Friday, June 6, 2014

Day 174: Disgusted

Started with this, thought better of it...

As I type this, my geometry students are playing each others games.  Their instructions for today were to play the game critically and provide constructive feedback for the creators.  I'm looking around the room, watching them enjoy themselves, helping their peers refine creations and I am taking no joy in it.

All I am feeling is exhaustion, frustration and sadness.

Almost none of it is directed at this class, with the exception of the one group who did not complete a playable version of their game by today (when it was due yesterday).  It's not fair for me to be this way in this class, but emotions do not obey the rules of logic and fairness.

I was out yesterday.  I returned today to find heartbreak.

My room, as well as other parts of the school, was a disaster area.

In my absence, students in my pre-algebra class destroyed my Swingline stapler, used game pieces from the Geometry class games as projectiles, losing several, erased several items off of my various dry erase boards, tore things off of my wall, and left shredded paper everywhere.

In addition to this, one of the bathrooms was vandalized with toilet paper, unflushed toilets, papers thrown everywhere.  There were several fights.  This morning, there were a few more fights and we heard rumors that one of the busses stopped because the students riding it had torn out a seat.

I write all of this not as a way to complain about my school, my district, my administration or my coworkers.  I truly believe that all of those parties are working very hard to make this the best place it can be.

I write all of this so that when I finish typing this post, and some time in the future when I come back to read it and reflect on this year as a whole, I don't put all of the blame on myself.

If the building had a great day yesterday and it was just my class in chaos, I would have no one else to which to look for why my room was destroyed.  Clearly, something else (or several somethings) was at play yesterday, and to be honest, for the last few weeks.  Something that is bigger than my classroom, my teaching, my interactions with the students.

Even having typed this, it's very hard not to feel like a failure.  I feel as though I failed to earn sufficient respect from those students to keep them from ... I don't even know what.  I'm at a complete loss.

With all of the success that I've had with the geometry students, ...or maybe not!

I know that they've enjoyed to coming to my class, but I'm not 100% confident that they learned what I wanted them to learn.  I know it's much more complicated and, as I've written before, I may have planted seeds that will take years to sprout.

Even after having most of the day to cool down and think about how to talk to them, I didn't trust myself to interact with my period 8/9.  I was so angry at them for the lack of respect for me, my classroom, my profession, their peers, etc. that I put on an episode of Cosmos, which they promptly talked over.

The following is a comment that I left on the blog of a colleague who is considering leaving teaching.  Rather than edit it, I've copied it here wholesale in the hopes that my emotions will be adequately conveyed.

This speaks to the heart of me.  With all of the amazing things that I think I may have done this year, something tears at the very core of my being that tells me that I need to be doing something else.

I will never be one to try to talk someone out of leaving teaching because I know how completely insane this is and can make someone.  I have had many days where I left so angry that I was shaking, as well as days that I've sat in my car and cried in frustration.  My first month in my current position, I can count on 1 hand the number of times that I didn't cry.

With that said, there have been tons of days that have been rewarding and I have met some amazing people, teachers, students, parents and administrators.

With all of the growth that I've had this year, with all of the amazing people I've met and the amazing opportunities that have opened up for me, I, too, am considering quitting.

I don't know if it's my district, my school, my students, or my inability to do this job the way I want that is causing my burnout, but it's happening.

Before Twitter and the MTBoS, I had planned this to be my last year.  I was going to bring books, give busy work and kick my feet up on the desk while I applied for non-education jobs.  The only reason why I stayed in teaching this year was to get my loan forgiveness.  Now that's been applied for and I'm not beholden to teach where I do.

As much as I've done this year, as much as I have enjoyed it SO much more than in previous years, it's not enough.  A few years ago, a coworker said that she loves working in this district because she knows that there is so much good she can do.

My response at the time was "I don't want to 'do good.' I want to enjoy what I do."

I have enjoyed my geometry class an incredible amount.  They have made it worth coming to school and without them, I would have burned out in October, like I did in previous years.  I'm honestly surprised that I lasted this long.  I owe that longevity entirely to the teachers and administrators that I've met online.

Sadly, I'm back to the crying, to the anger, to the feigned indifference as a defense mechanism.  I may feel differently once summer arrives and I've had some distance from the year and time to adequately reflect, but for now, I can't help but feeling as though I have failed my pre-algebra students in a monumental way.

Failed them in a way that I don't know how to correct and leads me again to the conclusion that perhaps this profession is not the one for me.

I love teaching.  I love watching students discover things that they didn't understand and formulate their own questions that will take them deeper into a subject matter.

But after a year and without seeing any progress with the most needy of children, it's hard to draw any other conclusion.  Perhaps, after years of honing my practice and discussions with other educators, networking and collaborating, I might be able to get where I want to be.  But I am not a patient man and I don't have the energy to wait that long.

So the fact remains: If I don't find a job at a different school in the next year or two, I will have to leave teaching.  I have to know if the reason that I'm failing is because I'm not in an environment in which I can thrive, or because I haven't reached a balance yet, or because teaching is not what I should be doing.

I don't have an answer for you except that you have to go where your heart leads you.  If that is out of teaching, many students will be worse off, but you have to look out for you.

I will always be here if you wish to talk.

Thank you for allowing me to use your comments section to work some things out.


  1. It doesn't sound like this is an impulsive or quick decision.
    I, too, left teaching *in the classroom.* It *almost* fit ... like a shoe that almost fits, and it didn't "break in," it just kept wearing worse blisters and then affecting how I walked and... well, I'm being distracted from my app so I won't belabor the metaphor...
    I, at least, had found a really good school -- but I was not asked to return after that fifth year. (It was like a painful, amicable divorce. )
    I had to take a hard look at my strengths ("What Color is Your Parachute" and its exercises were really helpful) so that my failures didn't swallow me up.
    And now I'm back to my app so that that doesn't become a failure...

  2. We talked at great length about this Justin, and I know where you are at. I truly hope that you do not leave teaching because you do have a great positive impact on your students, as you have had a positive impact on me. I also found the MTBoS when I truly needed it, I was getting tired and run down by my students and the overall combination of teaching at my school. This past half year has done wonders for me, it has renewed my passion and energy for teaching in a way that 1,000 summer breaks can't.
    I also have very needy kids, and I have had to cone back to chaos Manu, many times this year. Part of me wonders if it is because of the need of these kids, they can't function without my comforting presence. I hope that is the case.
    Let me know what you decide, and always feel free to talk with me. One thing I would really be interested in is some type of cross-school projects, I think it would be great for both sets of kids.
    I was really down when state testing came out, it was an abyssmal year. Then I looked at the data from the fall to now, and 70% of my class had high growth. I can't feel like I am a failure after that, I feel like I did well for them. I am also a perfectionist and want more for my kids, so I put that unwanted pressure on myself. It's a hard balance to find, but I take great stock in the fact that my HS teachers tell me they recognize the difference in my students- that they are much better prepared for HS classes. I will take that critique over standardized test results any day.


    1. That's a very impressive growth rate! In previous years, I too have gotten comments from the high school teachers about how they can tell my kids apart. I hope that will be true in the future as well, but I have no confidence that my pre-algebra students will stand out. I tried a different approach this year and I don't know how effective it was.

      Maybe it was very...

  3. I love the fact you consider me a colleague. Thank you.

  4. Before you chuck it all is there a way for you to NOT teach junior high next year?

    1. We put in our preferences, but the district decides where we go.

  5. I have one suggestion, which would be to try, if possible, teaching different classes. (Whether at your current school or a different school. As long as you're looking...) I know we're certified 7-12 math (or whatever) which supposedly means we could teach every course, but of course different teachers have different strengths. Maybe older kids, maybe kids who present different sorts of challenges (they all present some...amirite?), maybe some more sophisticated mathematics would make a world of difference and would be work you'd enjoy more consistently. I hope you stay in a classroom, selfishly, so I can keep reading your blog. :) But not if you're so miserable! Not worth it.

    1. I appreciate your desire to read my blog. I wonder how much of my burnout this year is due to the 300,000 words that I've written.

      I would happily teach another grade, another class, another school. Things in this area are just not that flexible. I can put in for a transfer to another building teaching different classes, but ultimately, they put us where they want us. That may or may not be the best place for us, but it is what it is.

  6. I have a similar thought to Kate, but in the other direction. Ever think about elementary?

    1. I worry that my temperament is not one for large groups of small children.

  7. My heart goes out to you; I'm moved by your personal account. Teaching is my 2nd profession and by far, the hardest job I've ever had to do. The emotional and mental toll can be overwhelming...constantly.

    Have a break, maybe? Maybe take a year to try another type of job and perhaps that's enough to recover, re-focus, re-energize? I sense that you love teaching - I found that those who care a lot are more vulnerable to burnout.

    One year, I was so overwhelmed I did just that. I felt that I was so involved that I had little mental and emotional space for my own kids, let alone myself. That scared and saddened me. I know it was a luxury for me to just walk away from a generally good job and school, but it was also necessary. I went for a part-time maternity leave replacement role (to force me to look for another job after!) and then just casual work after that. 2 1/2 years later, I went back into the classroom. Now, I'm more mindful of the signs of burn-out and try to ameliorate before it goes out of hand. How? By backing off - caring a little less that time...knowing that I will care more's a cycle.

    All the best.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I may have to look into that. I truly do love teaching, but I've been having trouble keeping everything balanced, not putting too much of myself into it that I get lost.

      I have several plans this summer that I know will be for refocusing, re-energizing, etc. and I can't wait for those.

      A department head a few years ago told me that teachers, if they burn out, do so between years 4 and 8. This was year 7 in the classroom for me and year 5 in my current district.

  8. What's up, brother from another mother?

    Boy, I have been kind of a stranger, all applying for jobs and avoiding thoughts about teaching by focusing on some volunteer stuff instead ... I still haven't landed a job for next year, although my demo lesson went really well as far as those things go for me. They checked my references! One of my friends who served as a reference went fishing for their impressions of me--He learned that they had concerns about my organization and my management. But clearly they are taking me seriously as a candidate.
    Anyway, sorry for the tangent. Point is that I really appreciate your honesty, because I get really discouraged too, and it's good to remember there are others in the same boat.

    Let me quote "Spitwad Sutras," which I have to get you a copy of:

    "Most teachers, I found, seldom admit to the psychological horrors in their classrooms or to misgivings about their teaching skills to anyone but a few trusted souls. They do this in self-defense because they are so often blamed for anything that goes wrong. This is why many teachers are upbeat to the point of hyperactivity and stay that way until they can no longer ignore the discrepancy between their positive attitude and the darker realities of their profession. That is when they burn out, quit, start selling real estate, turn cynical or fanatically idealistic, write books, run for the school board, or become administrators. So I was relieved when Brother Blake took my confession not as a sign of personal inadequacy but as an objective description of an entirely logical chain of events."

    I hope that in the future we can be more (much more--we already more than this) than just fellow sufferers; that we can share more successes, more excitement, more passion and energy and joy in this profession together. Or in another profession. It is a hard, no doubt.

    1. I'm so glad to hear about your demo lesson! Best of luck!

      The quote is exactly what I've been preaching on Twitter this year. We have to be able to share our failures as well as our successes. As you quoted, we are afraid to because we fear we will be blamed for everything going wrong in the classroom, but I think it's more important not to put a false face on the struggles that we have because we are not alone. Sharing our struggles makes them easier to bear and allows us to empathize with others.

      At the same time, there is a world of difference between sharing struggles and complaining. I don't know if complaining serves any valuable purpose and only shifts blame around. Failures in the classroom shouldn't be able blame, but about areas of growth.

  9. Justin -- you said "I know that they've enjoyed to coming to my class, but I'm not 100% confident that they learned what I wanted them to learn." If you the time and ability to have an interview+assessment with every student, what things would you be looking for? Would you look for content knowledge/application (the ability to do Geometry problems)? Would you look for a process or way of approaching problems? Are there personal qualities you specifically intended to impact?

    1. I think this may be a part of the problem. Other than "doing well on the tests" I'm not really sure how to assess the skills that I want them to learn. I don't care nearly as much about the content (easy to assess) as I do about critical thinking and problem solving skills. I know there are ways, but I wasn't trained in them and I've been trying to figure it out as I go.

      I am confident that next year will be better in terms of my knowing what they know.

    2. To probe further, what does critical thinking and problem solving look like to you (how do you observe it)? You said you're not exactly sure, but with what you know right now, what observable things would you look for?

    3. I THINK it looks like getting a problem that isn't cookie cutter and trying different approaches to come to a solution. Even better than that, developing their own problems and answering their own questions. To a certain extent, they did this with the games that they are working on.

    4. The reason I'm asking this is that I think you accomplished most of what you set out to this year as a teacher. One of the reasons I think you're frustrated is that kids are bringing in outside behaviors (beyond your classroom) that you didn't realize they also needed help with. These behaviors are a massive problem to deal with, but if they bothered you as much as they did this year, you might make it one of your explicit teaching goals next year to try to help students adjust their behavior in this area. My point is that you accomplished what you set out to do, but you didn't set out to do what you are now recognizing as a huge need in your school. Accomplishing your goals and discovering new important goals are two big wins for you this year.

  10. Justin
    Wow - two of these blog posts in one day (I read WWNTD's as well) is rough. From what I've read here, from the interactions online we've had, from the brief (but terrific) one day personal interaction we had, I am CONVINCED that you are a benefit to this profession and, more importantly, to the children in your care.
    If you could see relocating to NEPA, I'd be delighted. I almost certainly will be in the hiring mode again next winter/spring.

    1. I'll start working on convincing the boss! Although, if we're going to move, I'm thinking somewhere with amazing weather year round would be the way to go. Would you consider relocating to San Diego?

  11. Andy's comments got me thinking about actually asking your students about this year. Not in so much an open-ended way but with some direct questions like...What worked best for you in this class this year, What didn't work well for you...What were your expectations for this school year? Were they met? What do you think my expectations were for the students? Do you think they were met? What was the most challenging part of this class for you? Where did you feel you were most successful?
    I don't know, I guess you'd have to really think about what would constitute a success for you in their responses. You might get abuse and utter nonsense but there may be students who surprise you. People like being asked for their opinion and students are sometimes people, too, even when they don't show their humanity.

  12. Justin, you're not alone. I felt this way 6 years ago. I thought about quitting teaching and getting any other job--anything other than teaching. My wife talked some sense into me: "You love teaching. You're a good teacher. Maybe it's time to switch schools." I took her advice--I changed districts. Amazingly, I enjoyed teaching again the next year.

    Justin, you're a good teacher. You love teaching. Maybe it's time to change districts.


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