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How Teacher Burnout Led Me to Pursue My Dream

How Teacher Burnout Led Me to Pursue My Dream

Update (July 27, 2020): This post has been refreshed to reflect current research and to include additional information.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

My principal’s chair creaked as he leaned back. I stared at my shoes and continued to mumble: “I’m not happy anymore. I know the kids deserve better.”

My principal’s voice cracked as he spoke. “I’m sorry to hear that, but you know what’s best for yourself. I wish we could keep you.”

We shook hands and agreed that I’d finish out the school year. It was that simple: after six years as an educator, I was emotionally exhausted. I formally quit the teaching profession.

I didn’t feel like I had a choice; I was experiencing teacher burnout. According to the American Psychological Association’s education-focused magazine Psych Learning Curve, teacher burnout is really “work-induced depression.” As author Clemente Diaz, MA explains, teacher burnout is an “epidemic in the teaching profession… educators experiencing burnout simultaneously exhibit depressive symptoms including, but not limited to, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, and fatigue.” 

In other words, I was a statistic—and because burnout is such a pervasive problem in teaching, I refused to acknowledge that I was depressed, unfulfilled, and ready for a new career. Quitting teaching felt like a failure. 

A year later, I’m relieved that I did. Experiencing teacher burnout, acting on it and quitting (instead of ignoring it), and taking the time to figure out what I really wanted to do has been one of the best experiences of my life. It led me to start Dudefluencer. It led me to learn to listen when my mind and my body scream in unison, “Stop.”

This article explains my teacher burnout warning signs, how I decided to quit teaching, and why I started Dudefluencer in the wake of that decision. 

Before teacher burnout: a love of education.

I’ve always loved writing. 

After graduating with a BA in English, I decided to pursue a teaching certification to share that love with young people. My grandmother was ecstatic that I was pursuing such an honorable career path. My mother and father bragged about me to their friends. 

The external feedback was clear: I was on the right path. My internal feedback agreed.

To me, education was a principled career. I wanted to change lives and to make a real difference in the United States (and world) and what better way to do that than to get into the trenches and change student’s lives. Early on at Buffalo State, where I was pursuing my MA in English Education, my teaching philosophy and pedagogy took shape.

I wrote: “I became a teacher because I want to make a difference. I see students being left behind, and I want to be the one to help them up and let them know that they can cross the finish line. I won’t let anyone stop them. I am that educator.”

My professors warned about the pitfalls of teaching. Teacher education explicitly haranged teachers lounges, where they said disgruntled educators sat around to talk shit about their students. Guest speakers spoke to the world’s need for educators who believed in their students—who wouldn’t get distracted by temptations like industries with more money, more adult collaboration, and less red tape. They made it clear that new teacher burnout was for the weak, for the nonbelievers who didn’t care about future generations of children in need of education. 

On one specific occasion, a class called “Writing in the Classroom” solidified my belief that I was making the right career decision. Dr. Michele Ninacs explained to us the purpose of our jobs as educators. “This is an unfair system,” she said. “Your job is to give every student the tools they need to succeed and win the game of life.” She wanted us to give back to our communities the love of storytelling, and like a great football coach, I walked out of the room ready to change the world. 

I threw on my iPod, tuned it to The Wonder Years’ “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves.” Lead singer Dan Campbell howled, “I’m angry like I’m 18 again.” Drums rumbled, setting the cadence for my entry into the field. I knew I didn’t want to be the veteran teacher who played movies all day or printed off busy-work packets. I definitely didn’t want to sit at my desk and watch students fill out worksheets. My lesson plans and teaching practicums consistently scored amongst the highest in the program. I focused on empathy, expressivism, and student ownership over their own learning. 

I was good. My cooperating teachers during my student teaching placement wrote to my professors about my “tremendous passion for teaching,” and that I would have an “exceptional teaching career.” Dealing with student behavior was not an issue.

Due to a lack of teaching jobs available in Buffalo at the time of my graduation, I traveled 400 miles from my home in Western New York to Manassas, Virginia in for my first teaching job. 

I’d studied for six years to formally start my teaching career. By fall of 2013, I entered the classroom grateful for the job and eager to make a real difference. 

Making an impact at a failing public school.

I wasn’t ignorant to the problems with the public school I started at. Reviews revealed low state test scores, a lack of college readiness, and an unsupportive community.

Those problems didn’t stop me from finding a home at the school. The lack of support from the surrounding community energized me to be a better teacher. I remember how proud I was when a group of creative writing students stood on stage to read their first personal essays, stories they had never told anyone let alone written about.

Those essays were true stories about breakups, coming out, and loneliness. Stories about the difficulties of unsupportive families, homelessness, and body image. For an hour, the entire room of students, teachers, and parents laughed, cried, and grew closer together. 

One story that touched me was a student (let’s call her A) recalling the story of coming out to her father. For weeks, she poured out her story on paper. She revised and edited. Every morning, A dropped off a revised version of the essay. I pushed her because this was a story that meant more than an assignment: this was a student taking control of the narrative of their sexuality.

When completed, A stood on stage in front of her teachers, her classmates, and her family to read her personal essay. We watched her choke up when she asked her father, “Si me gusta una chica, ¿está bien?” Every syllable, her usually soft voice gained confidence. Her posture straightened; the room was enamored. And as she finished her piece, her father stood up and hugged her tight.

Through the process of writing and sharing, A took control over one of the most difficult conversations in her life. It was memories like that that made me want to be a teacher for the rest of my life.

I wished those moments could happen every day. They didn’t. Teacher burnout didn’t happen because I stopped caring about those kids—teacher burnout happened because the rest of what I had to do as a teacher got noisy and distracting. My 40-hour workdays looked closer to 50, lengthened by state- and federal-mandated professional development, endless meetings with administrators, parents, department chairs, peers, and students, and the 24/7 demand to stay active on email, lest I appear unresponsive or uncaring. I took student work home with me every night and finished grading before touching my lesson plans. I stayed late to listen and work with students struggling academically and at home. They needed me—they all needed me, I reminded myself—and I made the time to help them as much as I could. I let off steam with other teachers and indulged in interdepartmental drama. The stress, both self and work induced, compounded. 

Still, I saw A on stage, and as she cried and hugged her father, I told myself that all of the job’s demands were worth it for those moments. I reminded myself that I am supposed to be an English teacher. I was supposed to change the world. I ignored the warning signs of male millennial burnout.

I told myself that the exhaustion was maybe tied to the school’s environment. Maybe the beginnings of teacher burnout would dissipate with a new school. 

After three years, I left the students at the low-performing school to join a different high school. That school was a performing arts school that would be opening the following year in an affluent area. They had an entire creative writing program; kids would be applying to get in. This was the obvious next step for the teaching profession.

What more could I want?

The dream job that didn’t save me from teacher burnout.

Before I moved to my new school, my fiance, Rachel, observed and joked about my predictable emotional calendar that followed the school year. She outlined: 

August and September: Get excited to be back at school and filled with passion and enthusiasm for the job. Put in those long hours.

October: Realize that Thanksgiving break was a long ways away, and I’d start to show mild signs of teacher burnout, including exhaustion, disinterest in going out, and “general crabbiness.”

November: Spend the whole month excited for Thanksgiving break, then fall into negative emotions again after realizing out short the break would be. 

December: Stress over student exams and then get a little pick-me-up in the form of teacher gifts (mostly Starbucks gift cards). I’d feel like my work meant something and that my students were grateful for the entirety of winter break and, again, feel excited to teach again come January.

January: Remember that there isn’t another break for a while. I’d fall into a lethargic state and catch myself complaining about predictable work problems—standardized tests, plagiarizing students, and micromanaging administrators—to anyone who would listen. 

February: Feel no respite. My negative emotions worsened. I was to the point of emotional exhaustion. The long hours continue to feel longer.

March and April: Anticipate, glorify, and then quickly miss spring break. I would start talking about how I’m so ready for summer. Some of my grading would start to lag, as I mirrored my students who would start to feel comfortable coasting until the end of the school year. Work-life balance begins to take a hit.

May: Hate May the most. I’d stress about student test scores and everything both me and my students would need to accomplish before graduation. I’d angst about how difficult the rising seniors would be to work with the following year while encouraging graduating seniors to turn in their work so they could actually graduate.

June: Crawl out of depression just long enough to get teary at graduation, aware of just how much the graduating class had grown over the past year. I’d promptly celebrate the end of the school year and start my two-week process of recharging. 

July: Rediscover that summers are long and that I didn’t do well without a hobby. I’d feel myself succumb to depression—again—from boredom and loneliness. 

August: Energize from the prospect of doing something, anything, and start the cycle again. 

The Teacher Burnout Cycle.

Dudefluencer: Stress Circle

I was convinced that I would be free of the cycle at my new school. Just look at it! The fresh coats of paint. The modern-designed desks. The computers, full library, and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. The new school resembled a college campus. I even got a room with windows.

Windows!

I started the 2016-2017 school year with enthusiasm, detailing out lesson plans specific to the art of creative writing. I could teach poetry, screenwriting, memoir, and short stories to high schoolers who fought to be in the program. I knew engaged students were often the best. 

Before I hit mid-September, I ached for a break. 

Not only was I experiencing teacher burnout earlier than usual, but I also found my body crapping out on me in ways it never had before.

Waking up became harder and harder. I’d press snooze on my alarm clock over and over until the last possible second.

I slept for hours when I came home from work. I hated naps, yet at 3:30, I routinely passed out on the couch until Rachel came home from her job. My work-life balance crumbled.

I gained 20 pounds. On the way to work in the morning, I’d stop by Krispy Kreme and order three donuts: two Original Glazes and one Chocolate Dip. Whenever the cashier asked if I was a rewards member, I told them no; like a smoker who only bums and never buys, I felt like joining the rewards club formalize the addiction. 

Still, I was eating 15 donuts a week. I was depressed and overeating because I had no other outlet. I’d hide the napkins before my fiance got in my car. I asked for my three donuts to be in separate bags because I could hide the bags in my lunch pail; no need to broadcast my shame with a whole box of donuts every day.

The worst part? As a English teacher, I had everything I wanted. 

I had a supportive English department, an enthusiastic administration, and a talented group of students. I had access to any piece of technology I could imagine. I wasn’t limited to teaching traditional English courses—I could teach the art of creative writing. Did I mention the windows? 

Something was missing. I assumed that I was still in the right career, and that my teacher burnout flagged a failure on my end to wrangle all the energy I’d need to be an effective teacher every day. It didn’t cross my mind that the demands of my job were just too much, that if I couldn’t change my environment, I would have to change. I still felt that all the statistics pointing to the problem of teacher burnout at scale were for teachers who just didn’t love the kids enough. Public education is for the strong, right? I didn’t realize that I was working at an unsustainable pace—the pace required for any veteran teacher (or new teacher) to really thrive year after year after year—and that I was closing in on a mental health emergency.

Subconscious signs to follow a different path.

On the way to brunch in the spring of 2017, I confessed to Rachel how I felt about my career. I wasn’t happy—that the job wasn’t rewarding anymore. She asked me what else I’d want to do for the rest of my life while Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” bumped through my Chevy Cruze’s speakers.

“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls meAnd no one knows, how far it goesIf the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind meOne day I’ll know if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.”

I felt tears slide down my face. I didn’t know what else I could do; teaching was all I knew. My fiance suggested the Johns Hopkins Masters in Nonfiction writing program because I loved writing; that way, I could enrich myself with an outlet outside of the high school and explore other career options.

I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. As an undergrad, I worked for the campus newspaper, The Spectrum. My fondest college memories aren’t of all-night parties; they’re of late nights spent in a dingy basement writing, editing, and collaborating.

Within a few weeks, Hopkins accepted my application. I found myself a student once again.

Amongst writers of differing ages and talent levels, my first course was “Voice in Writing.” Rachel looked over my first piece for the class, which was an imitation of Tom Wolfe, about a road trip to Philadelphia. She remarked how impressive the draft was, and that she hadn’t seen me write an essay like this before. I felt energized; it was the same energy I felt walking out of Dr. Ninacs class five years earlier.

Teachers can have career ladders too.

At the end of the first year at the new school, my mentor left to pursue another job. The principal invited me to become the program director of the creative writing department.

I said yes. How couldn’t I?

Maybe I’d feel better if I took on more responsibility. Maybe if I switched to teaching creative writing full time, I’d be happier. I could shape the program into whatever I wanted it to be. It was a dream job. 

Following that promotion, I’d achieved as much career growth as one could expect in the field for practicing teachers. I was a fifth-year teacher in charge of an entire program at a performing arts school. Later that fall, the district nominated me for Prince William County’s “Teacher of the Year.” I was doing good work.

Every rung I climbed on the ladder of success, I felt worse. The higher I climbed, the more stuck I felt.

Contrast snuck in. I loved the creative writing I did while at Johns Hopkins and looked forward to those night classes far more than I did my job. I began to explore what would become my thesis project and the catalyst for starting Dudefluencer. I realized that the topic of masculinity was mostly unwritten, yet it was a topic that meant a lot to me.

Frequently the male role models in literature are cold, stoic, and a time-capsule of the past. But that wasn’t my experience as a man. I was vulnerable, adventurous, and reflective. That type of guy wasn’t well-represented in nonfiction, so I began to explore my relationship with masculinity through my career, my relationships with friends, and family. I believed I could become a positive male role model. And that outlet became essential to my life.

What I didn’t realize I was doing at Hopkins was fantasizing about a new life.

My second year at the performing arts school was a lot of the same in spite of my promotion, except that this time, I didn’t have a classroom with windows. The 20 pounds I gained that first year and lost in the summer came back. I found myself isolated from friends, family, and even Rachel. I refused to admit to myself that the school failed to meet my emotional needs anymore.

I quit.

By the time year three at the performing arts school rolled around, my life had changed so much. I was engaged. I owned a dog. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with an MA in nonfiction writing.

My thesis for Johns Hopkins was called “New American Male.” I explored the problems young men face mental illness, male friendship, and men’s self-care.

At the performing arts school, I crashed. Email replies to parents were few and far between. Student feedback was half-assed. I sat at my desk most days browsing the internet instead of being a good teacher. I spent a few days handing out rote worksheets and flipping on movies for “class discussion.” I became the teacher I’d promised myself I wouldn’t become. 

One of my favorite students stopped by early in the morning the day before my birthday. She handed me a bag and said, “I got you something.” Inside was a wooden trinket, with the words “Go Away” engraved in EB Garamond font. I laughed. She explained, “Now your students will understand not to bother you in the morning.”

The gift was part joke, part reality. I thought I had done a better job hiding my unhappiness and boredom, but students had begun to recognize my truth. They didn’t come to me with their problems at home any more. They stopped asking for my participation in after-school activities. They knew the answer would be a forced smile, a pair of glazed-over eyes, and maybe, if they were lucky, a half-hearted “Sure.”

My students weren’t the only ones who worried about my teacher burnout. Everyone did. My friends started asking if I was okay. Rachel became worried about my well-being. I regularly slept more than ten hours every day, begging the snow Gods for days off just so I could sleep more.

I was in a cycle of depression, weight gain, and isolation because I defaulted back to teaching. I’d tell myself “Just another year” because it was easier to lie to myself than admit to the 24-year-old Buffalo kid that was just too tired to change the world anymore. My mental health issues lied to me and told me that education was all I had.

During a lunch block in April, I sat at my desk surrounded by empty Kit-Kat wrappers. Nothing extraordinary happened in the morning, but I felt stuck. I buried my face into my hands and wept. At that point, I didn’t even know why I was crying other than everything had finally got me. I had been swept with long nights for informational meetings and early mornings for class that week, and I couldn’t force myself to focus on grading my students’ work because my vision would blur after a few sentences. 

Without my mentor, I was the only person on my “team” who taught creative writing; there was no one I could really ask for help. I felt tremendous loneliness and broke down. I finally knew that I wanted more, that I deserved better, and that my students did too.

I could spend the next thousand or so words complaining about education; about graduation running until 10 PM on a school night, problems with teacher pay, difficult parents, educational bureaucracy, and dysfunctional state standards. There’s plenty wrong with the profession itself. 

But that’s not my story. I loved my students. I loved teaching. Most days, the reason why I woke up in the morning, put on a shirt and tie and drove to work was because of my students. They brightened my life. I am a better man because of them. And I simply gave what I had and had to let go and move on.

After a conversation with Rachel, I went into my principal’s office to tell him that I wasn’t coming back next year. As I spoke, I felt like I failed him, the program, and the students. I struggled to look him in the eye. My shame was that the joy that I felt in the first year was more of a memory than something I was regularly experiencing.

Going from teacher burnout to unemployment.

On June 15, for the first time in nearly two decades, I was unemployed.

I rewrote my resume, revised my cover letter, and created a LinkedIn profile. I had no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There were so many options, but nearly all of them existentially bored me. I assumed finding a new job would be more comfortable than trying something else on my own.

Rachel asked me again what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I reflected for a bit.

I joked: “To be an influencer.”

She went silent.

“Dudefluencer,” Rachel said. I thought about it for a moment. She added, “You’ve been writing about masculinity since your thesis. You want to be a creator.”

I bought the domain and set up the website that night. 

There were about two more months of job applications, interviews, and rejections for me to finally admit what I knew all along: I wanted to be a creator. I needed to work on Dudefluencer full time.

So what is Dudefluencer? 

We are a men’s magazine for the 21st-century man. We’re content creators, visionaries, and adventurers. We strive to be different from other male-centric websites. Dudefluencer addresses masculinity in a way that represents the new American male: defining yourself as an individual rather than adhering to generations of expectations.

Dudefluencer understands growing up is difficult. Going to college. Getting married. Becoming a father. Not being the primary earner. We want Dudefluencer to be alongside you on this journey.

While at Hopkins, I realized that there aren’t a lot of outlets for essays about the new American male. So I decided to create one.

I formally made the decision in September of 2019 to stop my job search, shut down my Glassdoor account, and pursue Dudefluencer full time. What started as a passion project to keep me occupied over the summer has transformed into something much bigger.

The greatest joy I felt as an educator was mentoring and helping young people find their voices as writers. I realized after quitting my job that I could still do that without being in a classroom. With Dudefluencer, I can always make a difference in the world by changing the narrative that young men need to be physically strong, emotionally closed-off, and unable to grow.

At the beginning of every school year, I stood in front of my students and told them that the key to good writing was exploring your truth. So for once, I decided to take my own advice and embark on my life outside of education with this magazine: Dudefluencer.

Where are we now?

I feel like I always come back to this essay when Dudefluencer is about to take a new step. Nearly 25,000 page views, 94 published articles, and over 150,000 words later, Dudefluencer is about to move ahead to crush loneliness.

I’m proud of the good work we’re doing at Dudefluencer. We’ve focused on investigating the causes and cures for male loneliness, and we’re particularly invested in the roles self-care, emotional health, and building close male friendships can play in that fight.

We can crush loneliness together.

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5 Responses

  1. Incredible story, Garrett, and good for you for taking the big step to found Dudefluencer. I know that the website is going to go far, and you’ll go far too with your ambition and determination. Take that, teacher burnout!!

  2. This read was honest, naked, truth. It shows the beauty and the toil that teaching has become. It should also serve as a lesson to us all that this is going to be the new normal if we don’t take drastic steps to fix our educational system, to shift our priorities from measurable outcomes to growing student potential. We are losing qualified, passionate, effective teachers at an alarming rate. The best and the brightest are leaving the profession for valid and compelling reasons that have little to do with their passion for teaching. While I consider it a loss for our kids that you are no longer teaching in a classroom, it’s a win for your new learners, your readers because what is teaching after all, if not influencing? You didn’t quit and you didn’t fail. Kudos to you for realizing that you will always be a teacher Garret, because in your heart you know that being a teacher is a calling not a job.

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