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