But I was not prepared for the twin sensations of guilt and relief that overwhelmed me when I left teaching. Guilt because I’d given in. I’d become part of the 50% my professors warned me about. And relief because, during those four years of teaching, my life had turned into a juggling act. I had dozens of balls that needed to stay in the air. Lessons to plan. Students to tutor. Papers to grade. Phone calls to make. Paperwork to finish. Grades to enter. All of these tasks were absolutely necessary – and all of them took place outside of the school day. I was much better at keeping these balls in the air after four years of practice, but they still crashed around my feet more often than I would like to admit. When I left behind my classroom, I also left the constant dread of waiting for that crash to happen. A year later, and I am still processing both of these emotions.
Why I Left Teaching
It wasn’t the pay.
Don’t get me wrong – teachers deserve a good deal more than they’re making now. I will never forget how disheartening it was to divide my monthly salary by the number of hours I was actually working and realize that, per hour, I was making less than my students who were pulling milkshakes at Dairy Queen. But I got by well enough on my teaching salary. Living in an area with a low cost-of-living helped. Not having children of my own helped even more. Still, if money was all I wanted from a job, I would never have gone into education. Most of all, I wanted to make a difference, and teaching gave me the opportunity to do that. A higher paycheck would have made my decision to leave the classroom more difficult, but ultimately, it would not have changed my mind.
It wasn’t the students
When people learn that I used to teach in a high-poverty district, they act like I must have been teaching rooms full of monsters. The truth is that most of my students were great kids. They tested the limits, as teenagers should, but they were fun to teach. I enjoyed them. A year later, and the students are the one part of teaching I still, desperately, miss. If my job as a teacher had consisted only of the hours I spent in the classroom, I would have ever left. So why did I leave? By now, you have probably already guessed.
It was the workload.
Teachers on the verge of burnout have a certain, frantic look about the eyes. I am quite familiar with it, having seen it in the mirror for four years. During my year here, I have visited a lot of schools and I have spoken to a lot of teachers. I have recognized that look in a lot of them. These are teachers from schools in improvement, teachers who are already putting incredible amounts of time and energy into their work, much of it in isolation. And, for the most part, the message they keep hearing is that they need to be doing even more. The combination of a heavy workload with few systems in place to support it places an enormous burden on teachers. The amount of work I was putting in on a daily basis simply was not sustainable, even with summer break to catch my breath. I loved my students, but in the end, I was not willing to sacrifice my health, my happiness, or my marriage to remain in the classroom. The longer I taught, the more I began to feel the weight of working inside an inherently flawed system. I could see my colleagues struggling with the same pressure. And since I have never been a fan of hacking away at the branches and leaves of a problem, leaving the roots untouched, I eventually decided to turn my time and attention to the system itself.
Hold Burnout at Bay through Mitigation and Support
They share a common vision.
Teachers in these schools speak with the zeal of soldiers. They understand the challenges facing their schools and their students and they believe they can rise to meet them. In these schools, veteran teachers have embraced the reform efforts, giving them critical momentum. Rather than being lone voices for change in a sea of complacency, teachers committed to powerful teaching and learning see themselves as the norm in these buildings. When the staff shares a common vision, the building’s climate tends towards optimism rather than pessimism. And when the staff shares an understanding of the work that needs to occur in order to bring about that vision, school leadership is more likely to put systems in place to support that work.
They value collaboration.
The most powerful staffs I have seen have collaborative work time built into their schedules. Typically, they meet weekly in Professional Learning Communities. Schools and districts that value collaboration do not co-opt this time for professional development. They recognize that teachers need shared time to plan lessons and common assessments, reflect on their instructional habits and goals, and evaluate student work. Collaboration lets teachers share some of the work that is so vital to powerful instruction. It also helps to create atmospheres of trust and support within the buildings. Teachers who trust each other are more willing to engage in peer observations and to have deep conversations about improving their practice.
They recognize the importance of learning from mistakes.
In schools where teachers agree their building administration encourages them to take risks and think outside the box, I keep hearing the same phrase over and over again. “We’re not afraid to make mistakes,” teachers at these schools tell me. Administrators at these schools understand that you can learn as much from a failed experiment as from a successful one, and that some of the most powerful insight can arise from making mistakes. In these schools, building and district administrators also tend to understand that new initiatives take time to implement successfully. Once they decide to implement a program or initiative, they are more likely to stick with it, allowing the staff adequate time to learn the new system and to work out the bugs that will inevitably arise. Teachers at these schools are much less likely to complain about the educational trend of jumping from new initiative to new initiative – another factor that leads to rapid burnout.