As I navigated the hallway during passing period I missed offered high-fives, smiles, and greetings. I responded to them, but I didn’t truly see them. I was walking down a crowded hallway and looking over the heads of all the students because I had nothing left inside to offer them. What I was looking at was intangible and indescribable. I was burned out.
I have been hearing about teacher burnout since I was in college and I have seen it in staff that I have worked with. I thought I understood what burn out was and I thought I was good at fighting it off. What I felt that day as I walked through my school like an automaton was empty. I felt like I had nothing left to give and there was not emotion left to fill the void. I was just empty.
I care deeply for what I do as an educator and I ignored warnings from veteran teachers to slow down and not pour myself completely into everything I do. I knew it was my heart that made me want to teach and it was my heart that I gave first. At first, I broke my heart in to hundreds of little pieces and gave a part of it to every student. I cared for each student like they were my own child. Over time some students took my heart and used it to hurt me; some did it on purpose and others through no fault of their own. Each year I tried to give as much of my heart as I could, but there was less and less. I became cautious as the emotional scars of caring too much began to build up. In the space that was left I found a new emotion creeping in.
I began to reserve my heart for my students and started to dole out anger to a system that is unfair and treats the future with such disregard. I was an educator who was facing impossible odds as so many factors crept into my classroom and left behind poisons that would infect my teaching. I had parents who demanded the impossible from me while never holding themselves or their child accountable. I had administrative demands that were made in good faith yet had insidious effects that could not be seen. I a society that began to villainize teachers without understanding the sacrifices made every day by those they attacked. All of these factors were met with anger, but I reserved the most anger for myself as I saw my expectations being chipped away at by all these forces. I fought the tide, but could not push back the sea of change. With every concession made to the reality of modern education I heaped a little more scorn onto myself and that weight began to grow heavy.
I don’t know when resignation set in. I don’t know when I stopped caring and stopped being angry. I think I missed the change because the mind is like the rest of the body; when it is under attack and overwhelmed it shuts down unnecessary parts and conserves energy for what it needs to keep going. The thing about resignation is that it does not bind, it loosens your hold on other things like love and anger. You let those slip away and when they pass there is nothing left. You are empty and there is nothing left to take the place inside of you that needs emotional fuel. You have nothing left to give.
You may be able to do your job, you may be able to hide it, but you have nothing left inside of you that made you inspire students. You have become a husk. What does it take to reignite that spark inside of you is impossible to fathom. You will search for it and if you are lucky you will find it. Be careful not to lie to yourself and trick yourself into believing you have found your fire again. Lies cannot keep you warm for long. I wish I could prescribe a solution to this feeling; I cannot. I take comfort in knowing that I have seen others overcome burn out. I have not forgotten why I became a teacher, but I have a harder time remembering it every day.