How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 1: Take Stock. Is It Worth It?

This is the second post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.  For the introductory post, go here.

On Monday, I introduced my career crisis.  After teaching joyfully for many years, I was tired, discouraged and ready to quit.

But I paused before throwing in the towel.  I took a deep breath, and took stock.  Was it really time to look for a new job?

I asked myself some questions.  You might want to consider them, too.

 1.  Are these feelings new?

For years, the classroom had felt like my natural habitat: a place where I was more comfortable than almost anywhere else.  Even if a lesson was disastrous, I was INTERESTED in the disaster and how it had happened.  My students fascinated me, and I wanted to know and help them as much as possible.  This had changed only recently: I was now so irritated by students who were disruptive or disengaged that I was failing to appreciate everyone else.

I’d loved my job once.  Maybe I could again.

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

 Was it possible that I still loved teaching but would rather be teaching another subject?

I continued to love language and literature, but I was now less interested in fiction, my area of greatest expertise, and more intrigued by personal narrative.  I asked myself if I could incorporate more of these kinds of texts into my lessons.

I also asked myself – perhaps for the first time – why I thought literature should be important to my students.  Why should we read, write, study and analyze texts?  Did these activities have real value for students like mine, who rarely read for pleasure and who often resented being asked to engage with literature?  Could I do more to communicate my passion about these topics?

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

 I rarely meet a teacher who has anything good to say about grading.  However, some teachers find the pressures of marking so crushing that they leave the profession.  Teachers of literature, and other subjects that require mostly essay writing, are especially vulnerable, as are conscientious teachers who feel compelled to give students lots of detailed feedback.

One dedicated English teacher I know left on maternity leave and continually found excuses not to return, saying she might never go back to teaching because the thought of grading mountains of essays caused her to curl up into a fetal ball. Retired friends talked about how they missed everything about teaching but the marking.  It wasn’t just me.  Grading papers is brutal.

My own hatred of grading had gone from a normal aversion to two extreme physical reactions.  For one, I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hand, arm and neck – it had first manifested a few years before, the result of compulsive journal writing, but it was now so painful to write by hand that I avoided it at all costs, even at the expense of grocery lists and phone messages.  I had also seen an old problem reassert itself: hyperventilation.  I was literally suffocating each time a pile of papers landed on my desk.

I would have to find ways to cut down on the grading.  If this proved possible, I might be able to stay.

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

 When I talked to friends (teachers and others) who were dissatisfied with their jobs, a number of them told me, “I love what I’m doing, but my workplace is toxic.  I can’t stand my manager/my colleagues/the administration…”

One evening a few years ago, I called a friend, in tears over a student who was making my life hell.  She responded, “Imagine how you’d feel if the a**hole you were crying about was your boss.”

Her point was clear.  The staff, faculty and management at my college were supportive.  We often took refuge together in offices, union lounges and bars, talking about our difficulties or just enjoying one another’s company.  (For example, if you’d like to know how print shop employees can fill your life with sunshine, go here.)

A positive work environment is precious, and rare.  Did I want to give it up?

 5.  Teaching has many secondary advantages.  How important are they? 

Besides being around young people and taking pride in what we do for them, there are other perks to being a teacher.  These often include long vacations (even after the grading and prepping), flexible work schedules (we can do some of our work at home in our pyjamas), autonomy (in our classrooms, we call many of the shots), and eventually, job security (turning one’s back on a tenured/senior position is no joke.)

It’s important to me to have stretches of time to work on my own projects like fiction writing, studying, and blogging.  Creative and stimulating jobs are often less than financially stable.  When I fantasized about other possible careers – writing full-time, going to culinary school – I couldn’t imagine one in which security, freedom, inspiration and emotional reward would be so balanced.

Jobs are hard.  Period.  My teaching job was, by all objective and subjective measures, a good job.  Did I really think I would find a better one?

*

We all know bitter, unsatisfied teachers.  The world doesn’t need more of them.  If I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like teaching, I’d have begun looking for other work.

However, this first step – taking stock of my real feelings – made one thing clear: teaching suited me.  There were serious challenges that sometimes seemed like too much to handle, but they were balanced by the rewards: the chance to do something meaningful, to be comfortably paid for it, to have time to myself, to engage with material that mattered to me, and to work with people I liked and respected.  I wasn’t done.  I was just tired.

I didn’t want to quit; I wanted a new attitude.  What I needed, I realized, was a break.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how I got one, and how it helped.

*

Have you ever considered leaving your job?  What questions did you ask yourself?  What were your conclusions?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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32 responses

  1. Dear Siobhan,

    I don’t follow many blogs, but I jump to read this one when it shows in my inbox. I am not a teacher. But I find myself relating to this blog on so many levels anyway. The effort to carve something beautiful and lasting out of a negative situation, the desire to find your place in the world, the craving to separate what you love from what you don’t and figure out what there is to salvage and when it’s time to move on. I’m not even sure if I understand why I connect with your blog, but I hope it becomes more clear to me as I work through career crises of my own.

    Thank you.

  2. Very thoughtful, very helpful post, Siobhan. As I think I’ve complained to you before (sorry!), I burn out fairly regularly, but somehow always find motivation to continue. I treasure my summers. I love getting paid to read and discuss literature. My job is never dull—workdays are filled with life’s infinite variety. Yes, essay grading is soul-sucking, the workload pushes me to my limits, parents are a pain, students can be annoying, and the pay stinks. But the great thing about working in a school is that every year it supplies literally hundreds of new human beings to know, teach, inspire (and be inspired by), observe, learn from, and connect with. Not sure there’s another job that immerses one so deeply in the human experience.

    • ETC: “But the great thing about working in a school is that every year it supplies literally hundreds of new human beings to know, teach, inspire (and be inspired by), observe, learn from, and connect with. Not sure theres another job that immerses one so deeply in the human experience.” Hear hear. This is as good a summary as I’ve seen of the core reward of the teaching experience.

    • I love your last lines – “The great thing about working in a school is that every year supplies literally hundreds of new human beings to know, teach, inspire, observe, learn from, and connect with. Not sure there’s another job that immerses one so deeply in the human experience.”

      Amen, ETC.

      I teach at an alternative HS in Michigan. We are under attack in this state. Very stressful. Not sure if we will have a job next year. Tenure no longer means much in this state. Constant sense of foreboding – not conducive for the job at hand. And yet, we persevere.

      Thanks for the thoughtful perspective.

  3. I am eagerly awaiting your next post as I am about 15 minutes from burn-out after 25 years of teaching. I’ve lost my patience with the unruly, disrespectful, belligerent students who refuse to do any work whatsoever — the ones who talk the entire class time, do no homework, and talk back incessantly. I have lost my patience, my creativity, and my sense of self-worth. I was physically injured by an angry student earlier this year.

    The state has cut our funds, the feds are breathing down out necks, our jobs are tied to increase in test scores, and the majority of the students do not wish to work or learn. I say majority rather than all, for there are a few students who want an education.

    I spend more time completing paperwork to comply with all the accountability measures than I do preparing for class.

    I, too, am swamped with student essays, most of which are poorly written, as I teach regular-level freshmen.

    I have not had a summer off in more than a decade as I teach summer school and take classes. I have frequently returned to the classroom at the end of July as exhausted as I was the end of May.

    I hope that your posts can inspire me to continue. I am discouraged. It was a horrid day today.

    • Mona: I, too, am close to burnout, and I’m just a few years away from retirement. Being a fourth grade teacher, I can’t complain about grading, or even the kids. After many years, it has come down to the community I work in, my team. Not good. I used to work in terrific teams that mentored me and became close friends. So my challenge is how to keep on without “my people.”

      I have worked with difficult kids most of my career, and it does make for horrid days. I worked in special education which required so much paperwork that when I got a chance to go to regular education, I revoked my special ed. credential so there would never be a chance of going there again. I feel for you. But here’s what jumped out at me. You must, must, must take a summer off. You have to “fill up the well” so that you can go back to your students refreshed. You won’t believe the difference.

      Then look at your curriculum. Replace assignments that make you groan inwardly. Give assignments that would enjoy reading, and that kids would enjoy writing. I know, there are standards, but you can be very creative within the standards.

      Don’t grade entire essays. Grade just the opening paragraphs, or the conclusion paragraphs, or one supporting paragraph. Grade just the prewrite. Don’t grade all the pieces they do. Make sure your students are doing most of the work in the classroom. Limit lecturing. Increase time they spend writing or reading in the classroom. While they are writing, have 1:1 conferences with students. I know this is difficult. I also spent time as a long term sub teaching freshman English to kids who’d had a previous teacher who let them lounge around all hour. They were outraged by the idea of homework. Too bad.

      I really like Siobhan’s comment about focusing on what the kids CAN do instead of what they aren’t doing. Understand that none of their behavior is personal, until you force it that way. And don’t force issues with teenagers. Just deliver the consequences and the rewards. Pick your battles.

      I am concerned that you were injured earlier this year. This is awful. You need special support for this situation. Can you get counseling? How has your district dealt with this?

      Please. If nothing else, take this summer off. And spend your final teaching days this year looking forward to it.

  4. I am SO glad that I am not alone in hating the grading of papers. I think we English teachers hate it more than any other subject because it is just so darn time consuming to do it well for us. As I was grading students journals today, I had so many thoughts about how I love my job, except for the grading. If only there were a magic machine that could grade essays for us…. *sigh*

  5. Lovely post. You approach self-reflection from such a rational and logical angle that is refreshing, and even for people who aren’t in education, this advice can be useful.

    In keeping with the spirit of some of the other posters: My mother is a fourth grade Virginia history teacher (in Virginia). She’s in her fifties and has been teaching for about a decade, which means she’ll never be able to retire. When she first started teaching she was very vibrant and excited and full of energy, but I’ve seen the wear and tear on her, and I feel for her. Many times she has thought about quitting, and we’ve talked about it at length. And whenever I ask her point-blank why she doesn’t leave, she says, “I love those kids. I love each and every one of them.” Teaching is something you really have to be passionate about, and if you don’t have that passion, it is hell. It’s really tough for my mother, when the administration is on her ass and the parents are circling and she’s got a stack of research papers to grade and there is yet another pay-raise freeze, to get up every morning and go to that school. But she keeps in mind that it’s for the kids, and I truly think that keeps her going.

    It’s maudlin, I know, but it’s true. Once Mom and I were at a local bookstore and we bumped into a boy she had taught long ago. He was in college. He gave her a big hug and excitedly exclaimed, “I fell in love with history because of you. I’m studying to be a history teacher too.” I swear she cried for days.

  6. I appreciate the checklist of questions to ask. Have asked myself some of them at various times, and it’s nice to see them all together in one place. The one about the value of what is being taught especially stood out to me, probably because it’s one that is tested by the students themselves, and a teacher grows weary trying to make relevant information relevant–because that’s really what teaching is a lot of times. =)

  7. I am an elementary school teacher currently working in Quebec. This is my sixth year of teaching and I have repeatedly considered the idea of changing my career due to feelings of burnout. Granted, I have worked in some really challenging places (Korea, isolated First Nation reserves)! When reading your post I was reminded of all the good things that come with teaching and since I am on March Break right now, I am now going to appreciate them more! :)

    • NJ: It’s so easy to appreciate teaching when we’re on “vacation” (such as it is), isn’t it! One colleague reminded me a couple of years ago that when we are on breaks, they need to REALLY be breaks so that we can clear our minds of teaching completely. March break won’t be that for me, but maybe in the summer…

  8. Tears have pricked my eyes after reading all these comments. I feel like such a failure at the moment and am drowning in a job I used to love…

    • Lisa: please don’t feel like a failure. It’s a very hard, exhausting job, and after more than 20 years I still have days when I feel it might be time to move on. (I’m having one today, in fact…) Whether you keep on teaching or decide it’s time for something new, you have made a difference and will continue to do so!

  9. I teach adults at a world-class Vocational Rehab center. They want to learn, despite having difficulty and personal issues. I often wonder WHY we make education a requirement up to age 16? Make it optional. I also wonder why we think that getting married and having kids at 16 is such a terrible idea? That is how we are made. We have the cart before the horse. All we need to do is offer the students a choice at some point, like age 12 or something: quote W. Edwards Deming when he said, “Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival.” That should be carved on the lintel of every school building. Or every building, period.
    I was supposedly a “gifted student”, but I didn’t see what was inside the package until a few years ago, and it is now 30 years after HS graduation. Why do we insist that people do things they are not ready for? Let them get the other stuff out of the way first, then when they WANT an education, welcome them. It’s not as though the brain has a “sell by” date. The body and attractiveness surely do…

  10. Great blog, and it feels like therapy for me just reading these comments too. It’s very cool to see Siobhan and others replying and offering support! I guess we’re all so focused on other people (our students) that we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. I love the advice from 59yearoldwriteractorteacher about focused grading/marking and bringing in what interests YOU about your subject to allow yourself to be passionate. I forget this all the time and just plough ahead with “the curriculum”.

    I live in the UK and I’ve been teaching Science for 13 years. Pressures have built so much in that time that I often consider alternatives to teaching. We are under a rolling programme of scrutiny from management and I feel myself growing more anxious by the day – we’re only 2 weeks in to the academic year! It sometimes feels like we can’t put a foot right in classroom observations.

    My main problem is a lack of time for planning and grading/marking. I have 3 young kids so teaching is ideal in terms of us having the same holidays. During term time I feel like I’m struggling to get even basic planning done even though I know my subject very well. The pressure to perform and produce results from the students is a recipe for burnout, particularly when I know my colleagues who do well under all these pressures tend to spend evenings and weekends entirely devoted to work. That time is for my family, yet the hardest part of the job seems to be once I leave school for the day, rather than while I’m “at work”.

    I’ll stay tuned, thanks Siobhan an all of you who contribute! :)

  11. Dear Siobhan,

    Great post! I think that any teacher who is going through a rough-patch in their career, or is truly questioning if they should continue with it or not, need to read this post. It’s a great exercise in self-reflection, and can be very therapeutic. This is something all teachers need from time-to-time.

    Randy

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