The Joy of Burn-Out

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“Burn-out has always been one of those things that happens to other people, not me.”

As I read these words by fellow blogger Leanne Yong, I got to thinking, “Hey, I’m other people.”

And on that note, let me tell you what’s been going on with me lately.

At the start of this current year, I accepted a job teaching seventh grade English in a religious private school. Until that time, I had worked exclusively as a public high school instructor, but the circumstances of this new job appealed to me. With my then-one-year-old son at home, I needed a gig that was less than full time, and at this school I would be teaching only three or four classes a day. “Why, it’ll be almost like not working at all,” I thought to myself. How lucky was I to stumble into such a perfect opportunity at just the right time.

As I sit here now, nearly eight months later, I want to laugh at my former self. And I would, if I wasn’t so darn exhausted.

I forgot to take into account how much planning goes into teaching a grade level that one has never taught before: the reading, the planning, the creating worksheets that are challenging, but not so challenging that the students won’t even try them. I also didn’t take into account that middle school kids need to be, ahem, entertained significantly more than their older counterparts. This means more papers: bell work, pop quizzes, crossword puzzles, reading questions, vocabulary sentences, and so on. And more papers means more grading.

Worst of all, of course, is the time spent in the actual classroom. Because no matter how much planning I’ve done, no matter how many assignments I’ve put together that will need grading later, middle schoolers are still middle schoolers. In the past eight months I’ve dealt with everything from incessant chatter to water bottle fights. Most amusing of all was the time several students attempted to start a flash mob during a vocabulary lesson. But again, I’m too exhausted to laugh much at that right now.

So yeah, after eight months of feeling like a total failure in the classroom, the burn-out was really calling my name. Truthfully, it had begun sneaking up on me before I had taken this job. I’d been teaching for almost seven years, and the mounting pressure of standardized testing, coupled with the gutting of salaries, pensions, and tenure protections, have made it very difficult to be an educator in New Jersey. I myself had been laid off twice in five years, and if the new private school job had not come along I might have looked for work in another profession, or taken some time off from teaching altogether. At that time, I thought the job had saved me. Now, as I neared the end of yet another emotionally draining school year, I decided this was the last straw. Come June, I would pack my things and walk out the door for good, reflecting on the fact that I might have gone a whole school year without really teaching anyone anything.

My students, meanwhile, who are at school first thing every morning for religious studies, had begun to notice me walking into the building a full hour or more before my first class. (Because, apparently, it’s only during the actual lessons that they pay no attention to me.)

“Mrs. Goas,” a few of the boys asked last week, “why do you always get here so early?

“The class doesn’t teach itself,” I said. “Someone’s got to do the planning and the copying.”

The boys looked at each other as though they’d never considered this.

“You don’t have to do all that,” one said. “Why don’t you just come in every day and write on the board some page numbers of the board for us to do? And then just tell us to do it. That’s what our teacher did last year. Then you wouldn’t have to work so hard!”

“Uh huh.” I thought of all the times I’d fought to discuss literature with the students, or get them to share and reflect on their own written work. “And would you really rather I do that?”

I expected them to say some like sure, what’s the difference? But instead they looked sheepish, and one of them said, “Well, no. Not really.”

And in that “not really,” I saw that my entire school year had not been in vain.

My plans for June haven’t changed. I have already given my notice, and when the school year ends I will be taking some time to focus on my family. After some time has passed, I will regroup and eventually figure out my next move.

I wonder if the boys were right that I didn’t need to work so hard. Maybe I should have come in last September, handed out textbooks, written some assignments on the board and told them to get to it. Maybe, if I’d done that, I would have had the stamina for another year–maybe two more–at this school. After all, the students swear that some of their teachers do work this way. And these seem to be the ones who have been teaching in this same place for fifteen years or more. Maybe these teachers understand the secret of staying power: Jogging, not sprinting, covers the most ground.

But in the end, I think I’d rather put in one year of really trying to teach, rather than fifteen of handing out busy work. My students probably won’t remember anything I tried to teach them, but maybe they’ll remember me as the teacher who cared enough to come in early.

And for that, the burn-out really isn’t such a terrible price to pay.


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

Photo by alkruse24, vla Flickr.

Our regular Wednesday writer Leanne Yong will return to the Nose on 30 April.

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2 thoughts on “The Joy of Burn-Out

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  1. Ver well written as usual and a valid point well explained. I’m proud of you for your work ethic and also for recognizing that you are burnt out and need to breathe. When you regroup take your experience from this year and use it to find the balance you need to sustain yourself and not burn out but don’t ever change the way you teach.

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