The Back-end of Burnout (or, There’s No Tired Like Teacher Tired)

I sat this school year out for a bazillion reasons:

  1. My husband’s health was suffering. Between 2016 and 2021, I’d dealt with my husband’s health in the form of 2 heart a massive heart attack (13 or so minutes flatlined), numerous issues with circulation and mobility, a downturn in his attitude and an uptick in his Virgo tendencies to criticize and blame me into the ground rather than deal with his mental and emotional health around his physical changes, and all that bookmarked by a stroke.
  2. My marriage, already tenuous, hit the rockiest of patches. Age changes you. I’d begun to push back in places and ways I’d never done before the age of 40. Ya girl got a new attitude. Neither of us could say we were happy with each other, but my decision to just stop being agreeable and let stuff ride in silence definitely exacerbated the issues. I was irritated and irritable, tired of carrying the weight of our relationship’s wellbeing by being the one to bend over and take the L. I basically went on an emotional rampage.
  3. My daughter’s health went into the toilet. The oldest was already dealing with what she was dealing with and somehow around this time, her symptoms got worse. Up until this point, everybody (my mama nem included) made it a point to make me seem like a bully, like I was trying to “give” her a disease or whatever because “she wasn’t like” me. Can we say projection cuz I’ve never wanted nor anticipated either of my daughters to be anything like me. They got DNA from a whole other family of folks first of all, and also: INDIVIDUALS. Meanwhile, as she tanked at school and exhibited behaviors that made me ask her if she was pregnant at least 1 time every 3 months, COVID hit and she failed school being at home on virtual learning. It took an entire school year of us going to doctor’s appointments and scheduling therapy and a long talk with a good friend before we figured out what was happening. It took another semester of school and a summer of her advocating for herself to me and her pediatrician for us to relent and give her the help that she asked for.
  4. My other daughter’s mental health took a dive. Listen. When all of your effort goes into paying bills, keeping COVID out the house (a failed mission on so many levels so many times), making sure the spouse is still alive and the other child hasn’t given up on normal life completely, somebody is going to get left behind. Enter the youngest. She started out strong with the virtual life, but eventually (without much input from me while I put out fires all over the place) she slid into depression and anxiety and puberty and aches in her bones and Lord knows what else cuz she don’t share with nobody but her 2.5 friends.
  5. My health suffered. I fought it as much as I could. I tried to be upbeat. I tried to exercise. I tried to eat as healthy as possible. But after a while, my stress got the best of me. My liver and gallbladder started acting up. Then I contracted COVID right before the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year and BOOM! My lungs said, “This is the payment for all them cigarettes you smoked all those years, hunty!” And my heart said, “Girl, if you walk up them steps fast one more time, we will be on the way to the ER.” And my legs said, “Remember those blood clots they was looking for while you were pregnant? Well…” And I was depressed and exhausted cuz teaching remotely/virtually/hybridly/in person during pandemics along with all else like the deaths of family, friends, and colleagues? Well.
  6. The job I intended to go to after my immediate bout with COVID was doing too much. More on that in a minute.

So I took the year.

Did I have the money? Not really. We managed, and I paid everything I could pay upfront.

Did I have health insurance? NOPE. And that’s a whole other story for another day.

Did I have any idea what would happen next? Hahahahahaha.

Here’s the thing though: I had to take off. Needed to. My body and my brain refused to negotiate. They each had deemed me a terrorist, and cut off all communication with me, choosing instead to attack to kill. I couldn’t even read my teacher’s manuals. Opening them up meant that the words would immediately float off the page and scramble themselves into a veritable Sesame Street Alphabet Soup. The panic that crawled up my chest and into my throat daily paralyzed me. And then? Well. Then the blot clots showed up after a mild case of Covid. My legs would bruise with these weirdly precious patterns and patches of blue and purple. My ankles have been swollen like I’m 6 months pregnant for months (I am not). And some days, I just want to lie down all day.

It’s March 2022.

It’s March 2022, and I am finally close to 100%. I’ve been substitute teaching at a relatively low impact school district to keep my classroom management skills intact and to test my ability to stand the workload. I’m no fool. I’m well aware that what I’m assessing for myself in this environment is so different from what it looks like on the other side. I don’t have to do administrative tasks like enter grades, go to PLCs, comment on report cards, or gather missing work for kids on quarantine while subbing. I don’t have to deal with the weirdly feral kids that teachers received after 1.5 years out of the classroom environment. And yes! I said feral. The lack of socialization and preparation at each level for the next one hit educators like 2 tons of bricks while balancing on a high beam in gale force winds. NONE of the kids were ready for the next level of education–not academically for sure, but also? Not mentally and emotionally.

Which is where I come back around the to unreasonable requests of districts throughout the U.S.

Here’s the thing. Teachers teach–and while we might argue on the details of how that should look and what should be taught when by whom and how? We all agree on the truth that we teach more than just the stuff in books. Even the least kid-friendly teacher out there teaches more than what the curriculum says and the standards demand. Teachers teach kids how to be in official, quasi-professional environments. What does that mean? So glad you asked!

Imagine if the people in your office came into the office acting like a bunch of 5th graders on Red Bull and Skittles–and your boss just throws up her/his/their hands and says, “Nothing we can do about it! We gotta work with them until they get how to act so that they can do the job.” Now imagine that you, the supervisor, have to wrangle each and every worker and teach them all how to be in an office before you can teach them how to do the work that your boss is holding you responsible for. And you only have a few weeks to do it because the project is due at the end of February or March. (If you’re lucky your boss may get it pushed back to April, but that depends on his boss’s bosses.) The one thing you have going for you in this situation is that most (if not all of them) have successfully managed to work in an office before. You really on have to start from the bottom with 2-3, while working tirelessly to get the others back on track and off the Skittles long enough to do some work. A couple of them come in ready to rock, and you leverage that in a dozen different ways that I won’t get into here cuz some things need not be spoken outside a school setting, right?

That’s what teaching is like.

Now imagine if that same Red Bull fueled, Skittles wasted group of workers that are sent to you have never worked in an office at all. Imagine that all of them are beginning at ground zero.

That’s what Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teachers experienced this year. And to be fair? It’s lowkey what both high school and college freshman educators experienced this year. Complete lack of skill, lack of understanding, and lack of actual language on what to do and how to do it. The rest of teachers mostly got the ones who’d been in school before but not necessarily in an optimal way–and certainly all the time at home with little to no adult supervision didn’t help.

Yep. I said the thing. The large bulk of families left kids–especially those deemed old enough to fend for themselves to…fend for themselves. Teachers were trying to enforce expectations and motivate learning while kids lay on couches with hoodies and blankets and puppies or at kitchen tables with 2 siblings younger than them or in houses full of family members who lived together during COVID without good internet or a quiet place to work or the kids who were just at home treading water without intervention because everyone was working and dealing with their own stuff (see my list above). And all of those kids came back into classrooms out of whack.

Emotionally. Relationally. Academically.

If things had gone how the bulk of educators wanted them to go? They would have spent the bulk of this year recovering skills–but not just content knowledge. They would have redeemed the time meeting the social-emotional needs of students. And I’m not talking about doing yoga or meditating for a few minutes or journaling or all of that foolishness. I’m talking about teaching kids how to be.

How to be in a classroom.

How to be in a group of peers.

How to be communicative in productive ways.

How to be in a learning community.

How to be in control of expressing their emotions and their experiences.

How to be in a state of mind to learn.

Because it’s only when those things have been put in place that we can teach the content. Their capacity to learn determines our ability to effectively teach. And my colleagues, God bless them, have been attempting to do all these things and keep the unreasonable expectation of teaching grade level content while remediating skills missed over 1.5 years of COVID teaching. Never mind that that 1.5 years doesn’t account for how behind the student may have been going into pandemic life.

And this is where the burnout occurs. Teachers may in fact get up every day and smile with your kids and lay out lessons with seeming ease. The parts that you don’t see, though, is the mental toll of dragging your kids along on a journey nobody wants to go on. Scholars are depressed, anxious, angry, destabilized. At the most critical junctures they lost access to peers and activities that have been sold as milestones. They’ve lost family members, friends, and opportunities that won’t ever come back. And even if they don’t have the words to articulate it? They feel A WAY.

To force yourself to teach content while facing that kind of emotional time-bombshell is exhausting. To work in spaces where those bombs constantly get detonated in your face? Because make no mistake: your children, regardless of age/maturity level, social/economic status, race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, or religion/lack thereof , are exploding all over the place and taking us with them.

All because everybody is in deep denial in an attempt to “get back to normal.”

Normal what? Last time I checked, we decide as society what is normalized—and that’s what becomes normal. What is this desperation to return to ways of life that weren’t working then either (and part of the reason we ended up in the palace of pandemic horrors in the first place)? Asking for myself.

Meanwhile: cut teachers some slack. Last I checked we are human beings. We don’t live in bunks like Squid Games. We have families and lives. We struggled during the pandemic same as you; we lost loved ones and argued about safety and worried over our kids and yours. This has to have been one of the worst schools years on record, but I can tell you that not one of my colleagues still in the game regrets giving their best to your kids, their scholars.

Don’t make a bad situation worse.

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