Reigniting the Fire: Why Teacher Burnout Doesn’t Have to Be Forever

This blog is the first in a series of writings that will chronicle Angela Reid’s decision and subsequent experience of leaving the high school classroom to become a graduate teaching assistant in the English Department at Central Michigan University, only to unexpectedly return to the very same high school classroom one year later.

Image from Pixabay user MasaHu
Image from Pixabay user MasaHu

When I turned my keys in to my former principal on that warm summer morning of 2013, I had no intention of ever teaching high school English again. I felt it in my bones. My soul was exhausted, my body defeated. I felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins when he remarked to Gandalf, “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.” Yes, in my “heart of hearts,” I felt exhausted, unproductive, and uninspired.

In addition, I felt something else even more damning and downright terrifying. I began to feel what teachers fear the most, that perhaps my teaching was becoming ineffective. The characters of my beloved novels, such as Catcher in the Rye and O Pioneers, who had once leapt off the pages, heartily introduced themselves to my students, and pirouetted and pranced around my room now suddenly felt cold and flat. I felt like a fraud, and I could not in good conscience stand before a class of students and feel as if I wasn’t giving them the education they deserved.

Looking back, I realize now that I was naive not to see this change coming. It had been 10 years in the making, and the blame lay squarely with the blonde woman in the mirror. The culprit, or even perhaps the catalyst behind my demise, was the inability to say no. In those last years of teaching before I left, either by choice or placement, I was on practically every committee the school housed at the time. I oversaw everything from homecoming festivities to prom steering committee to coaching multiple academic teams. In addition, I taught enrichment summer courses. There were countless days when I didn’t see the sun because I left for school before the sun came up and didn’t return home until after dark.

Furthermore, I felt as if the entire teaching profession was under fire. In the midst of the national recession, public and non-public teachers alike had lost their jobs in droves or saw their wages frozen or even slashed. The MEA was fighting for every wage increase and attempting to shore up support for their precious benefits.

eliot-imageAnd so on an unusually warm and sunny November morning, while my husband and I drove through the last of the autumn color, I channeled T. S. Eliot and asked in the poetic words of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” In other words, did I dare even think about leaving the profession that I had once loved and cherished? Did I dare to think of myself beyond the role of Mrs. Reid? As a good Catholic school teacher and former Catholic school student, it felt downright sinful to even think of such a thing as leaving my position. Wasn’t I supposed to fight the good fight? Wasn’t my job a privilege? Wasn’t I supposed to somehow rejuvenate during the summer in between professional development, additional teaching jobs, and college classes, and then enter the fall school year with unbridled enthusiasm? I felt like a turncoat for even entertaining such thoughts.

I prayed, meditated, and outright cried at length over such questions, and in the end I came to one solid conclusion that I could not escape. My students, the high school students who sat in the desks of my classroom, deserved better. And, frankly the characters created by the authors, poets, and playwrights who visited and took center stage in my classroom every year deserved better. Exhuming Mercutio and Romeo from their graves and making their tragic deaths count takes a great amount of enthusiasm and passion. That last year, though, I had felt as if I didn’t have the inspired breath to give them life. Rather than bringing them to life in the minds and souls of my students, these characters instead remained upon the page, and voiced their lines in quiet, monotone voices.

Image from Motown31 via Wikimedia Commons
Image from Motown31 via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t say my principal was surprised when I walked into his office and announced that I was leaving. As my friend, mentor, and sometimes my confidant, he probably saw it coming, even though he hadn’t said anything. I humbly asked him for a letter of recommendation, which he gave me, and that year I closed out the first chapter of my high school teaching career. The remaining part of the year, between my resignation and my departure was bittersweet. While I needed a break from the job, I did not look forward to stepping out the door and stepping away from my students and colleagues.

As I waltzed into my room after the annual end of year teacher retirement party where I’d just been crowned homecoming queen, (that’s another story) I expected to feel triumphant and perhaps even free and ready to start a new life. But as I got down to packing away my lesson plans and novels, visions of John Proctor, Romeo Montague, Atticus Finch, Penelope of Ithaca, and Arthur Dimmesdale stood before me. I’ll spare you the messy details, but upon me telling them tearfully that it was over, and that I would remember them always and forever, they vowed to me that they knew better. “You’ll be back,” they said.

And they were right. Little did I know that one year later I would eat humble pie and proclaim to John, Romeo, Atticus, and Arthur that, in the words of Ross Geller, we were indeed merely “on a break.” I never would have guessed that one short school year later–after a year of full time graduate studies and a graduate assistantship teaching ENG 101 at CMU–I would re-enter the very same classroom a newly rejuvenated, inspired, and rested teacher, ready to teach the subject of English with more enthusiasm and purpose than I ever believed possible.

Read the second post in Angie’s series here.

angie-reidAngela Reid, a participant in the CRWP’s 2015 Summer Institute, is an English and Communications teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Prior to earning her teaching degree at Central Michigan University, she was a State award-winning journalist. Her work was printed in newspapers throughout the United States.

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Angela Reid
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