By Michael Dunlea
Teachers constantly show students how to be the best they can be in life. We model for them how to make mistakes, how to recover from them, and how to get up and try again. We model kindness and empathy. We show them that hard work and determination can lead to success, and that failure is just a step along that path. And sometimes we overdo it.
Often teachers will give and give to a point where it becomes unhealthy, taking us away from our own families or our personal lives. As lifelong learners, we make a second career of attending conferences and workshops, or reading and participating in professional learning outside of our work day. This tendency to overcommit ourselves can be exploited by schools and districts under pressure to perform and reach ever higher achievement with fewer resources. Frequently we work second jobs to make ends meet, lighting our candles at both ends, and often burning ourselves out in the process.
I am a particularly good example. In 2014 I taught a class of 24 2nd-graders while pursuing National Board Certification, actively participating in two national teacher fellowships, and serving on two committees at the New Jersey Department of Education. In my “spare” time, I tutored four students during the school year and eight more during the summer. Of course, I was an active member of my union and served as the building association representative while also serving on the negotiations committee, which spent over 220 hours negotiating a contract! In my district, I served on no less than four committees including the instructional council, the district evaluation advisory committee, the school improvement panel, and the Curriculum Committee. I get a headache just thinking about that!
It is no wonder, then that NPREd recently shared the findings of a study that showed, “Forty-six percent of teachers feel high daily stress.” That’s on par with nurses and physicians, and they save lives! Roughly half of teachers in the study agree “the stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it.”
There comes a time when we need to listen to the flight attendant and put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we turn to help others. We will be of no help if we become sick or incapacitated, if we damage our family relationships, or we become bitter, unhappy people.
I myself found out the hard way when I found myself being airlifted to a hospital after suffering a heart attack in my classroom. I was 48 years old.
While many factors contributed to my health crisis, overwork and job stress were the primary culprits. I simply worked too much and, on top of it, I was battling an unhealthy work environment. Lying in bed after having a heart attack and seeing the fear in the faces of my loved ones was a sobering moment. My youngest daughter was only 12 years old, and I made a promise to myself that day that I would walk my daughters down the aisle at their weddings, and not position them to walk me down the aisle at my funeral for quite a while.
After putting it off for too long, I resigned from the only district I had ever worked in, walking away from seniority, tenure, relationships and the comfort of the familiar. This was a great decision. It was time to put the oxygen mask on myself first.
After only a few weeks in the new district I began to realize more fully how much my overwork and burnout was costing my students. As I lightened my load, the joy came back into my teaching and I found myself teaching with passion and purpose.
Don’t wait until you’re lying in a helicopter to realize the importance of self-care. To that end, sometimes staying is the worst decision we can make—even when we believe it to be rooted in dedication to the students. Teachers working in toxic environments may need to quit to persist and thrive in our profession.
Michael Dunlea is a 2012 Finalist for New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and a National Board Certified Teacher. He teaches second grade at Tabernacle Elementary School in Tabernacle, N.J.
Photo courtesy of Michael Dunlea.
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