Burned-INterview #2: Learning to Let Go, Before Letting Go of Teaching
This Burned-Out Teacher Wishes She Would Have Let Go;
Before Letting Go of Teaching
BiT Interviews are completely anonymous and are conducted to get to know what burned-out teachers or current teachers are feeling and going through before they either have left or leave the education profession.
AH: (Me!) Amber HarperBiT: Interviewee
AH: How many school systems have you worked in?
BiT: I worked in one school system. Two separate schools.
AH:Rural, suburbs, inner city?
BiT: I worked in a rural school for 2 years and then an urban 100% free/reduced school the last half of my career. This school has a high Burmese population and I worked there for 2 1/2 years.
AH: Elementary, middle, high or special assignment?
BiT: I worked for 4 1/2 years in an elementary school.
AH: Did you always want to be a teacher?
BiT: Yes, I always said that I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn't become a teacher right away. I went to work and then went back to school and returned when I was 28.
AH: Of all that is hard about being a teacher, what is burning you out the most?
BiT: When I left, we were on our fourth principal in 2.5 years, our third assistant principal in 2.5 years.
The admin was not for the teachers, more of "I'm going to do whatever makes me look good."
A student who should have been put into an ED program and was not given the attention that she deserved.
I took a leave and then couldn't return for mental health.
I couldn't teach because of a kid I'm trying to restrain for 45 min. You call administration and they don't come to help you. Tables and chairs are being thrown. It wasn't safe. That's what pushed me out of it.
I wouldn't say that I was burned out, but there are just a lot of things on your plate as a teacher.
We started taking these "bundle assessments" on iPads, reading and math. Our success as a teacher was based on these tests. Half of my class didn't speak English, so it didn't matter whether I read it to them or not. My scores would be compared to all of the other schools in the district, including an affluent school.
They would question why the affluent school would score 80% and my school would score 60%. We were NOT allowed to bring up the fact that our kids were not English-speaking students. That was not an excuse. It was all about our teaching.
You start to feel like you're losing your mind. You start to wonder, "Am I insane? Am I really an insane person?"
So all of this, on top of this student with these outbursts during the tests. This went on 1/2 the year. I finally just took a leave after November and resigned after Christmas.
This was a daily thing. If you saw pictures of this, you would be astounded.
Another big issue was the MASSIVE amounts of meetings. In the middle of the day, I would be pulled out of class. I'd have to get a 1/2 day sub every other week for some reason. Meetings about what we can better do to better serve our students. I could be in my class serving my kids. Why were we having these meetings? A meeting to talk about the last meeting? To talk about the next meeting?When you know you have SO MUCH stuff to do and your brain is just thinking the whole time, "...okay, I have this to do, I have to do this. Then, I can't forget to do this. Oh, and I need to do this." And everything they would give me during the meeting would go right into the recycle bin.
Because we are a Title school, you are forced to have these extra meetings. WHY? I could have been talking to a coworker. We could have been planning or collaborating.
The year before, at the other school, we would have a meeting once a week. It would alternate. Meeting as a school, then meeting with grade level, alternating and it was GREAT! But, not at my second school. It was ALL. THE. TIME.
It was a negative building to work in, because all of the teachers were so upset all the time.
They were all crying. It is so sad. You cry because you care. If you didn't care, you wouldn't cry. I would sit and bawl. This was hysterical crying like my mom or dad died. I had a full on panic attack one morning when I walked into my classroom one day. I had to leave. I couldn't even do what I was trying to do, and now you are piling things on again.
It will be interesting to see how many of my colleagues leave this year.
AH: Did you have any assistants?
BiT: No. No assistants. I had 23 kids.
AH: Where do you feel teachers are most unsupported?
BiT: When you have concerns or let's say if something is presented and you feel that this is not what is going to help my students the best. Being able to be honest about whether or not you think this is the best for kids without any backlash.
Having to say, "Oh yes! This sounds GREAT!" Even though, in your mind, you're thinking, "This is NOT going to work. There is a better way."
You can't say that without being chastised, or being viewed as negative. It looks good on paper, but is not good in application.
AH: How often were administration in your classroom?
BiT:Last year, we had an amazing administrator who wouldn't do what the district told her because she knew it wasn't the best for kids. She was let go. She was in the classroom every day and talked to the kids to see what they are working on. It wasn't just a walk-thru. She was always asking, "What can I do to help you? What can we do for these kids?" She was so wonderful and so supportive and had experience of 30 years working with EL kids. The school wouldn't listen to ANYTHING that she had to say. It was heart-breaking.
The current principal is only in the classroom to observe you. This principal is a "Yes" person. I feel like, I would like them to just show their face once in a while, you know? I worked in the business world before I was in education and I had a personal relationship with my manager and employees. And, then (as a teacher) I was like, how can I possibly feel comfortable around you when you are ONLY coming in to observe me? I haven't built a relationship with you and neither have the kids.
You do these observations and and OH MY GOODNESS. DO YOU REALLY THINK THEY ARE 100% ENGAGED? They are looking at things that are so insignificant. These kids are 5 and 6! Yes . She's chewing on her shirt. Yes. She's touching her friend's hair. There are always going to be those one or two who have things going on.
If you have an administrator who is totally disengaged unless they are coming in to do their walkthroughs, and they mark you, and then they ask you questions about the kids and you're like, "I guess you would have NO idea what is going on with this child, because you are NEVER around!"
I'm one who likes to take care of a lot of stuff on my own. I have good classroom management skills, but when you are working with an ED student, things are just different. When you are constantly running through administrators and they don't know me, they think I'm the problem. It's not me! I was highly effective and they would send in new teachers to watch my classroom management, because I was so skilled with that. Then I felt so unsupported. Finally when it came down to me telling them that and they were like, "You mean you feel like we don't support you?" I said, "No." After that, it just snowballed.
I wanted to do everything I could to support her, but I had 22 other students to worry about and I can't spend all of my time with just her. It was definitely affecting the other kids. It was traumatizing. If I was a child seeing that, I wouldn't have wanted to go to school.
What do you feel is the best way to support a teacher who is burned-out?
There is so much pressure put on a teacher and so many things that you are dealing with as an educator. People say, "I'd love to do your job and hang out with kids all day." THEY HAVE NO IDEA.
I cried in my car and got medicated.
Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I want to be a bad teacher." Were there a couple of bad teachers in my building, of course, but did they have the proper guidance? I don't know. We are rolling through administrators left and right and your expectations are changing every day.
Each teacher is struggling in different areas. They say, "Go ask this teacher to help you." But they are already drowning in their own area and don't have time to help. They can't help me because I know they are struggling with other things (in their life) that the administrator doesn't know about because they never talk to the teachers.
There is honestly not enough time to sit and support each other. I would like more time.
You know you learn the most when you are sitting in collaboration with your colleagues and you are like, "That is a great idea!" OR if you could go into another teacher's classroom. You find answers to questions. How are they handling this? How are they handling that?
Do you feel that you have other teachers to confide in?
Yes, but maybe that compounded things. She moved to another school and I would call her. She was someone I could go to about things. She was older and went into education later in life. She was more mature and gave me sound advice. As you get older you learn more about life.
I knew that whatever she and I talked about, it was between her and I. I never had to worry about someone else finding out.
In the building I was in last year, that was not the norm. In the school that I was in, we would get 10-12 new teachers every year. I was considered a 'veteran' teacher.
When you taught, did you have anything that you did to help you decompress?
I didn't have anything that I could do at work, but I worked out. I would sometimes go outside and walk around the building.
What do you wish was available to burned-out teachers?
More time for teachers to talk. Why can't we go to school 4.5 days and then plan and prep on Friday afternoons? There is so much that is required of educators. I have so many high expectations and I want to be the best. I want my kids to grow and be successful. I feel like it's constant pressure.
If you go back, what will you do differently?
I have to learn to let things go. Some teachers are good at that and I always wanted to be perfect. I feel like I can't do that, because then I feel like I'm failing the kids.
What would you say to a teacher who is getting ready to enter the classroom?
You are never going to be perfect and you are always going to be a work in progress.
You learn new things every year and every year is different.
Find one really, really good friend at school. One that you can trust and one who can help you and support you. That makes a huge difference.
Take Aways and Tips:
I have listened to this interview many times, and now read the transcript over and over again and it, quite frankly, makes me feel like I have no problems.
This teacher has dealt with it all: unsupportive and inconsistent leadership, severe behavior problems within her classroom, struggles with perfectionism and depression, and consequently had to leave to feel like she could gain control of her life again.
During the conversation there was a period of time where she and I talked in depth about how badly we need to 'turn it off' and go home. I have worked and met a lot of teachers throughout my career and most of them are self-proclaimed perfectionists and/or control freaks They care so much that they can't stand to leave before 6:00 most nights and insist on coming in over the weekend to prepare for the following week or to enter and organize data.
My question becomes this: When do we just say, "ENOUGH is ENOUGH."? Should we wait until we are burned out from feeling like failures for years? Or do we wait until we feel that if our administrator gives us one more bad evaluation, after being absent from our classroom for months, we have no other choice but to find a different profession? Obviously not.
My biggest take away from our hour long conversation is how important consistent and realistic expectations from administration are to a teacher's success. And, as I type this I think to myself, imagine if the way we treat teachers was the norm for how teachers treated students? Wouldn't they burn out too? Would that be considered acceptable?
I can imagine that if a teacher's life at school is a dash of chaotic, one cup of unpredictable, and baked on high pressure and disrespect all day long and then removed from that oven only to be sat back on the high heat of being a parent and spouse with other potentially stressful obligations, that can make the burn-out even more inevitable.
As I reflect on my experiences, I realize, also, that I constantly felt like the victim in my situation. I didn't do anything to turn that ship around either, until I was eight years deep, depressed, and felt like I didn't deserve better. I now know different.
As I have dealt with burnout, I have learned that I actually have more control than I think I do:
- I have total control over where I work. If I am unhappy where I am, I am responsible of that situation. I can leave. And I have.
- I determine my attitude. 100% of the time. No excuses. I can either tell myself all day that I suck, or that I am doing the best that I can and that I am awesome. I choose the latter.
- I am obsessed with being that friend to other teachers who is positive, helpful, and trustworthy. That is what I choose to do, and because of this, people are there for me too.
- I believe in sticking up for myself as a professional. I have stopped living in fear of being fired for asking questions and defending my position as a professional. If my boss makes my life a living hell because of this belief, I will leave. Because I am in control of my environment. Period.
- I have let go. I used to feel like my room had to be the prettiest and trendiest. I used to feel that I had to know, word-for-word what I was going to say for each lesson. This is no longer my truth. My room is organized, safe, and colorful. It is a place where I let my guard down and act goofy with my kids. It is a place I teach them to be kind and to think for themselves. Then, when the day is over, I plan to pick up where we left off the next day and... I leave. I "leave it all on the court," as I have heard NBA basketball players say.
Before you burn out, know that you are in control. It may not feel like it, but you really are. Email me to tell me your story. We are in this together.