Teacher Burnout: Why I’m Glad to be Leaving the Classroom

Frustrated Teacher

Maybe it’s cliche to say that the education system is broken, but after this year, I feel it within my bones. When I look around this world, I see a lot of positive change happening: advancement of technology, innovations in the workplace, and the crumbling of outdated systems and paradigms. Humans are smart and resilient; we keep up with the demands of the time and know how to adapt when necessary. Now, maybe we don’t always do things perfectly, but from what I’ve observed, we know how to try.

So why does it seem like education is not evolving like it should? Why does it appear that the well-being of teachers gets lower on the priority list with each passing year? Why do I not see more of our leaders, well, leading? These aren’t baseless complaints. I’ve been in this profession for 17 years now; I know what I see and what I’m dealing with.

Idealism

In a recent article from Forbes.com, the author writes, ‘“Current teachers are now unlikely to encourage young people to enter a profession that is as challenging as teaching has become…and, it’s not only teachers who are discouraging the young people they care about from becoming teachers. A 2022 nationally representative survey found that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans would encourage a young person to become a K-12 teacher.”’

Yikes. But I wholeheartedly agree. Unless some drastic changes are made in the upcoming years (unlikely), I would never recommend this profession to anyone. Which is sad, because I idealized teaching for a long time. As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student inspired by my English teacher grandmother, I had high hopes for what possibilities awaited me. And for many years, those hopes burned bright. I stayed committed to creating relevant and rigorous curriculum. I cared deeply about growing as a teacher, trying new strategies, and learning from the veteran teachers at my site. Hours of my precious time were spent designing lesson plans that would engage my students, not to mention attending many trainings that would give me new tools to add to my teacher toolbox. Each new year I felt those giddy butterflies when the Back To School signs popped up in my local Target. All my fellow teachers know what I’m talking about. A fresh start.

The Band-Aids Aren’t Working

Somewhere in the last five years, my light started to dim. The pandemic certainly highlighted and exacerbated many of the issues that were already present, while also creating new ones. I don’t want to oversimplify here, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that we never really recovered. In some ways we adapted to the demands of the times, yet in other ways it seems we shot ourselves in the foot. And I say “we” because educating young people is a community effort.

It would be silly to try to cast blame on any ONE thing; the decline of education is ongoing and systemic with countless complex variables at play. I don’t claim to know every single issue that has brought us to this point or even how to fix the numerous problems that plague so many of America’s schools. Clearly, problems have always existed and will continue to exist, as is true with any institution.

But lately I’m finding that the goal shouldn’t be so much about fixing problems (because as every teacher knows, we can keep putting band-aids on these recurring issues and the pendulum will still swing back to hit us in the face). Rather, our focus should be getting to the root of the issues, which may require a full dismantling and rebuilding of our education system.

No Longer a Priority

The part that feels hopeless to me, is that to dismantle and rebuild, there must be collective buy-in. We as a nation need to feel urgency around the growing concerns (that feels too euphemistic; can I say tragedies instead?) as well as excitement about new possibilities within our schools. Education needs to be a priority. And…it’s just not. But why?!

Where are all the Students?

Do you know how many absences and tardies I documented this year? Hundreds. And I only taught two classes. So much of my time was wasted filling out “Tardy Contracts” that didn’t do a damn thing. The same kids were chronically tardy and absent. It was I who was supposed to keep track of these things and turn the contracts into the office, just for them to disappear into a black hole. It was I who was expected to contact parents about these tardies. It was I who was supposed to post work on our school’s online platform and then try to catch up the kids who had excessive absences. I mean, forget lesson planning when your energy is spent catering to the ones who don’t even show up. And I do want to acknowledge how many of these students have valid reasons for missing school (no transportation, lack of parental support, etc.) Like I said, the problems go much deeper than simply “students aren’t coming.” But at the same time, it can be hard to feel empathy when I see students showing up 30 minutes after the bell with their phone and a Venti-sized Starbucks cup in hand. Ugh.

Just Call Me the Phone Police

The amount of times I said “put your phones away” this year makes me feel pathetic. This battle ALONE was enough to make me want to quit mid-year. At first I felt it was a “me” problem, like perhaps I just wasn’t very good at cracking down on phone usage or didn’t have a strong enough policy in place.

But over time it became clear to me that policing phones wasn’t MY responsibility. Back to the community thing–if this is a rampant and collective problem, why should it be up to the teachers alone to solve it? This is an administration problem, a district problem, a parent problem, a societal problem. We need all hands on deck with this one.

It might sound dramatic to you, but I’ve always been a sensitive soul, and it’s excruciatingly difficult to watch kids in the throes of phone addiction while adults stand by and do nothing. When you hear the “leaders” at the top say, “we couldn’t possibly adopt a district-wide no-phone policy; the parents would throw a fit”–well, how am I supposed to work with that?!

What’s so maddening to me is how clearly we are letting this generation of students down by our lack of action surrounding this dire problem. It’s the parents who would honestly throw a fit over a no-phone policy, even when the alarming studies and statistics are a simple Google search away. It’s the lack of urgency from our nation, the complacency, the “our hands are tied” attitudes, the lack of time and support to examine the REAL issues because we are focusing on all the wrong things. We keep talking about raising test scores, adopting new programs to help students improve in math, collaborating in teams, designing engaging lessons, creating stronger school culture, interventions, on and on it goes.

Call me crazy but none of these things matter one bit when you give a student unlimited access to a computer in their pocket and tell the teacher she’s not really allowed to take that device away. I could be juggling while doing cartwheels and my students will choose their phone every time. Um, who actually has the power here?!

Suspensions…What are Those?

I get that the studies say that suspensions aren’t effective. I mean, did we ever think they were? If anything, suspending a student was more about helping out the teacher and other students in the class by eliminating the problem for a bit. So excuse me for being exasperated by the fact that I had to see the student who cussed me out in class the next day. Over and over again. What message did that send to the problem student, the other students, and especially me as the teacher?

I’m all for keeping kids in school, but where is the accountability? Sending them to a few hours of on-campus intervention where they probably still have access to their phones and there are no real repercussions or lessons learned isn’t doing anyone favors. We are struggling to find that balance between holding high expectations/carrying out appropriate consequences and being extra careful to not “harm” the child. And everyone suffers except the one with the behavior issues, imagine that. Where are the alternative schools for these kids?! Where is the outrage and the no-tolerance policies around these horrendous behaviors students are exhibiting? Why are we allowing the bar get lower and lower?

These Kids Don’t Belong Here

I’m not afraid to say it: not all kids belong in a traditional public school. This year I had two autistic kids (one was absolutely brilliant but he never got to show it because my class is not designed in a way to support his growth), and 8 kids in total on an IEP. While I do agree that ALL students deserve equal opportunities, it’s bewildering to me that we think plunking kids with very specific learning disabilities into a regular classroom and then throwing an “aide” in there (especially if that aide isn’t good at his/her job) to “help” the kids is fair in ANY way.

I was constantly torn at how to best accomadate these kids that I wasn’t actually trained to teach. Even with clear-cut instructions in their learning plans, I often felt like I wasn’t giving them what they deserved since I am simply one person and can only do so much in a class of 35 students.

Worse than Defeat…

This is the first year that I have ever in all my years of teaching felt total DEFEAT. You know what happens when you care and care and care and no amount of caring changes anything? That defeat turns to apathy. Like IDGAF vibes. By the end of the year, I was showing up to work totally checked out. When I finally admitted to myself that the problems I was experiencing weren’t mine to fix, I settled into this apathy as a way to, perhaps, protect myself from the sadness and anger that would likely swallow me whole if I gave it any attention. A person can only care so much…

Dig Up the Roots

I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again: Nothing changes until you go to the roots. Look at the bad fruit and see what’s poisoning it. Examine those roots, get curious, pull them up. But none of that can happen without respect for the ones in the trenches.

The students are not the foundation of schools; the teachers are. Why? Because, the happiness and success of the students depends on the happiness of the teachers. And the happiness of the teachers depends on the support and respect of the administrators, the district, the community, the nation. But, teachers are notoriously undervalued. How do I know? Well, look at how many are leaving; stats don’t lie.

My question is: what is the culprit? Bad parenting? A changing world that we cannot keep up with? Lack of funding? The overemphasis on coddling kids? Lack of accountability? Low pay? Covid? Can we nail it down? Does it even matter?

Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

I’m sad that this year went the way it did. I’m sad for all the people in the system who feel growing apathy and hopelessness, who feel tired and checked out, whose love for teaching and making a difference has diminished or completely evaporated. It’s not for lack of trying to hold on and make it work, but burnout is real. When unrealistic demands and expectations for teachers continue to rise while expectations for parents and students decline, what else can be expected?

The departure of teachers from their profession is real and ongoing, and unless we can return to being a nation that prioritizes education and esteems its teachers, I fear we will find ourselves one day soon looking around empty classrooms and wondering where all of the teachers went. And we will only have ourselves to blame.

You might also enjoy Teaching In A Pandemic: Learning To Unapologetically Set Boundaries and It’s Time We Give Teachers the Credit They Deserve

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