This school year, 2021–22, was the first time in my ten-year career that I have seriously considered leaving the profession of teaching. You would think that it would have been the previous year of chaotic emergency, often virtual, learning that did it—and surely it played a role—but nope. It was this year, with the pressure of the “return to normal,” that has broken my proverbial back.
This is not an article about the state of teaching in our society in general. There are plenty out there. If you need one of those, need to understand how widespread this is, go find one. This is personal.
Content warnings for discussions of food/disordered eating.
It so happened that when the new school year began in September, I had a close friend living with me for a few weeks while she was between places. This was, in and of itself, something of an adventure for me—in my four years of home ownership up to that point, I had lived alone. It was cool having a housemate (with the caveat that this person was likely one of the few people I would ever tolerate as a housemate for more than a couple of days).
This friend got to listen to me throw up the morning before my first day of school. Yes, I started my tenth year of teaching by wretching into a toilet bowl. Then I brushed my teeth, slapped on my makeup, and went into work. I should have been excited to see all my colleagues again, to wear cute dresses and shoes again, for the last months of the previous school year had been entirely virtual.
Instead, I felt dread. Every morning for this entire school year I have felt dread.
I’m so grateful for my friend’s presence that first week. She was a calming influence as I struggled to wake up and figure out what breakfast my body would tolerate each morning. I have always had trouble eating breakfast right after waking up, but this year it truly became problematic. Though my days of nausea were rare, thankfully, for a time I was eating little-to-no breakfast at all.
Let’s not even talk about my issues with figuring out lunch and snacks as my schedule swung from “normal” to teaching Monday to Thursdays with Wednesday and Thursday evenings tacked on and Fridays off to compensate to “normal” to teaching afternoons and evenings with my mornings off. We’ve just started our fifth and final term of classes, and I am grateful to be back on a “normal” schedule, except of course for the part where I have to drive across town every day at lunch.
This is where I insert a quick disclaimer: my admin is not to blame for this. The ultimate cause of this scheduling malarkey is structural, a complex quagmire of insufficient funding for adult and continuing education, staffing issues, and a rigid education system in general that demands far too much from us teachers. But like I said, this post is personal. I just wanted to make it clear, for any who read this, that I harbour no resentment to my manager or anyone else in administration. They are dealing with their own struggles too, and I have felt nothing but supported by them as I not only went through a pandemic but figured out my gender transition on top of that.
But back to me.
I am counting down the days to the end of the school year. This year, I am not teaching or marking summer school like I have for the past six years. I cannot afford this break—I started freelance editing in the hopes of paying my bills over the summer, but business isn’t there yet, so I’m going to accumulate some debt. But I don’t really feel like I have any choice here. I cannot work another summer. I cannot keep going like I have been, saying, “Oh, I am so burnt out” but not actually doing anything about it.
I have been gaslighting myself by telling myself that because I haven’t had a complete breakdown, haven’t gone on stress leave, have managed to stumble my way to the finish line, my burnout is somehow less legitimate than other teachers’ burnout. “My stress can’t be that bad,” I have been telling myself and others. I have encouraged and congratulated my colleagues who have chosen to take leaves, saying, “I would take a leave if I really needed it.” Liar. I’m terrified of the bureaucracy involved, the guilt of exacerbating already serious staffing issues in our program, and the loss of what little socializing I have in my life thanks to the ongoing pandemic.
I don’t like my job anymore, but worse, I don’t love it anymore. If you understand teaching, you understand what that means.
Another disclaimer: it’s not the students. It’s never the students. The students are lovely and, while they can occasionally feel like the worst part of the job, the truth is that they are inevitably the best part. They are why I’m here, and my brightest moments throughout this year have been those fleeting yet rewarding interactions when you realize you might have actually made a difference.
I’m having some good times right now with my students—yet they don’t feel like good times. Despite the improved atmosphere, I still dread the day ahead of me every weekday morning. My eagerness to be finished with this school year is not the anticipation of summer school and change and deck time that I have had in years prior. It’s an impatience to escape the cloying structure of my job that, once a reassuring routine, now feels like a collar that is far too tight. I was a good soldier all the way through last school year’s wild times, and now everyone wants to go “back to the new normal” but while for many that entails a liberation from bras and pants that are not leggings, for me it entails a version of my job that is demonstrably worse and more draining for (adjusted-for-inflation) less pay.
I have nothing left to give.
I don’t want to quit this profession, not yet. The editing side hustle is important to me, for my growth and to supplement my income that is not increasing apace with inflation, but it is not a replacement career—at least not right now. I still want to be a teacher.
I’m just questioning if that is all I will ever want to be. That’s scary for me.
Maybe this summer will offer respite enough. Maybe come September, the pandemic will have receded to a point where I feel better. Maybe virtual or hybrid learning will disappear (hah). Maybe school will start to feel good again.
I would like to end this post on a note of soaring optimism. I want to be able to tell you I will be OK—well, I will be, because I am awesome and I have an awesome support group of friends and I’m in therapy and I’ll figure my life out, somehow. But I want to be able to tell you I will figure it out in a way that diminishes the pain I am feeling, a kind of premonition of grief for a profession I might be realizing I need to leave behind. It’s painful. This is the career whose sense of routine and order helped me through a parent with cancer (he got better—love you, Dad, thanks for reading the blog!). When I came out as trans in February 2020—literally weeks before we plunged into pandemic—it was with this huge sense of relief that I was in a job where I knew I would be supported.
So I want to be peppy and optimistic and tell you that everything will work out and I will be the teacher I used to be once more. But I can’t.
I just needed to write this. I needed to put it out in the world, not as a philosophical piece about the stress of teachers in our society, but as a personal record of my state of being in May 2022.
Cover image by Carl Heyerdahl.