How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 2: Take Time Off

One of my favourite quotes about burnout is from Bertrand Russell’s essay “Education and Discipline”:

 … it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children.

 In Thursday’s post, I described the “confectioner’s apprentice” moment in my career.  I no longer enjoyed anything about my students.  It was as though I’d been eating nothing but macaroons for fifteen years; I never wanted to see a macaroon again. Maybe if I got away from the macaroons, I would remember what I’d liked about them in the first place.

I had to step away from the classroom.

I decided to apply for government arts grants to fund a semester of work on my current novel.  If I got one, I would take a professional leave.  This was a state of emergency, however; I needed a break NOW, and, the likelihood of receiving an arts grant being what it is, I needed a contingency plan.

The Husband (then the Fiancé) and I had a talk.  If I didn’t receive funding, but could put aside a bit of money, would he be willing to pick up the slack while I took time off?  He knew the situation was desperate, and he said yes, we’d manage.  If I’d been on my own, or if we’d had children to support, I would have had to find another solution – applying for a temporary non-teaching job, for example, or putting off a leave until I had savings.  But one way or another, it had to be done if I wanted to continue being a teacher.

He began stockpiling.  (That’s the kind of husband he is; I recommend you get one just like him.)  I began to budget as well, and it soon became clear that we’d be able to pull it off.

And then, an arts grant came through.  I would be able to take a semester, plus summer and winter vacation – a full eight months – away from the classroom with minimal financial worries.

From the moment I opened the letter of acceptance, I began to feel the healing effects.  For the rest of the term, I could see the quiet months of solitary writing work waiting for me, just a few steps away.  Classroom difficulties, no matter how I handled them, would vanish in a matter of weeks.  Everything became less dire.

When the semester was over, the papers were graded, and my leave began, I was already dreading returning to work the following January.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the leave was going to vanish from under me, and I’d be back in the classroom, gritting my teeth and snarling and counting the days to retirement.  It was weeks before I could relax enough to take my novel manuscript out of its drawer and begin work on it again.

As time passed, though, and I settled into the rhythms of writing, my teaching life began to dissolve like a dream.  I occasionally read an article or had a conversation about teaching, and impressed myself with my calm and detachment.  I considered past classroom problems, and potential future ones, with very little visceral response.

This, I thought, is what people mean by a “vacation.”  I hadn’t had one in years.

It took almost five months for the teaching cobwebs to blow out of the corners of my brain, and by the time they had, it was almost time to start preparing to return to work.  To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to it.  My course schedules gave me prickles of excitement.  I logged into the online class lists and looked over the pages of student photos – I felt a bit anxious, but I didn’t feel dread.  And in the weeks before class began, I didn’t have my usual “teacher nightmares” – dreams of broken photocopiers, vanishing classrooms, standing pyjama-clad in front of forty shouting hellions.  Instead, I felt – was I kidding myself? – eager.

As I entered each of my new classes on the first day, I smiled sincerely at the students.  I really was glad to see them.  I think they could tell.

Throughout the term, there were difficulties, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed.  It was as though stepping away from the teaching life had made everything about it – the class periods, the distance between midterm break and Easter weekend, the stacks of essays, the occasional belligerent student – smaller.

It was the best semester I’d had in many years.  I was on my way to loving my job for the long term – if I could continue to get away from the macaroons from time to time.

*

If you’re a teacher who’s feeling exhausted, you might want to investigate your school’s options for leaves.  At my college, teachers can take unpaid leaves if we give appropriate notice.  Tenured teachers can also arrange for “advance” or “deferred” salary – for example, we can spread two years’ pay over three years – or apply for a reduced workload.  All these options have consequences for our pension, health insurance, seniority and, of course, income, but teachers who are able to accept those consequences can take steps toward greater sanity and efficacy.

If your school allows personal leaves, no questions asked, consider an aspect of your identity that’s been dormant while you’ve been giving your all to the classroom.  Do you have a manuscript languishing in a cabinet?  Do you need to spend a few months on a meditation retreat?  If your school will only grant “professional leaves,” consider a project you’d like to undertake that you can spin as “professional development,” like travel or going back to school.

And then, of course, consider how you’re going to pay for it.  If you can swing it, it will be totally worth it.

*

Have you ever considered taking time away from your job?  Did you do it?  Why or why not?  Did it help?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday’s post: finding and appreciating my community.

*

 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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27 responses

  1. Hi Siobhan. This is a lovely post. Isn’t it amazing how a break can enable you to re-engage with something which seemed utterly unbearable not so long before? I totally identify with the process you describe. I suppose that the gold standard solution would be to avoid burnout altogether by finding ways to really take a genuine break before the crunch came… or would it? How far do you feel that the long stretch you had ‘off’ has contributed to your teaching since? – and could that have been replicated with micro-breaks of some kind?

    • CK: I don’t think microbreaks would have done it then, although they might now. I really needed that much time to completely step away from the classroom and understand that it wasn’t my whole life. Microbreaks do help, though – every semester I try to take a couple of “mental health” days, if only to get caught up on all the grading!

      • ” I really needed that much time to completely step away from the classroom and understand that it wasn’t my whole life.” I hear you on this one. We pour our heart into our teaching, thinking that here is something that we can really live for; but if it truly is our whole life, it will take more than we can afford to give without losing who we are as a person. I’ve found it important to have times, even during my teaching months, where I give myself permission to step away mentally from the teaching life and remember that is is not everything: it isn’t who I am as a person, just a part of it.

        • ATWB:
          Last night I watched “American Teacher” for the first time, and it truly is a cautionary tale on this topic. Granted, the film is mostly about how poor teachers’ salaries are, and that is not a complaint I can make. But it also shows how quickly we can burn out if we invest ourselves heart and soul in our jobs. I have found that the best I can do is to be fully present when it is required of me, and to give myself long breaks to remind myself of everything else I am.

          • “I have found that the best I can do is to be fully present when it is required of me, and to give myself long breaks to remind myself of everything else I am.”

            That’s a really helpful way to put it. Goes back to another of your posts, one that talked about maintaining presence even in difficult situations. Have been reminded of that lately =)

  2. Yep. Exactly. Well put. This is what summer does for me. A few weeks to get the students out of my head. A few weeks to relax into a daily routine of my own choosing, or special trips, and then, like a blessing, I start looking forward to the new year.

  3. I too took a break from teaching. It was a 3 year hiatus, but it was well worth it. I came back with a new energy and the passion that was missing prior to my break. Thanks for writing and giving others permission to step away for a moment to cleanse and regroup!

  4. Your husband sounds like the kind I hope to find one day. It is absolutely wonderful that you were able to take this time to recharge yourself and come to love teaching once again. I hope that I can swing a break like this one day. At the moment, my finances would never allow it, but one day… I have hope.

  5. Hi Ms Curious,
    I recognize so much of myself and some colleagues in this post of yours. Why is it that leaving, even temporarily, seems more of a risk than the dire consequences of staying put? I also took a leave several years ago. I had been bumped from one school to another when my own school was shut down and found myself with a student and course load that felt abusive. Was I just a number after so many years of exuberant dedication? Leaving made me feel that I had some control of my own life and career. I built a garden and chose short teaching contracts at colleges to supplement my savings. I too have a generous spouse, but I would have done it even without his financial support. Digging around for new possibilites, all of a sudden, several jobs magically opened up for me that seemed tailored especially for me. Was it just my newly recharged attitude that made me see choices differently? Why do I see colleagues with the money and teaching chops stuck in “bad” spots, complaining, but not leaving? You took a measured calculated risk and were renewed. A toast to you. How did the novel turn out?

    • Kate:
      I think people stay because a secure job is nothing to discard lightly. I totally understand this, and it was one of my primary motivations for not picking up and moving on. As for the novel, a draft is done – we will see if it ever sees the light of day…

  6. I’m in my 5th year of teaching, and I feel like I’m nearing the end of my rope. I definitely think that I need time away from the classroom, at least temporarily. When I think about quitting, I feel relieved. That to me is a sign that I need to make it happen. Interesting series!*

  7. I loved teaching and found it challenging, for sure, but so energizing. That is until No Child Left Behind kicked in and we were told to read from scripted manuals and “do not deviate from the curriculum”. All the fun and true teaching went out the window, and so did I. What was a to be a break turned into something else. I now design and teach university education courses, teach workshops, write kids and activity books, and write for organizations and anything else that comes my way. I am glad I made the switch, but I do miss all the kid energy and the amazing fourth grade sense of humor. Sometimes a break can change into a career move. The field of education is wider than I thought.

  8. No Child Left Behind was a disaster. My WP account not working because no dot.com

    Slower children WERE left behind because of that program. What happened to the teenager, who did not conform. The brighter child disadvantaged.

    Hope that your blog will attract TEACHERS, and get ideas to officials and change State and Federal Teachers’ Unions and Department of Education (do away with them!)

    It is a shame that retired teachers are not more organized. But, that is what AARP was supposed to be…unfortunately

    Our jails, prisons, juvenile detention can not be blamed on teachers. But, teachers CAN make a difference.

    Best of luck. I am on: @ twitter 1 Charlie Hice

  9. It’s not just teachers who could use a break. I’m a paraprofessional in a special education resource room at a middle school. Most days I feel like someone is tearing my fingernails out. I used to love my job, but now I’m counting down the days until I finish my degree and can do what I really love – write.
    It’s true that the students can tell when we get to this point. I pray for grace to smile and be the helper they need. Education is so important and I’m sad to see legislation pass that makes fewer people want to enter the field. Also, when will the government figure out how much our future success as a nation relies on the funding of education now?

    • Sharon: I feel like everyone in every job deserves a sabbatical every few years, but definitely those of us in the education milieu, whether we be teachers or counsellors or administrators. Any job, really, where we have to deal w/ people all day, especially young people.

      • Maybe we should work less, and enjoy life more. I lived for about 10 years on basically no money, and it didn’t kill me. However, I was working (for no pay) all day every day the last few years, and that almost did.
        Your quote by Bertrand Russell is on track: have several jobs for a total of about 6 hours 5 days a week, not one for lazy-8 hours a week. Why do other countries have shorter work-weeks and more weeks of vacation than the US? Why do we put up with this?

  10. I enjoyed reading your post. I just resigned from a seven year career as an elementary and middle school teacher. I needed a rest. I desperately wanted time to write and work on my blog and write that book I have dreamt of having time to write since 3rd grade. I was not able to get a professional leave, as I am just taking time off and so I resigned, cashed in my retirement and am spending the next year writing. Then, possibly refreshed, I may return to teaching, at least I hope to, but I don’t know how that will go…

  11. I’ve taken permanent time off from teaching. Couldn’t cope with all the politics and extra drama in schools. I am still passionate about education, but not sure where I fit in. So now I blog about it, while working in an office.

  12. Siobhan,

    A brilliant blog. I’m also trying to save my career. I am simultaneously frightened at and comforted by the number of teachers who share my exact sentiments.

    Is the problem the profession or us? How can someone not feel daunted and burnt-out by this demanding, maddening, enlightening, rewarding emotional and intellectual fun-house?

  13. Siobahn, I found your blog as many do, I’m sure, googling “teacher burnout”. I have family in Montreal and grew up hearing of CEGEP. It seems like a more user-friendly approach to education in the 17-21 yo age group. I teach high school English in Chicago Ilinois; currently I’m in my 3rd year and I am so exhausted I can’t imagine making it much further. The students are the reward now, but I sense that not being enough for much longer. I too get to create my own curriculum, based on heavy, clunky standards of course. I love creating curriculum, but creating everything is not sustainable, especially since I don’t know what I don’t know… I appreciate your blog series on teacher burnout. Some of the suugestions that seem the most valuable, taking time off and writing about your own things seem to be the furthest away from possible. Perhaps that’s just from where I’m standing. Thank you for putting something thoughtful out there about a hard to talk about issue that many of us face.

  14. I took a year leave of absence to pursue my writing dream (like many others), and I’ve since decided not to return. It was great being able to have that safety net to fall back on, but I realized I had to move forward and that my old job of teaching 6th-12th grade English and drama, running two drama programs and co-leading a leadership program was just too much. I loved my students but found that I over-extended myself in order to feel challenged and fulfilled. But over time I realized that the negatives weren’t outweighing the positives and I couldn’t sustain that kind of energy while still trying to have a life outside of teaching. I also feel so much more me when writing–if that makes sense. I now teach English online part-time and I run a teen advice blog, both of which help me feel connected while still leaving time for me to work on my novels. I really appreciate this series of blogs and I’m sure so many teachers have benefitted from your steps and suggestions. Thank you!

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