Dear Honest Teachers,
Everyone always jokes about how stressful being a teacher is. I’m a Special Ed teacher and the stress is real. Three years ago the stress almost killed me. I was fortunate but it’s important that I tell people how bad it can be. I don’t want to give you my real name so I’ll go with Greg, I had a friend in college named Greg and he always seemed like a calm guy. I want to be Greg.
I knew what I was in for when I got my master’s degree in special education. I had been teaching for 5 years already and I wanted the pay boost that came with a masters. I was always good with the special ed kids that were placed in my class and they seemed to like me. I understood many of them because I had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as a kid. I’m sure I was hyperactive too but they didn’t have ADHD yet. It must not have been too bad because I was able to muddle by in school. I was never a good student and teachers got annoyed at me for various reasons. I was smart but I hated doing busy work. This should have been a warning sign for me but I like to plow head first into new responsibilities without thinking.
Getting through college was easier than I would have expected because I had my girlfriend to badger me about deadlines as well as the classes focusing more on meaningful work and tests than busy work. After college I married that badger and she is till awesome. If she hears this story it will be the first time and she is going to be pissed at me. Good thing I’m Greg.
Like I said, there is a big difference between regular ed and special ed classrooms. By the time I realized how much work went into each kid I’d have as a special ed teacher it was too late to turn back. I had always known that SPED teachers had more paperwork but I thought it was offset by the smaller class sizes they had. I didn’t know that they did 3-5 times the amount of work for each student in special ed compared to a regular ed teacher. My first year, I felt like I spent more time in meetings talking about my students than I did teaching them.
By my second year I was already feeling burned out but I kept on because I saw the light in the eyes of those kids who made progress. I cried the first time I placed a kid in a regular ed class. He was only there for 3 weeks before they asked to put him back in my class. I cried again on that day as well. Every day I poured my heart and soul into these kids and prayed for each of them every night. My son asked me why I like my students more than him. I died a little inside that day.
After that I started to reduce my stress by having a deadline of when I would leave school to go home. It worked for a while but I found the work piling up faster than I could get through it. It wasn’t long before I would stay up late once or twice a week to finish up paperwork. That turned into 5-6 nights a week of staying up late. I was sleep deprived and cranky. My wonderful wife was feeling it too. She was going to bed alone every night so that I could get more work done. She loves me and knows what my work means to me so she tried to be patient.
By my third year I felt like I had become a much better teacher. The problem is that being a better SPED teacher also means that you have even more work to do. My staying up late turned into an all-nighter here and there. It was weird because no one I worked with commented on the difference. I began to steal Adderall and Xanax when I could from the students. It is amazing how many drugs are just floating around a special ed classroom. The drugs helped but I knew that wasn’t the answer. I went to a doctor and ended up getting my own prescription for Adderall claiming to need it for my ADD. It was easier than I thought and it helped me stay awake with fewer side effects. The best part was the Adderall had helped me lose some of the weight I had gained from being stressed out and sedentary.
I finally felt like I was making progress but that feeling was just a reprieve. By the end of my third year I was feeling all the stress again and I needed a break. That summer I had seriously considered quitting my job and trying to find something new. I even applied at a few different schools but all they wanted me to do was special ed. I could never again be a regular ed teacher because my certification was too valuable as a special ed teacher.
I also began to see changes in the way the other teachers in the building treated me. In three years I had lost most of the friends I had made in the previous 5 years. I was a pariah in my building. Many teachers treated me as the enemy because they thought I ws trying to dump bad kids on them or give them more work to do. They thought I was trying to pass off my job to them. What they didn’t see was the amount of work that went into the success that was each student entering that teacher’s room. All they saw were problems and I was vulture of doom passing these kids out to them.
My administration wasn’t much better. They wanted their days to be nice and quiet but my students often did not accommodate them. There were many students that I had that had legitimate reasons for flying off the handle; many times it was the administrators’ own actions that caused it. However, I found myself feeling like I had screwed up each time one of my students ended up in trouble. When I wasn’t in trouble for my students’ behaviors I was having to defend my students’ needs. I was often told that the aide that was needed for a student couldn’t be hired because we didn’t have the money. I quickly found my lunch and planning times evaporating as I was giving them up to fill in as support for my students when my school wouldn’t provide that support. It’s no wonder I snapped when I did; I’m shocked I made it that long to begin with.
By the Holiday Break of my 4th year I had reached well beyond my limits of patience and energy. I had begun to respond to simple emails or questions confrontationally. I lashed out at teachers who didn’t follow the student’s accommodations. I treated the few aides I did have much harder than they deserved and asked far more of them than they were being paid for. I planned to spend the Holiday break resting and recharging. I was going on a trip with my family and hoped to re-center myself over the break. That was my plan until I found out I would be getting a new student 3 days before break.
The amount of paperwork and meetings involved with a new student is monumental to begin with. The mother and student showed up with little to no paperwork from the kid’s last school. We knew he was special ed and we knew he was a tough case. I did my best to get everything taken care of before the break but it was never possible. When I admitted to myself that my break was ruined I lost that last thread of hope I had been grasping so tightly.
The break came and went. My family, sadly, didn’t notice my absence as they had become used to me missing. I finished all the paperwork I could and tried to spend the last 4 days with my family but I felt like a stranger intruding on their lives. When I thought about what I had done to myself over the last 3 and a half years for that boost in pay I broke inside. I vowed to quit my job at the end of the year. I didn’t care if I had to work two jobs to replace the one teaching; the work load would probably be less than now. Making up my mind was the greatest weight being lifted off my shoulders.
The lift was only temporary. We received the paperwork for my new student and we had made some mistakes with what we had filled out for him. I essentially had to start all over again and had wasted my break for nothing. I couldn’t complain about it because I’d have to admit to my patient wife that I had disrupted our Holiday Break against her advice for nothing. That knowledge was one more weight I had to carry. Thankfully my students missed me and the first few days back were chaotic as they tried to catch me up on all their adventures over break.
The thing about paperwork is that it all looks the same and you develop routines. When you fill out a form a hundred times you get used to ignoring the boxes that never apply to you. It’s an easy mistake to make and often is only embarrassing at the worst. With my new student I did this when I took a shortcut. I used the parent contact information from the old school without looking at the updated information on his family status. I needed an answer and asking two parents is more likely to yield and answer than just one.
It turns out my new student was a transfer at the last minute because his mother was hiding from his father. She had transferred her son to my school after the kid’s dad had tried to ignore a restraining order and picked the kid up in the middle of the day at his old school. He was arrested but no further actions were taken. The kid’s mom was spooked by this and she pulled up stakes and moved them both 40 miles away and into my life. If I had read that before I had forgotten it. I can say the responsibility should have fallen on someone else to tell me but the truth is I screwed up. The email I sent to both of the parents alerted the kid’s dad to where he was. We should have had his picture in the office, we should have been told by the district safety officer about this situation, there are a million things that should have happened but didn’t because we tried to get the kid enrolled as fast as possible so that he wouldn’t miss any school.
The dad showed up the next day. I hadn’t read the panic laced email the mom had sent me yet. I was going to read my email in my free time after school. I didn’t know that I had brought a threat to my students with an innocuous email. I didn’t realize any of this until I heard the yelling in the hallway and barely had time to close the door between hearing the first gun shot and the overhead speaker announcing a Code Red. My door was locked and I was trying to coral my screaming students behind my desk; the only safe place in my classroom.
My school was designed at a time when big windows was popular. I love the views of my classroom on the few days I can raise my curtains. I often feel like a fish in a fish tank because my room has big windows on each side of the door. I’m in a high traffic area and on most normal days my room stands out as an island of screaming and chaos amid the calm school. My desk in the corner of my room is the only cover to be found and the Code Red had spooked my students. My room was pure panic until the second shot was fired.
The kid’s dad had a gun that looked like an artillery cannon but I was later assured was a standard 38 revolver. A cop later said it was like the one Dirty Harry had; I think he thought he was calming me down with that factoid. The dad had tried a movie trick and attempted to shoot the lock when the door wouldn’t open. He managed to splinter the solid wood door but he also busted the handle on his side and the door opened in to my room so it wasn’t budging. I hoped for a minute that this was all that it would be. I hoped he would turn around and give up. I’m ashamed to admit it but I hoped that his kid wasn’t even in my room despite having just pushed the kid down on the others behind my desk.
Thankfully being a special ed teacher had prepared me for having my hopes crushed. The dad quickly figured out that the glass next to the door would be easier to break and he quickly shot a neat little hole in that before hitting it with the barrel of his gun and breaking out enough room to grab the door handle from within. I knew then that I was well and truly screwed. This guy may have already killed someone and was shooting randomly at my classroom trying to get in. My students were hidden the best I could manage in my damned modern classroom. I was defenseless and a maniac with a gun just opened my door. There was too much stress all piled up; I snapped.
I really don’t remember what I did next but the aides in my classroom and my students told everyone that I stood up as soon as the door opened and started yelling at the crazy guy with the gun. I was told it was a profanity laced tirade that would have made a drill sergeant blush. It seems that while yelling I was calmly walking toward the crazy guy with a gun and pounding on my chest with one fist while telling him to shoot me while calling him a coward. Like I said I don’t remember any of this but he took me up on my offer. The father of my new student, a student who had been in my classroom for less than 5 school days, this kid’s father spent his remaining three shots on me.
Turns out that when people are in a high stress situation they are to hyped up to aim well and often miss a close shot. I was lucky; the crazy guy with a gun missed all three including one that aimed square at my head from less across a single desk. When the gun was empty he just stood there for a long moment before my principal and the school’s nurse tackled him like a ragdoll. It wasn’t long before the man was arrested and I learned that I must have lost my mind temporarily. 15 minutes after I had almost died I was laughing like a loon. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard when someone told me what I had done.
By the end of the day the news couldn’t stop talking about the brave principal who had disarmed a gunman and saved his students. The nurse was mentioned as well but the media had its hero. I couldn’t have been happier. The poor principal ended up on all the morning shows and there was even talks about movie rights but that never happened. He went to the White House and received a medal. We were all so proud of him; I doubt he will ever have to pay for a drink in this town again.
By the end of the day I had called my wife and convinced everyone who had seen my insane act of stupidity to keep it to themselves. I’m not a hero, I’m stressed out. In fact, I’m more stressed now than ever before. I love each and every one of my students dearly. My one simple mistake almost cost people their lives. No one was hurt, but six shots were fired into a school full of children. I have a globe on my desk with a neat bullet hole in one side and a giant empty cavity on the other as a reminder. I’ve since quit teaching. I’ve become a grief counselor and the work is fulfilling and allows me time to reconnect with my family. My wife has no idea what I’ve done but she knows I was close to what happened because I still see the crazy guy with a gun at my door when I close my eyes at night. I see a man with a gun like Dirty Harry had standing there waiting to kill someone for my mistake.
Good thing I’m not me,