I was almost a burnout statistic: a taboo topic in public education

I almost burned out.  I was almost a turnover statistic. With one of my favorite things in the world…teaching.  And the scariest thing: I didn’t even realize that it was happening.

Last year was my ninth year as a professional educator.  I taught at an urban, high poverty elementary school in Tampa, FL.  I had amazing students, ones that changed my life, but students who carried a lot of emotional weight. Just to paint a picture of what that means, here are some of my fifth grade class statistics:

  • Almost every one of my students was economically disadvantaged.
  • Two of my students were rape victims.
  • Two of my students (that I know of) had arrest records.
  • Mobility rates were through the roof. Many apartments fed into our school, so there was a high turnover rate as students came and left our classroom. As a teacher, it breaks your heart to have a member of your classroom family disappear.
  • One of my favorite students (yes, I know we are not supposed to have favorites) was taken away from our campus by ambulance twice for threatening her own life.
  • Many of my students were struggling with serious family issues at home.
  • Many of my students had special needs such as specific learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, emotional behavioral disorder.

Raw moment coming below.

My heart hurt. And I felt isolated. I found myself getting uncharacteristically mopey and polishing off a little bit more red wine that usual on Sunday nights. I was tearing up when thinking about how K. was afraid of getting kicked out of her house. I was up late worrying about how the police had come for J during school. I was torn about how S. had been caught stealing from my colleague’s desk (again).  And I am a proud Pollyanna, a self-proclaimed (and sometimes over-the-top) optimist. But I can see now as I look back that I was spiraling down a hole towards something that looks like burnout.

We spend so much time and energy discussing recruitment in education, with programs with Teach.org launching campaigns to attract the next generation of strong teachers. Do we give retention that same attention?  How do we support teachers, grow them, and keep them once they are in front of students? According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, we lose 56% of teachers in the first five years, with the turnover rate close to 20% at our urban schools.  And that scares the willies out of me, especially when I was almost included in that 20% and I didn’t see it coming.

So some questions to let simmer…do we address the issues of burnout and retention enough? And how do we think in more preventative measures instead of reactive ones? I’ve been digging through the research and learning from the best teachers across the nation. Solutions to come later this week…so make sure to take a break from your turkey and add to the conversation.