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April 24, 2023

The Wisdom of Burnout: Paving the Way to a Healing Path.

Burnout is a harsh reality in the field of education—something I can personally attest to as a former secondary education teacher in Germany.

Perhaps that’s why it seems that there is a mass exodus from teaching and other school-related professions. Anyone in education knows the truth of the vocation: teaching is not just teaching—it is preparation, corrections, creativity, research, analysis, improvising, mentoring, committees, school trips, meetings, parent-teacher conferences, chaperoning, proctoring, disciplining…need I go on?

I drowned in its demands.

I got into teaching because I love language, culture, and literature. I wanted to inspire students to study abroad and discover the world. I wanted to show them about the unique corners of this beautiful planet and the people who inhabit it. I wanted to impart my love of communication so that young people may dare to connect with people of diverse backgrounds.

I lived in Bremerhaven, Germany, and taught at a Gymnasium (highest level of secondary education) for eleven years. The first few months of every school year, I would power through, keeping everything organized and well-prepared, color-coding notes and class folders, and having my resources, texts, and worksheets both on-line and in print, while making sure my lessons were engaging and creative and had learning outcomes. I taught with enthusiasm and energy. Students were engaged in my lessons and did their work. I was a well-liked teacher.

But when the first waves of exams rolled in, things would shift.

Suddenly, my desk at home would be a leaning tower of work, my lesson plans received less attention, I would forget to upload the PDFs, or leave the right folder at home, or consistently forget to take attendance or correct someone’s homework they asked to have checked over. My home was the place I did most of my work, which is not always advantageous. Suddenly, I was drowning in a doom spiral I couldn’t seem to stop. I remained positive during lessons, but at home, my engine was sputtering. Feelings of never being able to catch up would set in and I would feel like I was just surviving. Treading water. Being pulled under. Flailing.

After eleven years and the pandemic, I had gained 30 pounds, lost a ton of hair, and struggled to get myself to work in the morning. I would lie in bed after my alarm would go off and think: “I could just call in sick. I could get a doctor’s note for a week off. I could just stay here and rest.” Then, I would begrudgingly get up and pull myself together, starting the day with two strong cups of coffee and a manic hustle to get ready in time.

The day I decided I needed to walk away and reset was after I’d been asked to take over a class late in the semester and make a miracle happen—get students’ grades done within three weeks, which meant administering speaking tests to each student for an oral grade. It was the third time I’d been put in a position like this due to other burnt-out teachers being unable to come to work. It was like a twisted ride at the fair in which one teacher would burn out and others would rush in to pick up the slack. They would, in turn, burn themselves out until the other person could jump back on the ride. Then they would hold on for dear life until they tumbled off as well.

I said “yes” to taking on the missing teacher’s work. I worked my butt off. I wanted to be able to do it all. I felt bad for the students. I was lenient with their grades. I was kind to them. I gave everything.

And my “yes” wound up having serious consequences.

I came home exhausted every day but couldn’t sleep at night—the kind of exhaustion that feels like heavy armor and brain fog. I forwent going to the gym and doing things I enjoyed. Instead of cooking healthy meals, I would live off of easy things to prepare—sandwiches, take-out, prepared foods. My shoulders ached. I binged shows at night when I couldn’t sleep. I could hardly get off the couch. The amount of time I would lie in bed and consider calling in sick got longer and longer.

“My life doesn’t have to be like this,” I thought to myself one night, crying, hardly able to get up from the couch. “My life can be more beautiful than this.”

And I had to make that happen. Me. Myself. I had to take the steps.

So, I jumped off the burnout carousel.

I resigned from my job.

I finished the school year.

And I left.

Choosing myself over the job was difficult, especially because it meant also leaving Germany.

“I’ll take a year off and see what happens,” I told myself. “I’ll free my mind from the bogged down mental fog of a teacher. I’ll breathe and hike and work on my fitness and nutrition and sleep in. I’ll write and take classes. I’ll grab onto opportunities and swing from them until I feel something connect.”

The decision to take a year off of from teaching was met with distinct reactions. Some people were happy for me, while others would pose impossible questions. What’s the next job? What are you going to live off of? Why would you ever leave teaching?

I was so burnt out that I couldn’t answer any of them, except to assure I had saved money and had an inheritance from my late father for basic needs to quell their curiosity. I know this is a privileged position to be in—one I am so grateful for. I took the opportunity to take time off and ran with it, calling this time a “sabbatical” in an attempt to justify it.

But honestly, why did I even need to justify it? I did what was best for me.

Arriving at my mother’s house felt like setting foot into a sanctuary. I slept for what felt like a week. I walked a lot. I read books. I wrote in a journal. I cooked. I made the space upstairs my own. I meditated.

After a month of true convalescence, the reflecting began.

I worked with a life coach who helped me answer hard questions and clear past programming. It was painful facing the reasons why I said “yes” all the time when I truly wanted to say “no.” It was hard to admit that I wanted my principal to like me—that I deeply wanted to be loved—and would have done anything to get that validation. Saying “yes” also fed my ego, providing me with the feeling of being “the most capable” to take over the classes. I hadn’t been gaining any love for taking on extra work. No one ever ran up to me and thanked me for doing it. And no one had ever forced me, either. The most bitter realization was that I had let it all happen; I was consistently and insidiously wearing myself down and yearning for the appreciation I believed I deserved.

In short, I had been ripping myself off.

I am now in the phase of asking myself what I want, which I could not have possibly done in a burnout mindset. Back then, my only thoughts were about how to make it to the weekend so I could rest. What I wanted was a nap, a pastry, and a bottle of wine. Now I know I want to live an expansive life with love, friendship, passion, creativity, and work I enjoy doing.

And boundaries. They mustn’t be forgotten.

There are many judgements I have faced in the past five months: I’m weak; I’m lazy; I don’t want to work; I just want to play video games all day.

Um, hell no.

Jumping off the burnout carousel might be the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

A reset requires mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual reevaluation: a long process of examining my life and letting things fall away that haven’t been working. For me, they were the job, hustling for worthiness, soothing anxiety with alcohol, participating in toxic relationships and thought patterns, and living in a state of fight-or-flight. A reset is a hard look in the mirror. It is truth-telling—to yourself. (Ouch.) It is sitting in uncomfortable realities, emotions, and pain. It entails an open mind and a willingness to admit that you’ve caused some of your own suffering, which also means you have the power to heal yourself.

I still grieve this major life change because it had beautiful moments and friendships—there are always diamonds in the bedrock. For me, the wisdom of burnout hasn’t only been about self-care, it’s been about answering the hardest questions that bring me further along a healing path. The wisdom of burnout is in having agency over my life.

The wisdom of burnout lies in knowing that only we can save ourselves.

~

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