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Teacher Burnout: A Sad Story

1158071_paper_emotions_-_sadAbout a month ago, I received this email in my Inbox:

After 17 years of teaching, I was diagnosed with ‘burnout’ and needed to take some time off. I fought it, but when the lab results showed body systems shutting down, I complied… for awhile. Part-time only made it worse. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I LOVED my job, my students, my teaching. I dreaded the politics, the nay-sayers, the whiners. Still, how could I be burned out? I thought that only happened to folks who hated what they were doing or had been there too long. It seems remaining a teacher at the top of your game requires more than 3 hours of sleep per night, a general acceptance of less than perfection, and a realization that no matter what you do, there will be some people whom you just cannot make happy. I’m not there yet. I’ve been on disability since March. I actually left the classroom over a year ago, but I had a year of sick days saved up. (Ironic, isn’t it? I couldn’t possibly take a sick day and leave my classroom in somebody else’s hands!) My advice to others is use your sick days. Take time to just relax if you need it. Have trusted friends who will let you know when you are crossing over that fine line between a strong work ethic laced with heavy perfectionism and true obsessive-compulsive disorder and/or generalized anxiety disorder behaviors.

Today, I was told that if I can return in the fall, I can go back into my highly coveted Title One reading position. (This is causing quite an uproar. Many people do not believe I should be given the chance to take it back.) There were two of us, but due to a consolidation, and a reduction in funds, one position was eliminated. (I had lower seniority.) I had been chosen in the interview, began the program in my building, and then helped implement and support it in all 5 district elementary buildings. Now, due to retirement, the position is open, and I’ve been asked to return, if my doctors release me. I know that I am not ready today. I was supposed to enter a residential program this summer, but don’t know what to do now. Administration wants to know by July. I’m scared to death! If I go back, I’d love my position again, but I just want to get well. I don’t want to walk into a position where everybody is already mad that it’s my job and not theirs. Another year, and I think I would have been much more ready.

To add to the anxiety… our district is offering a resignation incentive this year. If I resign by 5:00 on 5/26 (4 hours from now), I get paid 25% of my base salary on July 1st, 2009, and 25% on July 1st, 2010. (Total 50% of my base annual salary in exchange for walking away from my job.) My disability insurance payments and medical premiums would still continue until March 2011, if I continued to be disabled. The monthly payments (60% of my monthly salary) would continue until retirement, but I’d lose medical coverage March 1st, 2011, if I continued to be disabled after that. I feel like I’ve wasted this past year worrying about what to do about my job. “If this… then what?” I’m tired of thinking about making the ‘right’ decision. If I were single, I’d sign now, and never look back. I’m married, with one child beginning college this year, and another starting next year.

I hate to give up a decent job at a time like this. Should I just let the position go for now and take a self-contained classroom when I’m ready to go back? Do I take the buyout, pay off my mortgage, and see what God puts in my path in the future? I could return to a consulting job I dabbled in before my breakdown, or substitute teach, (I loved subbing… all the plusses of teaching without all the extra paperwork and responsibilities… but that was 20 years ago!) My head tells me that walking away from my relationship with this district when I am “not in my right mind” seems an impulsive, unintelligent, weak, quitter choice. I just wonder what other teachers would do.

Whether you have any advice or not, it helped to write it out. Thanks for your site!

Words escape me to respond to this, but I think sometimes writing things out is the best thing we can do. A follow-up email came in:

As I said, just writing it was helpful, so you can decide what to do with it. Thank you for listening and responding! I listened to my head and didn’t take the buyout. I just felt like I wasn’t capable of making a decision of that magnitude at that time. I’m not at peace with my decision, but I probably wouldn’t be at peace with taking the buyout, either. It’s why they call OCD the “doubting disease.” If you decide to post it, I would be curious to hear what others might have done in this situation, or from others who have been “burned out” and made it back to tell about it.

The field rep for our medical insurance told me to “be patient” so I don’t have “be A patient.” That probably makes sense to everybody except teachers who have nine months in which to make a difference in each child’s life. Patience with kids, I have. Patience with myself, that shouldn’t be necessary. As a reading specialist, I’m accustomed to identifying the problem; implementing an intervention; monitoring for progress; changing/altering/intensifying/continuing the intervention; assessing growth and sending students on their way once the problem is fixed. Patience is not an option. Action is the option of choice. Perhaps the problem lies in my trying to apply that philosophy to every aspect of my life. Hmmm…

I’ve seen your blogs about quitting and staying. Is there any place where you’ve written about people who have gone too far without taking care of themselves and what happens as a result? I’d love to read about how others have handled similar situations. I know they’re out there because the agent assigned to my disability case said he has helped hundreds of teachers complete all the paperwork. He said he is amazed that one specific occupation has such a high level of these types of claims, but that he sees many make a full recovery. (He was explaining why he was so excited about helping me in this situation. He explained that there definitely was hope for my successful return, as opposed to those who are filing due to possibly terminal reasons, such as cancer.)

Clearly there are a lot of points to be drawn from this email exchange. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts!

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting.

See also  I Give Up! 10 Reasons Why I Am Quitting My Teaching Job
He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

7 thoughts on “Teacher Burnout: A Sad Story

  1. Dear burnt-out teacher,

    I write to you from Germany. In my position as vice-principal I have been in close contact to colleagues who were in a situation similar to what you described.
    All of the people who ended up quitting had one thing in common: they doubted and considered leaving and re-considered but after a while they all suddenly had this special moment when they knew for sure: “I’m not going there anymore. Never.” They woke up in the morning and knew. Or, they were sitting in the garden and suddenly they knew for sure.

    Considering that you have been absent for such a long while and are still without a definite decision looks to me as if you are not ready to quit, yet.

    If you decide to go back to teaching you should find yourself a teacher’s support group headed by a trained supervisor. It works miracles to keep one’s expectations real, one’s emotions sorted and it is so good to be able to have a good old whine-fest every now and then without having one’s professional competence questioned.

    Just one thing to remember: teaching may be a vocation, not a job, but teachers too should work to live not live to work.

    Hang in there!

    1. Dear Monika,
      Thank you for your wisdom and examples of how others have handled similar situations. I keep praying for that sudden feeling of peace that lets me know which path to follow. I never wanted to leave teaching. There were enough signs pointing to serious physical events on the horizon if I didn’t take a break, though. I know that I have not overcome those personality traits that led me to the brink of disaster. My goal was to be at a place where I had healed physically, emotionally, and mentally enough to return with confidence that I was on the right path. Next year was my plan, but this is the year the position opened back up.

      I also fear making a terrible mistake by giving up this position running a program that I practically gave my life for to implement. I am completely invested in this intervention program. Through these interventions, struggling readers became excited, proficient readers. I’m sure you understand how rewarding it was to hear them say, “I like reading now.”

      Still, I know my strongest trait as a teacher, patience, is seriously compromised right now. It is a vital personality trait when working with kids who struggle and have low self esteem. Your teachers are fortunate to have you.

      Before I decide, I know I need to go to the school and spend some time in the room where I will be teaching. I need to overcome the fear of returning to the building and seeing the old familiar faces knowing the questions lurking in their minds. Maybe it will be like “taming the monster” or maybe it will be enlightening in other ways. I’ve called a friend, we’ll be partners again if I return, and asked her to accompany me on this soul searching journey.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful insight.

  2. two and a half weeks ago I called off sick for one of the first times in my 8 years of teaching pre-k. It was a thursday. The next day I called off again and informed the director I couldn’t come back. Just the thought of having to go into work had me running to the bathroom. I felt sick every time I thought about going. I’m on my last week off paid time off. The first week I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Now as my last week home relaxing gets closer to the end I;m feeling sick again. I can’t afford to be without a job, but I can’t go on like this. Is this an actual medical condition that a doctor could help me with? This didn’t happen overnite, It had been building up for a long time and I just woke up one morning and decided I couldn’t go back. Thanks for listening. Linda

  3. Dear Linda,
    When I first left the classroom, I was diagnosed with chronic stress syndrome (AKA: burnout, mental exhaustion.) I resisted the need for time to regroup, but the doctor ran numerous blood tests to prove to me that my body was in a state of exhaustion; that it wasn’t just a mental condition. He stated I could try to go back to work with my systems shutting down and see what happens or I could take the time, go on disability, and let my body recover. It might be a good time to see your doctor and explain what is happening. Mine had been building for years also. I think anti-anxiety medication only allowed me to continue working until it got to the critical stage. I wish that I knew back then what was happening, but who knows if I would have cut back at that time? I thought I was invincible and my students couldn’t live without me. I was wrong. Peace to you,

    1. Hi KDA,
      I just found this article today and I relate to what you’re saying. I too am on anti-anxiety medication and have been able to cope until recently when things came crashing down and I took a couple of days off because I couldn’t stop crying and trembling for 2 days. Since then I’ve seen my therapist and physician and we’re all working together for my health. I’m so relieved to have found this site. Thanks KDA for your comment.

  4. Thank you for responding. I have pretty much decided that I cannot go back to my place of employment. That’s not to say that I want to get away from the profession. I think I just need to worry about myself for a change and take care of me. I can’t help a child If I can’t even help myself. Children pick up on things others might miss. The last thing I want is for one of the kids to pick up on my stress and tension. If I’m down, I will bring the kids down. And that’s the last thing I want. Rest, relaxation, and a change of scenery I think will do me good. In the fall, I’ll see if I can find something else. Until then I’ll take it one day at a time. Sincerely, Linda

  5. I have been struggling with my teaching job since I had cancer 5 years ago. I love my work but I hate the fact that I have lost my energy and feel so drained all the time. I am lucky to be alive yet don't know how to keep going. I can't afford to just give up because I am self-supporting. But I am afraid that if i carry on, I will eventually be dismissed because of capability issues. I couldn't bear the shame and disapointment. If I have any more time off I will be dismissed for absence. I don't want that . I look back to when I started out as an enthusiastic and idealistic young teacher. I could never have imagined that it would end up like this. I am trying to be positive but it is so hard. Look after yourselves and live for the day. You don't know what tomorrow will bring. Thank goodness for my children.

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