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Commentary: A Teacher’s Story of Burn Out — Or How ‘La Bestia’ Won

Ellie Herman | November 14, 2013

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I burned out after teaching for five years at a high school in a very low-income neighborhood. What made me burn out was not that so many of my students came in with reading skills several years behind their grade level. Nor was it that many of them also came in with a history of negative experiences in school.

No, my work in the classroom didn’t burn me out. Classroom work was always engaging and sometimes unbelievably rewarding.

What finally pushed me out the door was a monster we called La Bestia — “The Beast.”

La Bestia was a photocopier, the size of a Prius. On a good day, she could spit out 150 copies of an entire SAT practice test, all sorted and stapled. On a bad day, though, even if you just wanted 32 copies of a two-page Junot Diaz story, she’d throw a hissy fit, with flashing red lights and shrill beeps before stalling flat.

The day I definitively and conclusively gave up, it was after six o’clock and I was making 100 copies of 11 different scenes for my Drama class. I’d been at work since before 7 a.m.; it was dark when I arrived at school and dark now. Since our school was mainly windowless, and we were always too busy to leave the building during the day, I had not seen sunlight for three days. I want to say, in case you think I am a total slacker, that I came to teaching in midlife, having spent 20 years as a TV writer-producer. I am no stranger to long working days and, in fact, am something of a workaholic.

But teaching at a high-poverty school was different because no matter how fast or long I worked, I could not get everything done. I developed a body memory of exactly how much I could accomplish in five minutes, in one minute, in thirty seconds. I was always in a panic because I had limited control over my circumstances: if a kid threw up in the corner or no one could find the cart of laptops even though I’d booked it for the day, I had to make it work.

Everything felt like an emergency. And there was never enough time — to re-tool the grading system because a third of the class was failing, to call parents of kids who did not show up for after-school help, to do a fill-in-the-blanks version of the assignment for the English Language Learners and to find a great extra-credit reading for the brainiacs. There was no time to think. If I had to name the one thing that surprised me most about teaching, it would be how utterly unintellectual it is, or becomes, when you have so many students with so many needs all coming at you at once, and you don’t have the time each of them deserves.

Neuroscientists have identified a condition they call executive function overload, during which your brain, over-stimulated from continual crisis management, becomes unable to think clearly or feel emotions. I can see now that this happened to me. By the end of each day, I was numb. At night, I’d dream I was suffocating. I could not remember what joy felt like.

On that day at La Bestia, she jammed somewhere in the middle of my job and I just stood there. All I could think was: I can’t live this way. And when the time came to renew my contract, I didn’t.

Here in the United States, we continually examine teaching data to understand why other countries are doing better than we are. One thing nobody ever talks about is that teachers in the U.S. have a larger workload than teachers in almost any other country. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year. Instructional hours are the hours spent actually in front of kids—in other words, about half of the job, the other half being time spent planning, grading and collaborating with other teachers. In Finland, the average teacher teaches 553 instructional hours per year. In Korea, 609 hours. In England, 695. In Japan, 510.

When teachers in other countries are not in front of students, they can do the other half of a teacher’s job: planning curriculum, grading papers, calling parents, conferencing with students, creating assignments that meet every student’s needs, meeting with other teachers, innovating, thinking, learning. Here in the U.S. we do not give teachers that time. With Common Core on the horizon for LA Unified, we’re planning to blow through at least a billion dollars to train teachers in an entirely new philosophy of teaching. I have to wonder exactly when this training is going to happen. There were literally days when I did not have time to go to the bathroom. What else could I cut out of my day? Breathing?

I miss my students every day. Despite everything, I loved teaching. For every dark day, there were moments of immense pride at what my students had accomplished. I plan to go back. But I’m terrified of burning out again. If the United States is serious about attracting and retaining good teachers, the first thing we need to do is give us the conditions we need to get our jobs done right. Just about every other country in the world does. Why can’t we?

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.



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