because I really did not want to be there. Or I’d be crying on the way home because of something that had happened during the day. 

It was really frustrating for me because I am such a hard worker and I take so much pride in my work and I love what I do, but this was where I was. In the Burned-In Teacher terms, I was Burned and Over-it. I felt hopeless. I was apathetic. I was coming across as negative and mean and uncaring, which is definitely not the brand I wanted at all.  A lot of things were bothering me and it really came down to the fact that I felt like, in our district, we didn't have a program for student behavior where we were training students how we wanted them to act in middle school, especially coming off of the pandemic, and for being accountable for what they were doing in our classes. They would tear me up. They would tear each other up, and it was just so disheartening. And the answer from administration was toxic positive positivity, or simply ignoring us, and it just, it just tore me up, and I just couldn't do it anymore. I broke down. At one point, I said to my principal, I don't know if I can do this anymore, and he shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I was so mad.

Amber: Was that when you decided you were going to leave?

Sherree: No, actually I had started interviewing a few months before that because I had a friend that left and I was like, Maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel

I had done a few interviews, but I was feeling like I was getting turned away because of my seniority because when I did follow up, there were first-year teachers getting hired. And that is a huge thing for districts, especially with budgets nowadays. So I was hopeful, but I went into the 2021 school year thinking, I'm going to bloom where I'm planted, and I kept teaching and telling myself, Bloom where you're planted, it's going to be okay

Following that confrontation in the hallway, my principal pulled me into a meeting where I was blindsided by him and the assistant principal, and they did bring up some of my negative behaviors, which I recognized and I apologized. I was hoping that it would speak to my character and show that I truly want to do what's best and that I'm going to take accountability for my actions. And I tried to have a constructive conversation about the school climate and the teacher struggle and burnout that was happening in our building, but they were not hearing it. I was told that student behavior is not going to change, and if I didn't like how they were handling things, I was welcome to leave. 

Amber:  I've heard this from a few other teachers that that's the attitude of their administration. 

I struggle with behavior challenges in my own classroom, and I teach kindergarten, not seventh-grade science, but they're still very extreme. And I thought to myself many times this year, What would I do if I did not have such an involved and present and supportive administration? I am so lucky because not everybody has that.  I don’t know what I would do. I am pulling out all of my tricks, and all of my strategies that I've learned about managing extreme behaviors, but sometimes they just don't work, so then I need someone else to help me. 

I'm so sorry that you dealt with that. And, gosh, doesn't that say something about the self-awareness of those administrators? That cockiness telling people to leave? Who are you going to get to replace these teachers that you're telling to leave? And if they're leaving in droves, what does that tell you? 

Sherree: My principal at the time shared a story from his brother, who is a police officer, that police officers are now trained to - if they're in some kind of confrontation - not to pursue. So his justification was that if cops can't follow a criminal, why am I going to follow these kids and correct their behavior? This mindset just blew my mind.

So I was thinking about leaving, but I told myself that if I was still there in the fall I was going to make the best out of it, but I was very active about leaving.  

Amber: Here's something I want to make sure that’s very clear, you cannot self-care your way out of a toxic workplace. You can’t. There are two things that either one or both have to change when you're going through burnout.  You have to change yourself: you have to build self-awareness, you have to think about your habits, you have to think about your mindset and your beliefs. But if you do all of that work and you're working in a toxic environment, nothing is going to change. You can't change other people. You cannot change leadership. Sherree, I'm so glad you've shared everything that you've shared because you clearly have worked on yourself and owned up to your own negative attitude that you had, but you can't self-care your way out of a toxic workplace. I'm so glad that you're sharing this because this is what it's all about, it's about gaining that empowerment and self-confidence to say, This is not the right place for me. I'm going to take my talents elsewhere

Sherree: It was hard.  I poured my heart and soul into that school and into the curriculum. I thought they were going to carry me out of there on a stretcher and that I was going to be there for a long time. It was heart-wrenching, but it was definitely something that had to do. 

The other thing I would like to point out is something that you say a lot which is, Burned-In Teachers don't always have it all together.  We have bad days, and we sometimes even have bad weeks, but we don't stay there, whereas I was kind of stuck there.  As you said, I did the work, but no matter what I did, it wasn't getting better. So changing my environment definitely had to be the solution.

Amber: Can you tell us about your new life at your new school? Was it a good transition? Are you so glad you took the leap and that you kept trying? Was it all worth it?

Sherree: It was, it really was. I leaned on my faith through this whole practice as well.  And I actually took one of your workshops, How to Heal Through Your Burnout, and that's really when I realized that I needed Burned-In Teacher University.  So I invested in myself and then I worked on it one module a week at a time over the summer. And over the summer, in the middle of doing all of this, I did get the call to come to come interview at my new district.  It sounded perfect and it ended up working out. It's a much smaller school, the entire population here is actually less than the entire seventh grade at my last school.  Instead of classes of 26/28, I have classes between 13 and 15 and that already makes a difference.

Amber: That’s huge! Oh my gosh, if have a class of 13 to 15 kindergartners, I can't tell you what that would be like! Good for you!

Sherree: And I actually get to teach the same exact curriculum that I've been teaching for 14 years. I'm reusing everything and just tweaking it for these kids. This year I would say is my cushion year. I always said, and I've said this to my friends before I left: the grass isn't always greener on the other side, you really need to be skeptical when you're looking and you don't just leap. But I did my research and decided that this really was a good move for me. And I have no regrets. 

It was the scariest thing I've done in my life for sure, scarier than even having my son! I was terrified because my family needed my salary, they need my benefits. And now I'm at the bottom of the totem pole. So if there's a reduction in staff I could be the first one to go, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes up.

But this was perfect timing. When it’s right, you’ll feel it in your gut, and I knew that this is the right move for me. It’s been a night and day difference. But you know, even if it wasn’t, I would bloom where I'm planted and I would try again next year. 

I hope that teachers who are thinking about leaving their current position at least look because with this shortage you can negotiate things that you wouldn't think you could negotiate. You have choices and are willing to work with teachers because of the shortage. So if you are thinking about it, please look into it. And you can, I tell people all the time, you can go to the interview, and if they want you, you can always say no,

Amber: Yes, I think I said that in one of our group coaching calls.  It’s okay to just explore the idea, just because you sit down for an interview doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. You haven't signed on the dotted line, so just see how it feels. In fact, the more you see how it feels, the more energy that's going to give you to decide if this is really something you want to do. 

A couple of things that I took away from what you just said: number one, there are a lot of teachers that believe that since they’ve been teaching for 15-plus years, no one's going to hire them. I was there, too.  They tell themselves, I have too much experience, so they don't even try. Or they do try as you did, and they get passed up so they give up and think that it's not going to happen. Don't give up if it's something you truly want. I know it's sucky that you have to go back to that toxic environment, not everybody has the luxury of just quitting with no backup plan.  But there are jobs that come available in the middle of the school year all the time now, so always keep your eyes and your ears, and your heart, open.

I know this is what the listeners need to hear at this time of year. So thank you so much for sharing that. You're so brave and I'm so glad that you took the leap. 

You joined what was then the Burned-In Teacher Mastermind in the spring of 2022, and you're now involved in Burned-In Teacher University and you are a member of the Burned-In Teacher Membership.  What have been your biggest takeaways? What were some things that, as you were moving through Burned-In Teacher University, really stuck out to you?  Did you have any lightbulb moments or epiphanies that really propelled your burnout journey forward?

Sherree: Yes!  There are a few. 

When I started, I was a Stage Zero. What I realized is that I needed to be coachable - which is something I needed to work on. I was always like, I've got it together, I know what I do, and I know what's best. And I was like, You know what? Maybe I don't. Once that clicked for me, a lot of things started to change. 

The other thing that really stuck with me was that you're the average of the five people you hang around with the most. I started analyzing Who am I around? Who did I end up acting like or talking like? Is that really how I want to come off? 

Another thing was: every “No” is a “Yes” to someone, something or someone else. And now I even say that to my own son when we talk about time management and money management. 

Amber: Opportunity cost all the way.

Sherree: Oh, and the Agents of Change! Perfection Patti was the one that I identified with because I always want everything to be perfect and I say I could do it all myself. I came across Dave Stuart Jr. on YouTube during the pandemic, and he did a series about how it’s okay to be an 80% teacher and that you don’t have to be 100% all the time. You're just called to be a good teacher. So if you're an 80% teacher that day, that's perfectly fine. And it really resonated with me. 

And then the last thing was when we did the personality tests. So in the 16 Personalities Assessment, I'm an advocate, so some of the characteristics are you’re idealistic, you care about integrity, being a force of good in the world, and you’re hardwired to right the wrongs of the world. Through that, I realized that that was why I was getting so much resistance in my last district. I wanted everything to be fixed when nobody wanted to fix it. A

Amber: I connect with what you're saying so much. I'm a campaigner, and one of my top strengths is being an activator. So as a campaigner, I'm always advocating for the underdog. I want to campaign for them and I want to root for them. Those are my students, especially the struggling ones. 

As an activator, when I see a problem, I want to fix it now. I’m very much like, Why wait? We have to do something now. And if you can't help me, I'm going to find someone or something that can. Not everybody is like that, especially leaders.  And if they are not like that, it can be very threatening.

Sherree: Yes.  So those were my takeaways.  

The first time I went through the course, I sort of stopped at Module 6 (which is the goal setting) because I had a new job that I had to get ready for the end of the summer. 

And now that I've gone through the second round, which by the way, if you haven't seen the new version, you need to check it out! Amber did a great job! The reflection journal is awesome and the videos are great. It looks nice and it's polished. And it's really, really good. 

But even on my second round, I'm stuck at Module 6 again!  I stopped with the Word-of-the-Year.  I think I'm going to steal your Word-of-the-Year from your workshop, which was “better”.

Amber: Now that you’re working in such a great environment, you can work on making everything better for YOU, whatever that looks like.

Sherree: Right? You know it’s even been in the simple things like making better food choices. For example, I didn't eat three candies today, I'm doing better. 

Amber: You’re better than yesterday.

Sherree: It’s about little goals. 

Amber: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. So, what do you see for yourself moving forward?

Sherree: So, as far as my teaching position, I'm lucky that this year lucky this year, because the seventh-grade class was so big, I really only have two different preps. But that could all change next year. As far as short term (until June), I really want to nail this curriculum down so if I have more classes next year, I just have to open the binder and pull out the unit, and just photocopy and we move on. And I want to continue to reach out to people that might need help and just try to be light to the world. Really, that's all I just want is to bring goodness and joy and light to my students and to my colleagues. I want everybody to be happy.

Amber: Yes, I feel the same. And what a waste of a life to not want to do those things, right? And we all have our special things, we all have different personalities and different goals and that’s so exciting. 

So before we sign off, is there anything that you'd like to tell somebody who might be on the fence about joining Burned-In Teacher University? What would you tell somebody who's kind of trying to decide if it's for them or not?

Sherree: I would call myself somewhat of a frugal person. So when I started this journey on my own, I tried to do it all with free resources. I was grabbing free webinars, books from the library, podcasts, and everything I could get my hands on. But it wasn't enough. The thing that sets Burned-In Teacher University apart is the fact that it is so comprehensive and you can start anywhere within the process.  

Amber created a great Stage Tracker, and when I first did it, I was in stage 3, which is sort of in the middle.  Then, based on my results, it would tell me which module to start. But because of my personality, I had to start at the beginning and do every single video. It would drive me bananas if I didn't do that. 

This program is worth the money. I'm not one that spends money on myself and we have tight budgets, but it is so worth it. And not only just because you have forever access, but the bonuses that come with it are amazing.  I struggled with finding “my people’ in my old district, and also in my new district.  I didn’t know anyone who had the same mindset as me and who wants to be Burned-In.  This community has been everything to me.  And between the Facebook group and the group coaching class, I had the realization that I really needed to share my story because people need to know that this is out there and that it’s good stuff.  I'm telling you, this changed my life.  It really has been a life-changing process for me, and it can change your life too.

Amber:  Thank you so much. You know, when I created Burned-In Teacher back in 2016, I really didn't know what it was going to become. I just knew that I had to open up these conversations and give people hope that they could pull through it too. And to hear you say that really does genuinely bring tears to my eyes. It gives me goosebumps because it's just the greatest gift. I am so glad that you found so much success with it. And I also love that you've gone through it a couple of times because you realize how far you've come, and then you can go even further.

Sherree: And then I just tried to pull people along with me because we all need each other. I'm an introvert, I'm not that person to be going out and seeking people. But I'm so glad for the community. I'm so glad for the resources and you did a great job. Thank you for helping us.

Amber: Thank you. It is my absolute pleasure. I feel like it is my life's work to do this work with you. 

Sherree, thank you again for joining me and for joining me from your classroom. I love this so much. It was such a pleasure to talk with you and to hear your story.  I know that you're going to help a lot of people, so thanks again.

Sherree: Thanks for having me.


  1. Determine your burnout type.  Click here to take the quiz!
  2. Find out your stage of burnout.  Check out my FREE eBook to learn more
  3. Learn more about your strengths by taking a personality assessment.  Try out the 16 Personality Assessment








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