I’m on the brink of my third year of teaching, inching quickly towards retirement, as recent teacher attrition data suggests. Arguably, many educators, including myself, who began their teaching careers at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing the most demanding year of our careers.
Test scores have been slow to rebound, particularly for the middle grades. Given the hostile political climate we live in, a demanding administration means that more is being asked of teachers than ever before and I couldn’t help but feel immense pressure to thrive for myself and my students.
The desire to deliver results paired with suboptimal working conditions places undue stress on an already overburdened profession. Yet, my first and second years of teaching were also when I learned what it meant to set real boundaries with work and reject the perfectionism I was implicitly forced to uphold. Reflecting on my first years of teaching, what does it mean for me to seek to maintain the boundaries I’ve constructed to protect my mental health in a profession that asks so much?
Getting to a Breaking Point
I interviewed for my first teaching job when I was fresh out of college. At the time, I was living at my parents’ house during the first wave of COVID-19 (back when we actually cared about flattening the curve), so naturally, the opportunity to work with students and like-minded teachers excited me. During the initial call, I remember the recruiter bluntly telling me, “Teachers here usually end up working much longer hours than other schools in the area.”
Weird sales pitch, but then I thought, why not? I was a hardworking student in school; how different could it be? Before I knew it, the next two years passed by like a fever dream. Before I knew it, it was my third year and an entire cohort of sixth graders returned to in-person school for the first time since they had been fourth graders.
I had to constantly remind myself that it would take time for students to readjust to school. Day by day, they would re-learn how to walk down the hallway with level one voices, how to introduce themselves to a new classmate, and maybe — just maybe — how to return my pencils at the end of class (for God’s sake just give them back).
I longed for the day I’d finally become the calm and collected teacher I always dreamed of being. But each day, my litany of demands grew less commanding and more desperate:
Go to your seat.
Don’t throw that.
Don’t touch her.
Don’t touch him.
Don’t hit him.
Give that back.
Push in your chair.
We do not use that language toward our friends.
She’s your friend because I said so.
Each day, my ability to handle daily stressors declined, and it started taking its toll. I often cried during class, turning towards the board and writing out another objective to hide it from my students.
“STOP IT,” I shouted, suddenly and from the diaphragm, at two students rough-housing with each other in the hallway. The yell ripped its way out of my lungs before I could think. I would make my commute home from school in stunned silence with what I can only describe as the sound of pots and pans bashing together, ringing in my ears.
The worst was the winter. I arrived at school before the sun rose and found myself stuck in rush hour traffic as the last of the light waned from the sky, growing increasingly desperate to get home. For the first time in my life, I experienced seasonal affective disorder. I was insensitive to my partner, short with my family and lost touch with old friends.
Over winter break, I took a step back and saw that while my students brought me joy, teaching was taking something from me, and if I didn’t change something quickly, I wasn’t going to get it back.
This January, halfway through my second year, I became ruthless with my boundaries. No more 10-hour days – I would complete what I could during my provided planning time and nothing more. I would pack up my things during dismissal announcements and walk out of the building with my last bus rider, waving to my students as the buses pulled out and following them down the road.
Most importantly, I reconstructed the idea that teaching had to be a calling, as I’d always heard. The question is, had I heard that from actual teachers or people who absolved themselves from the guilt of not doing their part to rear the next generation? I can’t recall, and the world may never know. I decided that it was my job, only that and nothing more. I re-upped my contract in the spring, anticipating that my boundaries would keep me sane and that my third year would be more tolerable.
Then, summer came, and I forgot so quickly what being in the classroom truly demanded of me. During one of our summer professional development days, the latest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing data came out – and the percentage of students that met grade level proficiency in each subject significantly declined.
If that wasn’t depressing enough, once we reviewed our internal school performance, the faces of the 200 teachers in the room simultaneously deflated, crushed that our best during the pandemic hadn’t been enough. We were charged by school leadership to accept culpability.
Other demographically similar schools in Nashville had grown more than we had. Where else could we look, besides teachers? Where else could I look, besides me?
I looked back at pictures of my classroom from the previous year while my inner saboteur subconsciously added captions: Here I am modeling an experiment and failing my students. Here I am doing small groups and failing my students.
My mind started to race, feeling charged and anticipating diving headlong into the school year and what it would take to pull my students’ scores out of the pit. If I hadn’t been able to rectify the COVID learning loss in my “Year Of Boundaries”, then maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to pull a couple of 10-hour days…plus a few Sundays?
Yet under all of it, I knew that the worst thing I could do for my students was to relapse into the burnt-out shell of a person I had been the previous year. No one learns a thing from a cranky, overworked 24-year-old, least of all thirty 11-year-olds.
Over the long term, I want to model empathy, emotional constancy, and joy for them. I haven’t yet figured out exactly how to do that, but I do know two things to be true – I can want and believe in the very best for my students and put my mental health first. If anyone has any ideas on how to make that happen, I’m open to suggestions.