Has the time come? Teacher burnout and guilt.
For ten years I’ve been a public school teacher. I’ve spent nine of them in the fourth grade and one teaching fifth grade science. I have spent roughly half of those years thinking about leaving the classroom.
I wanted to be a teacher for roughly 20 years before I started. Complicated financial matters and some misguided life choices kept me from finishing college at a younger age. At 34, I finally finished my undergrad work and student teaching and found a job right away. In fact, I landed a job in the classroom right next door to where I’d completed my practicum. Those first few years, with some notable exceptions, were great. I was doing what I’d wanted to do,and I was good at it.
I achieved two master’s degrees within my first five years teachingt–one in education with a specialization in reading and one in administration.
In all but one of those ten years, I served on our district’s leadership team, my building’s leadership team, a curriculum committee, a strategic planning committee, a grant writing team, and a variety of other voluntary roles. It was important to me to serve in any way I could that would benefit the students of our district and help us reach our goals. I helped develop those goals. In other words, I was committed.
I still serve in most of those roles, but I say I was committed because the drive has left me. For years, the meetings I was a part of helped me refill my tank with motivation and optimism. They refocused me and reminded me why I was doing what I was doing for and with my students.
I tried everything I could find and invented my own new ways of doing things. I engaged my students. I challenged them. When something didn’t work, I reflected on it, did my research, and tried something else. I won awards. The state recognized my achievements. When class rosters were being created for the new school year, I was one of the most requested teachers in the building by parents for many years. They knew I built relationships with students. They knew I advocated for their children and would do everything in my power to get the most our of them.
But those days appear to be behind me. Covid has played a role, to be certain. The last couple school years have been more than challenging. Blaming Covid, as we seem to do for many things these days, is short-sighted and fails to take into account all the other factors that have lead me to this point. The quality professional development I have participated in–and yes there has been some of real quality–used to charge me with new ideas and new insights, but no longer. Instead, the messages of positivity, messages proclaiming that the system is not broken and that we just need to change our attitudes and approaches fall on jaded ears.
The system is indeed deeply flawed, if not broken. Limited resources, a focus on national standards that don’t account for local needs, high-stakes standardized testing, misguided or misused teacher evaluation systems, social promotion of students regardless of their performance, limited discipline replaced by feel-good behavior systems–these are all parts of the failing system, and they all contribute to the sense of burnout. But these aren’t the only issues.
It’s the parents. It’s the children. It’s the culture — not just of school, but the larger culture we live in. Parents blame teachers for their child’s behavior. Students have no fear of consequences from teachers — or anyone else, for that matter. Learning is not the top priority. The role of the teacher is more entertainer, social worker, psychologist, and nanny than it is teacher. And this is not what I signed up for. This isn’t what the job was ten years ago. It’s not even what the job was five years ago. It has gone steadily downhill since I began, and the battle against it gets uglier every year.
I have spent this year’s winter break thinking not of what I could do differently–what I could do better–but thinking of my resume. What else can I do? Where else can I go? Is it time? Am I done? There is guilt associated with the thought of leaving, as well as a generous amount of disappointment. Again, this is something I had wanted to do for a very long time and worked day and night to get here–not to mention the money borrowed in student loans. It was a dream. Now my dream is to be something else. I’ve thought about moving to another grade, another building, another district. I got my master’s in educational leadership thinking I could become a leader and inspire other teachers–develop their capacity to get the most from their students. I no longer have any interest in the idea. I could not, in good conscience, lead people in a system that feels designed to be impossible–that fails students and teachers at every turn. Maybe I need to try another school district. Maybe just another grade level or another building in the district. But I sincerely doubt it will make the kind of long-term difference I’m looking for.
It’s time to get out. Notice I didn’t mention salary? Notice I didn’t mention the daily demands and challenges? Many of the ones you hear other teachers mention factor only mildly in my thinking. Every job has unique frustrations. I understand working more hours than you are strictly scheduled or paid for. I worked in salaried positions for many years before entering education. I understand having to take work home with you. I understand frustrating leadership decisions. Those are details–little things that pile atop the big things. Alone, they aren’t enough to drive me from the profession. I’m even one of the few teachers I know who does view summer and winter breaks as paid time off. No, it’s that the world–not just the world of education–has changed so much in these past ten years that it’s no longer one in which I believe I can be the teacher I wanted to be. I was for a time.
I’ve come up with several reasons why maybe I should stay just another year or two–potential changes in leadership, the promise of new curriculum, the bond I have with some of my colleagues, the possibility that the pendulum will swing the other way, but what I am sacrificing for the gamble that things will improve is my own sense of well being–my mental and possibly physical health. My focus has shifted to what comes next while I battle mounting teacher-guilt. My focus has shifted to thinking about what else I want to do and how I can get there rather than on what I can do to make my present circumstances better. This is an incredibly difficult choice to make.
But,I believe the time has come.