Monday, October 20, 2014

Weary in Wisconsin

I received the following message from one of my readers. I'm telling her story here with her permission:

I am writing to you because I don't know where else to turn. I am a veteran elementary teacher of 25 years. I am emotionally spent. Yes, it is the second month of a new school year, and I am completely burned out. To be fair, it hasn't all happened in the last month and a half. It all started about 5 years ago, and things have been rolling downhill since then. You see, because I am an elementary teacher, my life today is completely out of balance. My colleagues and I easily work 60 hours a week, and when we are not at work, are usually worrying about work--about how we are going to get everything done that needs to be done and and how we are going to get our students to the end goal that our administration expects of us, er, I mean, them.

Many of us arrive at school each day at or before 7 am, and and often do not make it home in time for supper with our families. Our lunch break is spent inhaling yogurt as we work with children, score papers, record grades or make copies. We come home exhausted to our own children who need our help with homework, piles of laundry that need to be washed or folded, and to lunches that need to be packed for the next day when this whole crazy cycle begins again. But by the time we get home, we have nothing left to give. And when the weekend finally does roll around, activities have to be scheduled around time we know that we have to spend doing yet more schoolwork. Elderly parents to visit? No time. Sick child? Hubby can you take this? This is just no way to live!

When I was in college, I studied hard and planned for my future in which I expected to one day be a successful, experienced, respected professional. Over the years as a teacher, I have continued to push myself toward greater understanding of child development, academic achievement and my role in helping children reach their potential. Yet where I am today could hardly be farther from the vision I once had for myself. Instead, I find myself in a workplace where I have had instilled in me the notion that I am not doing enough, don't know enough and am not making progress fast enough. I often look back on my college days with regret and even resentment.. I could have done anything. I could have been anything. Why did I make this stupid choice to be a teacher?

My husband tells me that my colleagues and I just need to band together to talk with our administrators, sharing our struggles with them. Surely, he says, our collective voices would be enough to make a case that the administration can't ignore. After all, any good employer cares about the physical and emotional well-being of its employees, right? And surely they would be interested in the morale in the building, right? Well, we have tried. They aren't

If I found a job in a field outside of education this afternoon that fit me, I would take it by tonight. I want out. And I want the world to know it. (Well, kind of. Not my immediate world, perhaps--after all, I do have to keep my job until I can find something else!) But until then, I want some relief. And I simply don't know where to find it. 

This teacher works in Wisconsin, and feels that following the "walk out the door at 5:00" approach would result in her being out of a job in a few months.

I don't know how people who create this kind of work environment live with themselves. I don't know what story they tell themselves at the end of the day that makes them feel as if they have done heroic, important things.

And I know that some of you will think, "Well, they just need to stand tall, stand together, and fight back hard." I don't know enough of the specifics of her situation to know if that's a real option or not. But I have to wonder what has happened-- how did we get to the place where it's usual to expect that a teacher needs to be a hard-as-nails street fighter. 

How many great people are we losing because all they have to offer is that they are gentle and kind, love children, and want to help students learn and understand--- and they know (or they learn) that that is not enough.

Do feel free to offer support to this reader in the comments. I expect she'll see your comments. As will the other readers who are in a similar place.


  1. I am so grateful for the teachers that helped my son along the way and it saddens me to see the elementary students today not being given the same chances to grow and expand, while being silly and making jokes about bodily waste that are always funny when you are in elementary school.

    It is disheartening to many parents that teachers are coming from a place of fear. If you cannot speak up for yourselves, how can you speak up for the students? To be totally honest, I was disappointed when teachers walked out in 2009 in Wisconsin over what I perceived to be relatively silly perks when the economy was falling apart. If I know then, what I know now, I would walk with you. The government is betraying students and teachers, union leaders are betraying their members, policies have been set to pit parents against schools. It is a disaster. There just is no other word for it. It is a disaster.

    As a 25 year teacher, you, and your peers, are our last best hope at getting education back to where it was at its best. We need the veteran teachers, now more then ever, if we have any hope of saving public education.

    If this sounds like I am trying to add to your burden, I apologize. We need teachers who understand, if we are ever going to salvage this mess.

  2. I work with a 6th grade teacher who left 3rd grade because teaching elementary school was too stressful. When I complain about paperwork or hoops to jump through, she says 6th grade is way easier. Testing plays such a huge roll because elementary teachers are responsible for both math and language arts. That leaves little time for social studies and science, which were two subjects where you could do more projects and stuff kids would enjoy. Now elementary school has become a testing and paperwork factory, not a place where kids can learn there is joy in learning.

  3. Dear Wisconsin Teacher:

    I can only write about what I know so here it is: When I was young, I had a Art Ed. Teaching Certificate which was pretty worthless. I did different kinds of work, mostly as an Art supply store salesclerk. I married and moved to AZ. We had two kids so I did Subbing work for about ten years while the kids went to elementary and middle school. Then I got my AZ K-8 certificate. I also was able to get an Art Endorsement, so for another 10 years I did either grade level or Art Special. After seeing what NCLB was doing to students, teachers, parents, and everybody, I decided to only do Art. Three years ago I looked for an Art position all summer with no results. My husband said, What about that state retirement information that came in? Instead of that Kindergarten job you are being offered, and don't want, you could retire.” So I retired at 62 with 10 years. Right after I did that, a friend told me about a little rural public school that was advertising for a part time Art Teacher. So, long story short, I am retired and work 8 hours- Mon. and Wed. mornings, at the rural public school and now also, I work 8 hours- Tues. and Thurs. afternoons at a small suburban charter school. My husband loves his job, and plans to work as long as possible. I also plan to work as long as possible because I am teaching Art and have no stress in my jobs, only the pleasure of being with children.

    Please take a sick day and consult with your state retirement counselor. There are lots of options for early retirement and working. There was a teacher I know who retired and then went to work for a private teacher employment agency and she continued teaching the same class in the same school. We had a party for her on Friday and she was back with her kiddos on Monday! She just got her money from a place that didn't contribute to the state retirement system, so she could earn as much as she wanted in addition to her retirement money, which I emphasize was HERS!

    Keep in mind that you could have a stroke or a heart attack or other terrible stress-related emergency! The money is not worth your health! Find some other expenses and cut back there.

    Please make an appointment with your state retirement counselor with the idea of looking at all the options.

    Love to you & Good Luck!


  4. I am very sorry that our increasingly Kafkaesque educational system has put you and thousands of teachers in our country in such an impossibly stressful environment. You know in your heart what is a healthy amount of time and energy to devote to your students. Beyond that, it becomes unsustainable and counter productive, which doesn't do your students any good. Administrators are not God. They deserve our professional respect, but they should not dictate our sense of right and wrong. It is your right to give to your students, your family, and yourself all that you can in a healthy balance. If your principal demands more than that, it is your moral right and duty to politely but firmly refrain from complying with his/her demands. He/she may pass judgement on you (e.g., your are not progressing fast enough), but you need not accept their judgement if they are unsubstantiated or unreasonable. You are a professional with a quarter century of experience teaching children! You have the right and the responsibility to make informed independent professional judgements. Also, have you considered speaking with a teacher's union? They may have some constructive ideas.

    In formulating your decision, it may be helpful to recall that our educational system has a long history of reforms, where each goes away as quickly as they appear. The latest testing, standardization, and privatization reforms will likely meet a similar fate because there is no substance behind them, neither research nor outcome. The reformers have no option but to rely on public relations and marketing tricks (Can you say lies, half truths, and fear mongering?) to maintain their house of cards. But their detrimental effects are increasingly being felt by parents and others, and more and more people are being forced to acquaint themselves with the details (which is where the Devil lies) of the issues. Here we owe a great debt of gratitude to writers like Peter Greene and Diane Ravitch. In the end, today's reformers are on the wrong side of history. And these reforms, too, shall pass.

    Undoubtedly, the many hundreds of children you have nurtured over the quarter century remember you and are grateful for how you have enriched their lives. Thank you.

  5. The letter this teacher wrote reflects the feelings of myself and many of my coworkers. We are disheartened and see no sign of relief in the future. Many of us are on antidepressants just to cope day to day. We work 50-60 hours a week and it is still not enough. We are under a microscope daily as if we cannot be trusted to do our jobs. Morale is at an all-time low. I know I will be leaving the moment I find another position. This great "reform" is senseless and we are powerless even if we stand together. And the fight has gone out of us.

  6. 15 years ago I made at decision to set some boundaries in the workplace. I maintained those boundaries untilni retired at 28 years.
    1. Must inform or give me resources to do my job at a higher level.
    2. Must give my students a new tool or option for learning
    3. Must assist colleague in extreme need.
    I used professionalism and common sense to make these judgements.
    I also joined the largest teacher organization in texas.
    No one in your school will give you back your time. Be brave and reclaim your joy. Best to you