I’m a 1st Year Teacher and I’m Burned Out

Christmas in 5th grade

I’ve got a secret: I’m a 1st year teacher, and I’m burned out.

They tell you about the long hours, grading thousands of papers, and dealing with behavioral issues, but what they don’t talk about enough, is mental health. I wish someone would have told me. Sure, I’ve heard people mention a work/home-life balance numerous times, but honestly, I wish they would have emphasized it more. Before we ever stepped foot into our own classrooms, they should have hammered us newbies over the head with these four words: “Take care of yourself.”

I haven’t slept longer than five hours a night, in 8 months. My hair is falling out. Whatever healthy eating habits I once had are now non-existent. And for the first time in my life, I am regularly experiencing what are commonly known as panic attacks. I thought these kinds of things were for other people, not me. To go 26 years without something happening to you, is typically a good indicator that it’s not going to happen to you — but, it did.

The first time I had a panic attack was in August, just a few weeks after the school year began. I remember suddenly waking up in the middle of the night, dropping out of my bed, and frantically grabbing after my chest. I couldn’t breathe! It felt as if someone had placed a weight upon me and was now pushing down on it with all their might. My heart was pumping fast, so fast, that I felt it would either jump right out of my chest, or just stop beating completely.

I literally thought I was going to die.

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We don’t really talk much about mental health, and by we, I mean many of those in the Black community. It’s especially a taboo topic if you’re a Black male. At its best, the advice is to “Man up,” or “Stop being so weak.” At the other end of the bad-advice spectrum, you might even hear someone tell you to, “Stop acting like white people.” It’s sad, but I’ve seen it my entire life, and have recently experienced it. As a society, mental health is grossly overlooked, and this is only multiplied when we peer in through the context of the African-American population.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that the same is often true within the teaching world. Though this is only my 1st year in the classroom, I haven’t heard too much about mental health, or been provided with a great number of resources to keep mine intact (Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough). More often than not, schools will conduct workshops centered around reading, writing, and arithmetic, instead of sessions covering the educator’s mind, body, and soul. This is troubling, because how can I be expected to effectively do my job if at my core, things aren’t right? Thankfully, there has been many great discussions about protecting schools from armed enemies, but very few about this silent killer — -mental health — -that’s taking teachers out left-and-right.

In 2016, I went viral. I released an educational music video that was seen by millions of people, and it allowed for me to share a snapshot of my love for children, education, and music with the entire world. In 2017, I received my first classroom full of beautiful 5th graders from the Westside of Chicago. I love my students and they love me back, but listen when I tell you that urban education is TOUGH!

It would take a book for me to describe just one day of what it’s like teaching in the hood. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, and I cherish every moment I get to spend with my kids. But one thing I think is worth mentioning, is how I believe almost every child I serve is suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I get it — I’m not a licensed psychologist. But some things you just know, and I just know that my kids have had traumatic lives. As their teacher, this weighs on me. Not only do I want to educate them, but want desperately to help them. I am forced to put on many different hats each day to love them best, and one of those hats is that of a counselor.

Just take a second and imagine what it feels like to counsel over 40 students with their individual issues, while also trying to work on your own. Or, what about just dealing with the day-to-day stress that comes from natural human interaction. Have you ever been in a room with 25 other people, in constant communication, for 8 straight hours? There’s going to be some stress!

And this is true of all teachers, not just those in the hood. Regardless of their locale, educators are known to be some of the hardest-working, most selfless individuals on God’s green Earth. However, this is bound to take a physical and mental toll on us. And for some of us, we just don’t know how to deal with it all yet.

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From the outside looking in, I appear to have everything together. My students adore me, their parents like me, my lessons are usually engaging, we sing songs every day, our state test scores were decent the first time around, and I’m still able to produce cool, educational music videos from time to time. For all intents and purposes, my 1st year of being a teacher is going very well.

But things aren’t always as they seem.

Though I’d say I was doing my job effectively, I haven’t done a good job of taking care of myself. I have never experienced the level of stress I’ve been under as a teacher. If I were able to diagnose myself, I would say that I was suffering from high-functioning depression. Licensed psychotherapist, Annie Wright, describes some of the symptoms I’ve felt as follows: being relentlessly self-critical, having overwhelming self-doubt, experiencing stifling guilt over past mistakes, generalized sadness, perfectionism, and most of all, the inability to rest or slow down.

I can’t rest. I know that I need to stop, but I just can’t. Often, I realize that I need to pull away or shut myself off from my work, but something in me just won’t let me. So now, I’m burnt out. And a lot of teachers experience this; those in their 1st year, their 10th year, or even their 30th. Thousands of us educators are unable to separate ourselves from what we feel we were made to do. Call it pride, ignorance, naiveté, or for me, maybe it’s just plain insanity. But for most teachers, they would call it LOVE!

“I love my students so much that I_____________,” instead of taking care of ourselves, and our own needs. This is exactly where mental health for educators strikes most.

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I was asked to speak at a global conference in Paris, France on education, and while sitting on the plane before takeoff, a statement I’d heard many times before, really struck a chord with me. The flight attendant on the video screen in front of me said, “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will release from above. Make sure to place your own mask on first before assisting others.”

Help myself first, then help others. Wow!

All this time, I’ve been operating out-of-order — trying to fill others up while my proverbial gas-tank has been running on fumes. It wasn’t until a trusted colleague of mine suggested that I take a step back from work to care for myself, that things began to get better. So that’s what I chose to do — remove myself from teaching for a while to take care of my health.

At the end of February, seven months after I began teaching 5th grade, I chose to temporarily step away from my classroom. The hardest decision of my life was choosing to fight for my life. I cried many tears, and even the decision to leave my students for a while, brought me much stress. But at the end of the day, I felt it was right; without question, this was the best decision for me.

Over the past few weeks, not only have I been able to sleep at night, but I’ve also just been able to rest! I have sought help in the form of counseling and therapy services, and spiritual guidance. I have been able to take things slow and simply enjoy life. My eating has gotten better, I’ve gone deeper in relationships with friends and family, and I’ve grown in my relationship with God. Thankfully, my joy has been restored. And most of all, I’ve been reminded of why I chose to become a teacher in the first place — for the kids.

Throughout my absence, my students called, texted, emailed, and contacted me on social media every single day. I received phone calls at 6 A.M. on Saturdays and 11 P.M. on Friday nights. Haha. My kids miss me, and my goodness, do I miss them. But it’s my belief that my brief time away from the classroom will ultimately pay dividends for us all in the future. As I return tomorrow for the first time in weeks, I’m as nervous as I was for the first day of school! But, I know that I will be coming back excited, recharged, and ready to change the world with my little squad of scholars!

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Mental health is such a complex topic, and it looks different for so many people. I’ve tried to explain what’s going on in my head to others, only to have them dismiss or minimize my experience. This hurts. At first, it made me afraid to share my story. The fear of rejection, or that my feelings wouldn’t be validated was crippling. But now, I feel free, and even empowered! My story of struggling with teacher burnout and mental health can serve as an encouragement to others, and for that reason alone, I am willing to speak out. Some people may never get it, and that’s okay. But now I know that these struggles are real, and present in so many people’s lives.

Why did I write this? I wrote this to show those teachers who struggle with anxiety, overwhelming stress, depression, or mental health, that they are not alone. I feel it, too. I want teachers everywhere to realize that they have a voice, and that they should feel comfortable using it at all times.

You should never be afraid to tell someone that you’re not okay. I especially want all the male educators to know that they are loved and valuable. I want to them to know that a battle with mental health does not make them weak. No teacher, male or female, should have to hide their struggle or run from their pain. All of us should feel free to say exactly what we need, do exactly what we need, and to seek every bit of the help we need.

That being said, Teacher, what will you do this week to take care of yourself so that you can adequately take care of others?

Editor’s Note: If you want to get started caring for your mental health as a teacher, check out our tips on self-care.