Teacher Burnout: The Best Advice I Ever Received
When I finally decided I wanted to be a teacher, there was a worry in the back of my mind. I certainly felt this was the path for me – but I knew the statistics. Half of the new teachers leave in their first few years of the profession. Teacher burn out is a real crisis in America. Teachers are expected to wear so many hats, and often, we lack support to do so. The list of duties keeps on increasing, society continues to turn its back on us, and wages are certainly not improving. I wanted to be a teacher – but will I be strong enough to avoid or overcome burn out?
The scarier part is this – most of the teachers who burn out are great at their job. They are the teachers who excel, the kids love them, and their impact is life changing for many. These are the teachers who do the work because they want to do it – they say yes to the extra duties and responsibilities without batting an eye. In the end, they will be the ones to burn out, and it will crush them to leave. I knew as a teacher; this is exactly how I would be. I know myself and I knew my passion. I knew I would lean into every opportunity to sponsor a club, coach a sport, stay late, chaperone, etc. because that is just how much I loved school. And now I can to come to grips with the fact that this could very easily ruin my career before it really even starts.
When I decided to become a teacher, I met with my old high school history teacher, Mr. H, who had helped me find that path. What you should know about Mr. H is that he is a man who exudes the passion he has for his job. He worked in business before becoming a teacher, so he was older when he got into the profession and still refuses to retire all these years later. His name is known to teachers across the metro area we work in, I have connected with other professionals as a history teacher myself who know and adore him. He is all you could ask for in a teacher – wise, honest, and caring.
I visited him at the school while classes were in session. His students had finished their work early, so he was letting them enjoy a bit of freedom that Friday. Kids were chatting with each other in the background of our conversation, but what struck me was how many kids came up and engaged with him while we talked. A student would come up and talk about how excited they were for the production they were in, or they would walk by and he would ask how baseball practice had been going. Mr. H knew the most important thing about teaching is the relationships we have with our students.
In our conversation that day I expressed to him how I was excited to be starting my certification program but admitted my fear of burnout. I told him I worried about administrators overwhelming me or pushing me from the profession with unrealistic expectations. I told him I worried about making mistakes in the classroom and not giving the kids the skills they need. I told him I worried about handling irate parents regularly. I wanted to be a teacher, but ultimately all these other factors could make me fall out of love with it.
Mr. H paused and looked out at the sea of kids in his classroom and smiled. He told me, “You are here for the kids first. If you do right by them then that’s all that matters. To hell with administrators, parents, politicians, all of them! I know what I need to do in my classroom for my kids and all that other stuff is bologna. They know I am doing my job and doing it well, so I am not going to let them get in the way of that. Ignore them, close your door, and teach. If you live each day of your career with that in the back of your mind, then you will last as a teacher.”
Now, Mr. H was not suggesting ignoring parent emails or administrator wishes. But what he was suggesting is that you not let it ruin the entire job for you. No matter where you teach, you will have some experiences with difficult parents, hard to please administrators, and constantly changing district expectations, among other challenges. But we don’t get into teaching for those things, do we? No. We get into teaching for the kids.
I have taken Mr. H’s advice as simply this: do everything you can for your students and leave it all on the track. When you foster positive student relationships and a great classroom environment, your students learn but also grow as people. If you go to work each day and remind yourself it is for the kids, you will feel a smile creep up as you walk in. When you design your curriculum with your students in mind, they will not only understand, but remember. Then, if your administration, or a parent, or anyone ever questions you – you will know that you did what was best for your students and left it all on the track.
The school that hired me as a student teacher was a great opportunity, but it was a really difficult year. By the time fourth quarter rolled along, I was barely dragging the cart to the finish line. This was partially my own doing – I was an inexperienced teacher who came in a little too bright eyed and bushy tailed. But I also took over a classroom from a long-term substitute and therefore inherited classes with a unique set of challenges. Of course, there were other burdens that came from working at that specific school and district. I honestly believe if Mr. H had not given me that advice, I would not have handled the situation correctly and I very well may have left teaching after only one year.
But every time I got another upsetting parent email, criticism from administration, or behavior outburst from a student, I reminded myself why I was there. I worked hard every day to keep my students engaged and build positive relationships. I chose patience and forgiveness even when I felt unbelievably frustrated. I closed the door, and worried about my classroom and did what was best for those kids. When I look back at the end of my career, I will not think about the admin who drove me crazy or the parent who yelled at me… I am going to remember the relationships I built with my kids.
I had a professor from my certification program who once said to us “worry about what is in your zone of control.” I did what was best for my students, and that is all any of us can do.
Bio: I am a second year teacher who has done a lot of learning and growing in the short time I have been an educator. I was hired by a middle school to complete my student teaching and then finished my first year at the school. I currently work in an alternative school for students with behavior and mental health concerns. I am passionate about teaching and my mission is to help other educators maintain their passion for it as well.