weakness

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

Stress-vs-Burnout

Burnout and stress are not quite the same. Photo taken from http://www.whydev.org/burnout-and-its-causes/ (Creative Commons)

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. 

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Comments

  • Marc  On March 29, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    You say weakness. I say tenacity. Amid all that, a CELTA? Awesome achievement, completing an intensive course.

    • livinglearning  On March 31, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      Well thank you. I sure didn’t see it that way, and it is interesting to know how this reads to other people. 🙂

  • HL  On March 30, 2016 at 5:05 am

    Kudos to you for dealing with a massive workload, a horribly sad event and them an intensive CELTA. You dealt with it and you came out the other side (and you blogged through it too?!). I hope you’re feeling more like smiling these days.

  • Matthew  On March 30, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Anne, I’m sorry to hear about your colleague – I know how hard that must have been along with the workload. I told you about losing a colleague recently myself. Fellow teachers, members of our tribe. We’re there for each other, and sometimes we disappear. I’ve also lost a family member and a friend recently. Just last night I woke up, startled and in tears, with the fear of losing my father as well, and having no parents left.

    I’m impressed and inspired by your strength in the face of all the challenges. I also used to teach 30++ hours a week largely by choice. I put myself through the ringer and also had ‘breakdown, burnout’ experiences where it felt like the entire thing had imploded, along with my self-image.

    This is experience that I use as a resource now, and my trainee teachers see behind my eyes when I talk about teaching on the course. When we commit as a teacher in this worldwide career, this lifewide calling, we commit to a lot. A lot of ups and plenty of downs too. There’s not always space and time to comfortably process when things go up and down to fast.

    I hope that your sharing here, making this space and choosing YOUR time is helping you continue your journey in this amazing work. You might not have students in classrooms at the moment, but I’m learning from you.

    • livinglearning  On March 31, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      Matthew,
      Thank you. Your comment brought tears to my eyes, and also reaffirmed the decision to finish and publish this post. The road back is a long one, and I’m taking it step by step. And I’m constantly reminded how LUCKY I am to have so much support on the way.

  • Chewie  On March 31, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Thanks for sharing. I had no idea you were doing all of those things when we met at conferences in 2014. That’s a lot to handle all at once. I’m sorry to hear about your coworker and all the stress you had at the job. What you said about feeling inadequate as a teacher resonated with me. I’ve been there.

    Yes, doing a CELTA course doesn’t sound like the best idea for someone in your state. Good for you for trying though.

    • livinglearning  On March 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks. It’s amazing how things can pile up until even I can’t quite keep track. I’m really glad I did the CELTA, even though I probably should have waited. Having people watch me teach and give me balanced feedback helped with the feeling of inadequacy more than anything else could have.

  • Sandy Millin  On March 31, 2016 at 4:03 am

    Thanks for sharing Anne. I think it’s really important that we show people all the sides of this job to help them go into it with their eyes wide open, and to reduce the isolation that we can feel when it’s us in the middle of a situation like that. Knowing that other people have been through an experience like that and have come out the other side is reassuring. I truly hope that you never have to experience anything like that again, and I admire you for getting through the CELTA. Good luck with finding the right experiences on the other side of it!
    Sandy

    • livinglearning  On March 31, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks, Sandy. You know, some of the blog posts I’ve read that have been most meaningful to me are ones where teachers share their challenges. It is really helpful for me to know that I’m not alone in facing challenges in the classroom or in my life as a teacher person. Thank you also for being a constant source of support!

  • Deb  On March 31, 2016 at 7:44 am

    Thanks for sharing your story. Your an amazing teacher and friend. Keep on rocking on.
    Respect.

  • Joanna Malefaki  On March 31, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    xx

  • Rose Bard  On March 31, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Anne!
    L,

  • Philip Longwell  On April 1, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Anne. Thanks for sharing. I want to agree with what Sandy said above. I followed her link to get here. I’ve also worked in South Korea. It was my first paid teaching job abroad. It ended when I started having panic attacks on the way to the hagwon. For no apparent reason. I wasn’t even being particularly overworked. I left Korea, took a couple of months off and then did the intensive CELTA in Norwich, UK. By then I was taking medication. I’ve since had an on/off career in EFL teaching – some great jobs, others affected or ended by recurring panic attacks. Sandy even helped me during the 2013 and 2014 IATEFL conferences when it happened there. I’ve come to terms with it and worked out what goes wrong. I’ve also written some very personal stuff on my (former) blog about it. Then deleted or hidden it when I’ve been applying for jobs, just in case. My point is that health is more important than any (teaching) job. Wishing you well.

    • livinglearning  On April 1, 2016 at 4:20 pm

      Dear Phil,
      Thank you in turn for sharing your story and for supporting me this way. I wonder if it was these experiences that drew you to your work on mindfulness? I agree with you that health is very important, which is why I am not back in a classroom quite yet. I want to feel normal again, or give myself time to redefine normal for me. Whichever. Best wishes.

      • Phil longwell  On April 1, 2016 at 4:31 pm

        Yes, mindfulness practice came out of my experiences and why I wondered if it could be useful at all in ELT itself, hence the ELTchat on the subject. I don’t practice it regularly but in small ways and when I’m having difficulties. Do give yourself time to feel better. I had to, and I do now.

  • Beth Carroll  On April 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Love you Annie! So sorry to hear about the loss of your coworker. That kind of loss sticks with you and it’s hard. I lost one of my co-workers over 10 years ago. She was only 21 years old. I still remember our last interaction. I wish your last interaction was better than it was. I’m proud of you for making the decision to walk away for a while as that decision alone I’m sure was not easy. It shows how strong you are that you were able to step back and do what you needed to do. I’m glad you have started to find your smile again. You will know when the time is right to get back to what you love, and I hope you know that you are loved and supported all around the world. Xoxo

    • livinglearning  On April 7, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Thanks, Bethie. You never know what’s going to happen in life, right? Love you!

Trackbacks

  • By How to Stay Sane | The Best Ticher on April 17, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    […] talk on time management.  Anne E. Hendler opens up about her experiences with stress and burnout here. At the end of your day, while it may be a substantial part, your job is only part of your life […]

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