“Significant work related stress may take 2 months leave of absence” the letter said. I never would’ve thought this type of letter would apply to me, but its my letter from my doctor to give to my school.

I’ve been teaching high school students almost thirty years and still love teaching. I’ve chosen to teach high school students who are at-risk academically for most of my career because I felt I could make the most difference teaching academically at-risk students. When my students ask me from time to time, why I teach high school instead of university, I always tell them I teach high school because I love teaching teenagers. So what happened? Why did I crash and burn that Tuesday after school?

Why did I crash and burn? I think the following contributed to my burnout:

  • students’ disruptive behaviour in class;
  • students’ verbal abuse and threats of cyberbullying;
  • students’ considerable, constant emotional demands;
  • students’ special  needs and the expectation  to differentiate teaching and assessing and evaluating students’ work;
  • heterogeneity in abilities of my students;
  • conflicting demands made by my students, parents, and administration;
  • ever increasing  paper work, reports, and report card comments ;
  • new discipline policy for students regarding lates, incomplete or unsubmitted assignments that some students think the new policies absolve  them of the responsibility they have for their own learning.


Now, of course I know I also contributed to my burnout.  I’m just a teeny weeny bit type A personality.  I worked hard to do my best and  try to motivate my students to do their best, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t motivate many of my students to take more responsibility for their own learning. In desperation, I tried to ignore these troublesome, troubles and troubling students, but I couldn’t.  I felt it my job to get them to do their best, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I ignored them. When I called home for support,  many of the parents were not surprised by their  kid’s behaviours and tried to be supportive but most said they didn’t know what to do. Sometimes when I called parents, some parents  didn’t return  any of my phone calls. I learned to call cellphones and not leave a message at home because the kids would just erase my message  before their parents got a chance to hear the message.

Anthony (not his real name) , one of my students,  skipped almost a third of my classes, repeatedly came late to class, and didn’t submit most of his work.  When I talked to Anthony about all this, he asked  “What is your problem?”. My problem I thought?

Another one of my students, Darren (not his real name) told me repeatedly he hated my classes and that I wasn’t any fun. I was giving the class too much work. I should be more like his teacher last year and let the class  watch movies on Fridays- in a math class?

Tom (not his real name) another student in my class had a hair trigger temper and would throw things around class.  Students were afraid of him; I was afraid of him. You just never knew what would set him off. He asked me one day as he came into  the classroom, what I would do if he refused to go to the office when I asked him to go to the office.   I told him I wasn’t even going to consider that question because I didn’t expect to have ask him to go  to the office.  I really try hard to start each day with a fresh slate. So, what happened yesterday does not affect today. I don’t usually send students to the office.  I try to deal with any issues myself in class. But on rare occasions, I feel I have to send students to the office. Later in class that day, Tom  chose to behave inappropriately, and  I asked him to go to the office. He refused. Two behaviour support teaching assistants came to escort him to the office , he wouldn’t go either. He refused despite everything. Then five minutes before class was over, he announced, “Now I am going”.  The learning environment was totally destroyed in that class and in future classes.   Students were either waiting to see what Tom was going to do and couldn’t focus on their  work, or after an incident  they were afraid and couldn’t focus on their work  or  they talked about the incident after it happened and couldn’t focus on school work.  I admit, I had a difficult time myself focusing.

Another student, I’ll call her Jenny, would skip classes, come late to class or sneak out of class when I was helping another student. One day I noticed Jenny was out of class and went into the hall to see if she was there.  I saw her and told her to come back to class.  Jenny just laughed and ran down the hall laughing more loudly as she opened the door and ran down stairs. I called home and left a message on her parent’s cell phone , but never heard back from the parent.

Other students have come to class high on some substance or another and have destroyed the learning environment as I dealt with the situation.

These are just some of the things that happened this semester in class. I don’t want to discuss any more hings that happened in class  because I find it too upsetting.

I’m just thinking  how much teaching has changed over the  years. I’m surprised I still like teaching, but right now I can’t even think about teaching.  That’s so sad.  I’ve been teaching for so many years and have loved it.  I’m a life long learner myself and keep on top of things by doing my own research on how to improve my teaching practice. I’ve had students who were at-risk academically and have graduated from high school come back and tell me how much  I  helped them while they were in school. I’ve even had students who didn’t graduate from high school tell me how much they appreciated what I tried to do for them.  And, now all I can do is cry when I think about it all.

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17 Responses to “I can’t believe after all these years of loving to teach I’ve crashed and burned and can’t do it anymore”

  1. Mathew on December 8th, 2011 8:57 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear of your “burnout” and hope that you take some time to take care of yourself.

  2. r on December 9th, 2011 5:32 am

    Sorry to hear you’re burnt out. So am I :/
    I’m burnt out after 8 years of teaching because for the first time I had parents form a group, call a meeting with the principal, and have the audacity to claim that I don’t care for their kids. Also they said that I am not teaching and that parents are teaching them at home. The principal backed me up, because she’s observed me more than 4 times already and knows that I care and that I’m teaching. *sigh* I need winter break already.

    I totally am surprised on how much teaching has changed over the years too.

  3. Litsa on December 10th, 2011 1:46 am

    Goodmorning from a sunny 4 degrees in Patras, Greece. While reading your letter, I felt I was hearing myself. No, not in what you’ve had to deal with. The city I work in and the people are still a paradise. But the way you have behaved is as if my personality is mirrored. I hope you stop feeling as if you’ve failed.
    As specialised counselors, educational psychologists and other specialists have told us, students reflect their parents and the lack of whatever in their lives. Lack of proper parental guidence, too much pressure from parents or a lack of parents lead to people who also lack personalities and use the classroom as their stage or get invoved in all the wrong situations for whatever reasons. Those are the consequences. True, times change and we must change with them, but all we can do is our best and since your principal is backing you up on an objective basis, that says it all.

  4. Litsa on December 10th, 2011 1:52 am

    Don’t forget the State’s responsibility in this and the consequence of drugs on young people’s behaviour.
    I wish you all the best and remember, at least you’re not going through what we are now in Greece with our economy and, eventually, our society down the tube.
    Let’s all try to focus on HOPE that our good faith and acts will bring about POSITIVE CHANGE. TAKE CARE

  5. Sophie on December 10th, 2011 4:32 am

    Dearest Elona,

    My heart goes out for you and tears well up as I read your heartbreak. It seems all too familiar.

    I salute you for your passion, love and tenacity in educating high school students for these 30 years! I’m only in my 11th year and not sure if I could go on as long as you have.

    You are a great and awesome teacher! Reading your posts for the past one year, I can see what a truly wonderful educator you are. You observe, teach, share and reflect on your teaching. I can see your sincere love for your students. You have inspired me!

    You’ve given so much! Please take good care of yourself too. Don’t feel obliged to carry all these burden which is not yours to shoulder. Sometimes, we may feel that it’s solely our responsibility to ensure that our students learn. But I’ve learned during these two years that students have their obligation to be responsible for their learning too. I’ve learned and am still learning the lesson to let go.

    You may not be able to ‘save’ all. But there are many who have learned, benefited and touched by your dedication. And there are still many, I believe, who will greatly benefit from your teaching.

    Take this time to rest. It’s time to receive, rejuvenate and recharge! Take care!


  6. Donna Browne on December 10th, 2011 11:00 am

    It is so hard! We love our jobs when we are able to meet our own high standards. When influences we cannot control erode our success, it destroys the internal motivation that keeps us going in the most difficult circumstances.

  7. Teresa on December 10th, 2011 10:20 pm

    Oh Elona, I was sad to read your post today. It’s clear how much passion you have for your students and for teaching. I’ve read your blog for a couple of years and often, I was in the same place as you were–frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, and questioning your worth as an educator. The difference is that now I’m on my fifth year of teaching–nowhere near the experience you have! Teaching has changed…even in five years. I changed school districts to get away from the micromanagement and unrealistic expectations, but like you, I’m also pretty type A and take my job as a teacher very seriously and have high standards for my students, even when their families provide all kinds of excuses as to why their child “can’t.” Know that my heart is with you as you work through this difficult time. You have touched so many lives and every student was lucky to have been a member of your class, whether they knew to appreciate it or not ;)

  8. Elona Hartjes on December 11th, 2011 2:47 pm

    Thank you all for being supportive. This time too shall pass. I wonder what good will come out of my experience?

  9. Pat Jones on December 11th, 2011 4:14 pm

    I just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago, and it has been on my mind ever since. Your thoughts and ideas are so much like my own views that it is uncanny!

    I love the title, and after teaching for 29 years myself, I understand that as teachers we ARE at risk of the burnout you are now experiencing.

    When you put your entire heart and soul into your teaching and your students, it takes a toll. I’ve said many times that teaching drains everything physically and emotionally when it really matters to you. And it is clear that your work and your students matter!

    I think it is very brave of you to share what you are experiencing right now, and I think it is very smart of you to take some time to take care of yourself.

    I wish you the best as you recharge your batteries and hope that your spirit is renewed.

    With best regards,
    Pat Jones
    Teacher Support Force

  10. Pam Darden on December 11th, 2011 9:27 pm


    Bless you for your bravery and compassion in sharing your current struggle. Being a bit of a Type A personality myself, allowing others to see my weaknesses is very hard. Your words over the years have encouraged me and helped stiffen my own resolve on so many occassions. As someone who has struggled through major depressive episodes and lives with dysthymia, I must encourage you above all to take this time to focus on YOU. Take care of yourself and pamper yourself. Forgive yourself for being human. For me, that is an ongoing struggle. You are writing as if to convince yourself that you HAVE done some good- and you have, but the burned out, depressed part wants to disregard that and focus on the negative. Please work through all your feelings- really dig in there and “clean things out”.
    Please check in from time to time and let us all know how you are doing- don’t you dare feel bad if you don’t or it’s a long time before you do. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Take care of yourself!

  11. Melanie Samson on December 12th, 2011 7:48 pm

    Your blog has inspired me and made me reflect on my teaching. I hope your leave does you good and that you are able to focus on all the good you’ve done in your career. I’m only in my 7th year, but I’ve been in a very similar position to what you’ve described, and might have ended up in a burnout situation too except that I took a year off to do my master’s.

    When I get really frustrated, I remember the addage “a watched pot never boils”. As teachers, we rarely see immediate results. I usually don’t even notice the difference in the span of a school year. The difference you made shows up much later, usually when you aren’t teaching them any more.

  12. Mariane Silva on December 13th, 2011 11:28 am

    While reading your letter, I also felt I was hearing myself. I live in Brazil and I’m teaching in a state public School in Curitiba (city). I think we face the same problem all around the world. I’m so sorry and I’m also so sad thinking about the situation. Here the teacher’s salary is a shame and good teachers keep teaching because they love what they do.

  13. Audrey Nay on December 18th, 2011 4:23 am

    Good will come out of this, but I fear it will not be for a while. I have had personal experience of needing time off after 30 years teaching . . A story for another time but I am back and things are better than ever!
    I hope that I can give you some hope for the future. It takes time…It took me 12 months to fully return. Don’t rush it.
    Be kind to yourself and try to give your head a rest from school related matters. It will help! :) Take care

  14. Bruce Antion on December 28th, 2011 6:17 pm

    I taught 33 years, 12 with students with behavior disorders. Most had probation officers, and I felt great whenever any of them went on to become a taxpayer. I left once for a year and painted motorcycles and m/c accessories for a living, while searching for a better teaching position. I highly recommend doing something totally different while trying to relieve the stress associated with this
    particular situation, something where you can put down a tool, walk away and not think about work until the next day. Good luck. BA

  15. teachermrw on December 29th, 2011 10:18 am

    Hi, Elona.

    Thank you for so candidly sharing of your struggles. You speak for so many of us. Teaching truly has changed. I have been at it for not quite 20 years, and, in the last ten, I have experienced significant changes in students, parents, teachers, and administrators. I don’ think the school, i.e. venue, really matters; I teach at a private school, and experience some of the same stressors. I think that perhaps if every teacher took a two-month leave, perhaps the administrators would raise an eyebrow. Perhaps. Be strong, my friend. I will be thinking about and praying for you. :)

  16. teri on February 17th, 2012 12:54 am

    I just burnt out too. It was a panic attack, and a few days later an outburst of expletives toward an antagonizing student. I really felt like I had written this article myself, because the same scenarios have all occurred this school year…andI always want to do right by the kids and professionally. As I tell my husband….there’s too much to tell, I cant even talk about it anymore. Its too upsetting. 13 years and this week I quit. Now what?

  17. kath on February 17th, 2012 9:18 pm

    I have been teaching not as long as you, however I am going through a similar situation of “burnout.” I am off for 3 weeks to “heal” then I go back to school to teach students with behavior issues. Once the school year is over, I can then decide whether or not I want to continue to be a teacher.

    God be with you at this time. :)

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