This is a post about burnout.
I almost didn’t post it. It was a google doc all month, and maybe some of you saw it attached to my last post about the CELTA. I’ve added the missing piece now that I was afraid to write about then. I post it now in order to share my experience and in hopes that it might help teachers who have gone through similar.
Burnout happens. Everyone has limits. Our job pushes the limits. We push them ourselves. What stopped me from sharing the experience? For a long time it was the inability to articulate what was happening/ had happened. I was just tired and couldn’t stand the thought of doing any more work. And everything I used to love doing and would have done without a paycheck at times now looked like work.
So here it is. I wrote it during the last week of my CELTA course, when I was given the gift of validation of my feelings and something opened up so I could write again. I left out the part about my coworker. I add it now.
“I’m weak,” I kept telling myself. “I’m just not trying hard enough.” “Maybe I’m getting old, and my energy is not what it was.” “What’s wrong with me?” My memory was failing. My brain felt fuzzy. I couldn’t get enough sleep.
Every day I wondered what was wrong with me. “My best” was less and less effective. Weekends seemed shorter and shorter. “That’s it,” I thought. “I just have to quit.” “I’m not a good teacher anymore.” “Maybe I never was.”
I should have known. I was hired for this job in August of 2013 and I knew then that my bosses were burnt out. They needed help, and I was looking for a job where I could feel useful. Their foreign teacher of 12 years had come back from vacation with a virus attacking his brain. He was very, very ill and it was uncertain if he would completely recover. I took the job and he came back on my first day of work. I had the pleasure of working with him, chatting with him, and sharing ideas with him for eight months. We talked about work, but also about life. One day he helped me make a piggy bank out of an old coffee can. He was good with his hands, good with the students, and good at communicating. Once he came to me and thanked me for coming to chat with him. It had been a lonely workplace where people didn’t talk to each other. Then one day, he didn’t turn up to work. He had collapsed and was back in hospital. Brain cancer.
I was happy to pick up the slack. It was what I was there for and it was the least I could do. Beginning in April of 2014, I began teaching 30~32 hours a week. That was comprised of 18 different groups of students. Some of those groups had textbooks and some didn’t. No classes were repeated in the week. Some classes met two or three times a week and some only once.
The curriculum had been presented to me as a set of textbooks we expect the students to be able to complete in each year. It was not boiled down to handy ‘can do’ statements, and I never had time to read through 8 sets of textbooks and figure it out. I was busy trying to plan 6 or 7 fifty minute classes a day.
The school was a good place, but modest. There was no dedicated room for teachers to work or go during breaks. Students demanded our attention at all hours. There was no time at work to prepare for classes before or after. The doors opened 30 minutes before the first class and closed immediately after the last. Going to work every day was like taking a deep breath and plunging into the ocean, to come up for air six hours later. If students learned anything at all by the end, it was purely by accident.
Emotionally it was difficult as well. The previous teacher got worse and worse. He couldn’t read any more. Soon he couldn’t walk, talk, or feed himself. One day my boss asked me if I wanted to go visit him. “Should I?” Yes. It’s time. It was not an easy visit. I had nightmares after. He died three weeks later. The school decided not to tell the students. I don’t think they knew that the students asked me every day, “When is he coming back?” I disagreed with the decision, but I toed the line. Every day became a struggle and I threw myself into more work to avoid the emotional pain.
So on top of the teaching job, I was proofreading and writing for a publishing company, participating in professional development organizations, co-ordinating a reflective practice group, and taking classes online. I was sleeping about 20 hours a week. I was struggling to take care of myself. I wasn’t loving my work anymore.
Something had to give. And in the end, everything did. I quit my job and left that life behind, believing that something was wrong with me. I thought I had been tricked into thinking I was a good teacher, when really people were just trying to keep me happy. I wasn’t even an average teacher, I told myself. I probably never have been. So I did what any rational teacher-creature would do – I signed up for a CELTA to find out if I could become at least an average teacher. I gave myself a month of vacation first, though. A month of rest should be enough, I thought. I really didn’t realize.
I’ve been off for two months. The first month I traveled and relaxed. And I started to improve. I lost weight, felt my smile come back, and felt my brain begin to recover – my memory and ability to focus improved. I was getting better.
And then CELTA. The month in Chiang Mai was incredibly rewarding in so many ways. But the intensive CELTA is not made for people in my state. I gained in confidence and creativity, but the fuzzy feeling in my brain came back. Stress made me lose my appetite, and insomnia crept back in.
Now it’s several weeks later – and a year since my coworker’s death – and I know I’ll survive. One gift CELTA has given me, besides skills and feedback, is the friendship of so many wonderful, supportive people and the objectivity to see that my work environment was not normal, and perhaps my response to it is understandable.