Teacher Wellness

Teachers: Move On Before You Burn Out

Have you moved on in order to keep from burning out? Have you changed a subject or grade you taught, or even your school? Sometimes this is the best choice.
June 27, 2016
white graphic arrows on a series of wooden boards
© Jungwoo Hong

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.

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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.