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Teachers: Move On Before You Burn Out

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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This year, I'm retiring from coaching my middle school's award-winning speech and debate team. It has been an amazing 12 years of laughter, tears, frustration, and pride. I look back at my students, at both those who have won trophies at the state and national level, and those who merely learned how to raise their hand in class without allowing a tremor to tip off their fears.

I think about my first year as a coach when I insisted that the grade point average (GPA) be dropped as a factor in deciding who could join the elective. I think about my last year as a coach and the over 150 students who applied to join the team.

We've put traditions in place from year to year that have built a community that has helped students find a smaller family within our larger school population. We brought together students in special education with students in honors, and with English language learners.

The shared experiences we created in this class brought them all together, and in the world of middle school cliques, it's very special to be involved with a group that can break down the walls between lunch table groups. As you can see, I loved it. I still do.

But it's time to leave. It's time to pass on the class to other coaches before the challenges of running this team outweigh its beauty. I could go into a list of reasons why it's time, but frankly, that would sound too grumbly for print, and that instinct to vent is my signal that it's time to move on.

When It's Time to Move On

Widening this theme, I think we all face this decision in our careers. Perhaps you're moving to a new grade level or school within your district. Perhaps you've decided to finally put aside that novel you loved to teach all those years, the one that has grown harder and harder for students to relate to. Perhaps, like me, you're retiring from teaching a particular program and you're moving on to teach other subjects. And, of course, perhaps you are retiring from teaching all together.

Regardless, we stand with you. We stand with you as those who have gone through it and as those who will. We stand with you knowing that it's scary to go off into the great unknown. We stand with you hoping that one day, we can all move on willingly, with dignity, and looking forward to other exciting prospects.

But willingly does not mean that you aren't pulled in both directions. In fact, you should leave a little of your heart behind. It means you weren't burned out when you left. And if you weren't burned out, then you were still trickling down your own happiness to those kids. For teaching is like that. Students know when you love it and when you don't.

This time of year is often one of retirements or position changes. And as someone who currently finds herself in the throes of this transition from one program to another, I came up with a short list that has helped me guide my school and myself through this transition.

Communicate and Plan Ahead

I spoke to my principal two years ago and warned him I was starting to feel ready for something new. When we were given the go-ahead for new hires this year, we kept it in mind so that we could find coaches to take my place. So if you're moving on from a position or a program, and you've figured it out ahead of time (which, granted, doesn't always happen), make sure your administrator is prepared and not blind-sided. It's your life, but set them up for success in finding someone that might be able to fill your shoes.

Look Forward

Have something you are leaving for if possible. Retiring? Have a trip set up to help offset the mourning or to celebrate this new chapter. For me, I am developing a new class, something that leverages my new passion of Writing + STEM, and it has taken my mind off of some of the sadness this transition time can bring.

Let Go

The new coaches claim they want to run the team just as I did, but that's doing their abilities a disservice. They should run it the way they want to run it, pick their own battles, and find their own voices. I'm walking away knowing that new, fresh personalities will bring something else to the table, things I could never do, and that's good. After all, if more time had gone by, I predict that I would have burned out, and then the kids would have been happy to see me go. And that's not the goal.

It's Time to Say Goodbye

When the kids heard I was retiring, many cried, and so did I. I feel grateful to be a teacher that some kids feel that way about, but I also know that in two years time, when the remaining kids who knew me as coach are graduated and long gone to high school world, these will all only be my memories. The new coaches will have earned their permanent status.

Long ago, when my younger sister finally retired our mustard-yellow, memories-rich Dodge Omni to the junkyard, she cried at the loss, even though she was ready to leave it behind. The guy she handed the car off to shook his head and said, "Sometimes you just gotta pat her on the back and move on."

Have you moved on in order to keep from burning out? Have you changed a subject or grade you taught, or even your school? Teachers, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Bernadette Kuhn's picture
Bernadette Kuhn
Retired public school middle-high school mathematics teacher, 38 years

I totally agree! I've just "retired" from a position in a school where I've been for 31 years due to lots of administration changes and mandates, but knew that I wasn't ready to sit at home. A local Catholic school was looking for a part-time certified Mathematics teacher for their 7th and 8th graders and the principal actively sought me out, even at my age!! It's nice to feel wanted and valued, and I get to work a shortened day at something I've loved to do all my life.

Cynthia Banks-Obinabo's picture

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Move on before you experience burn out. With the world a global village now more than ever,there is more opportunity for teachers especially those who have not put down roots like a family with kids, to explore options, even for a year or two.Personally, I have lived and taught in four different countries, and I can say, while I did not accumulate material wealth along the way,I am rich in experience. I strongly encourage those of you who are thinking about this, to do it before you retire.Kudos to those who have lived and worked in the same place for a very long time.If you are happy, then you have nothing to regret.

Kajal Sengupta's picture

Yes, moving on always makes a difference, if you can afford to. Though I had my roots with family and kids but my husbands job took me to many places in my country itself. Upto a certain time I enjoyed but at last I thought of doing something meaningful and more stabilizing. I switched to online teaching. Now it does not matter where i stay i can retain my student base. I am enjoying teaching at last.

Bookdivasu's picture

I am 4 days into retirement after teaching 35 years. BEST THING EVER FOR ME AND MY FAMILY! I thought I would teach until I was 60 years old, but got hit with a few "reality bricks" and decided to retire in the middle of this school year.
(Brick #1) I wanted to be a "stay at home" mom and greet my kids when they came home from school.
(Brick #2) I want to attend all their track meets, and cheer them on and embarrass the heck out of them!
(Brick #3) My oldest leaves for college in 3 years, my youngest in 5, and I know I won't get this time back.
(Brick #4- the biggest of all)- We lost a much younger family friend to cancer who has kids the same age as ours, and his biggest regret was that he didn't have enough time.

So while I do miss my students and I miss my school family, I know that this is the best possible decision that works for us. I plan to take time off, and then start doing volunteer work in the community. I'm looking forward to it!

Allan Stringer's picture

I taught in five decades in four countries with countless wonderful colleagues. My general focus was H.S. Maths, with excursions into sciences and languages. I developed new courses to address needs of specific student groups. My school worked in conjunction with an award-winning University student teacher program. I had the opportunity to and pleasure of sharing with 80+ future teachers. I would request that the courses I taught be changed. I went from college prep to remedial. I needed to challenge myself, not get stale.

CAKosmo's picture

I retired two years ago this coming June. I loved my job as a school library teacher. I did not want to be restricted to the school year schedule anymore. I wanted my evenings to be my own, without working to prepare for the next day. The first week of the new school year my husband and I went on a cruise. I took a flexible part time job that I love, and as it turns out I am working at my old school in a hard to fill one day position ( I told my principal I would do it, but if I needed a day off I would take it.) I love it. My time is no longer managed on the school year schedule. I can come back from vacation and not feel stressed about starting work the next day. i am off to To Greece in April on a study tour I am taking with my Greek fellows class. I feel fortunate to be healthy. I love my new, flexible, semi-retired life.

Amber von Nagel's picture

Glad to hear semi-retirement is treating you well. Sounds like you found a way to make it work. Have a great time in Greece!

MissBeckasaurus's picture

I am moving into the EdTech coach role next year after 17 years in the classroom. I have mixed emotions about this move, but know it is time, actually a little past due. I am thrilled and know it was the right decision based off the reactions from my family. Apparently I was super stressed all the time. This article is just what I need to read today.

Mary W.'s picture
Mary W.
Kindergarten teacher in San Francisco Bay Area

I retired two years ago. I was burned out on the administration telling me what to do and the lack of recognition for anything I did on my own. I now volunteer one day a week at my old school. I have taken a group of 3rd graders for a STEM club. They are the "difficult" kids, the ones who don't fit in for some reason. The ones I always wanted to do more for but didn't have time or energy. We built a sustainable city. They are learning to code. And we just entered a robotics competition.They're enthusiastic and love it. I feel I'm finally doing something for these kids, without burning myself out, I'm with kids one day a week so I don't miss them. And the odd thing is, I am getting recognition for my work now. Meanwhile, I have time for my first love: I returned to writing, which is what I wanted to do when I graduated high school and then college and couldn't make a living at it. Now I can indulge my creative self.

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