Day 4 of the challenge and we are asked to write a story post. Stories are the lifeblood of English teachers so there was not a shortage of possibilities. Once again I was tempted to take the easy road and talk about one of the many magic moments that I experienced over the 25+ years of my teaching career. There are many. However there is a story that may resonate with many of you that doesn’t fit into the normal offerings of our business and maybe this is the time to tell it.
Burnout is not the End.
Becoming a teacher was not something I had planned. My first majors were literature and media and for the first twelve years after graduation I worked in a variety of positions in film, radio and theatre. However at 34 I found myself the sole parent of twin boys and needed to find work that would enable me to raise them. Teaching was the obvious choice. I only wanted to teach English and was fortunate that Melbourne University allowed a double English teaching method. Texts were my great love. Novels, plays and poetry. Although I had worked in film I did not want to teach it as a medium, though I was delighted to teach film as text.
Delight in teaching.
No-one was more surprised than I was at the sheer delight and joy I found in the classroom. I loved it. The first school I taught in was fantastic. The students were mostly training in the performing arts and it was easy to find ways of connecting the texts we studied to their interests. The staff were supportive and collaborative and teaching there was enormously rewarding.
However it was the Kennett years and government schools were not doing any permanent hiring. When the twins were ready for high school I had a dilemma as the local school was not one I was prepared to send them to. In the course of researching possibilities I received a very nice offer from a school in rural Queensland which I decided to take. This I believed would allow me to work and still get the boys safely through high school.
The move north.
Packing up my little family, including the cat and the dog, and relocating to rural south-east Queensland from inner city Melbourne was possibly not the wisest move but I did not know that then.
Queensland was good in some ways and not so much in others. We were able to own a house for a little while and the boys did get safely through high school, so my goal was achieved. However it was much harder for me. At the first school the leadership was really supportive but the staff relations were very different from what I was accustomed to. A couple of years later when I moved to the local high school things improved a lot. The staff and students were terrific and it was here that I met Judy who is as passionate and crazy about literature as I am.
I am an urban creature, The quietness of the country actually unnerves me, so when it was time for the boys to graduate I tried, without success, to get a transfer to Brisbane, the Queensland capital. What actually happened was I spent the next few years teaching overseas. This was a wonderful experience and something I would recommend to all teachers.
The stealthy creep of burnout.
What I did not know at the time was that I was far down the road of teacher burnout. A doctor I visited had told me that a vast number of the teachers she knew were on anti-depressants and it was really quite normal. It took 15 years to find out that was not the case. In each position I did what all of us do, I poured myself into my students and got increasingly annoyed with myself when I couldn’t settle. I tried to think of all the possible reasons for my feeling continually stressed, was it empty nest? was I homesick? was it just the result of health issues that I had had treated. I still loved teaching and delighted in my students.
The first year back in Australia worked pretty well. I had the boys at home with me and the school I was sent to was good. It was the first time in many years that I had a full-time classroom load, all English and I struggled. The following year the department sent me to another school, one of the top ones. This should have been good, but instead it all fell apart.
The day I realised that I did not want to go to class, that being with my students did not bring me joy, that was the day I knew I had to walk away. I took retirement.
Retirement is dull.
Becoming increasingly stressed and ill I decided that what I really needed to do was get a couple of health issues fixed and return to Melbourne where I believed I would have the social structures I needed. So I did. And things just got worse.
When I got back to Melbourne I enjoyed retirement for about 6 weeks and then discovered that it really sucked. I was not ready to retire, I don’t think I ever will be. For a while I applied for a staggering number of teaching and education positions to no avail. Finally a respected agent pointed out that I was simply too expensive. A school could hire 2 graduate students for the price of one of me. I don’t blame schools for this. Their budgets are constantly cut and legal requirements demand qualified bodies in front of students. Their hands are tied. It was just another way of saying that I was too old.
The next couple of years can best be described as grim. Thankfully though I survived them.
The last couple of years have been devoted to rebuilding. To rediscovering my passion for education and my love of teaching. Also I was able to realize that, like English teachers everywhere, I had a vast store of resources, knowledge and experience that could be useful and that I was still keen to share. I have become increasingly convinced that I need to do whatever I can to help other passionate English teachers avoid the destruction that burnout causes.
As long as there are children, as long as there are teenagers, as long as English language skills are valued, English teachers will be in demand and have need of guidance and resources. This is our mission. This is what drives us at We Teach Well.
It is our deep subject knowledge and our years of experience that equip us for this next chapter. We may be aging on the outside but on the inside we are nowhere near finished.
Till next time