Managing my Burn Out Year

zombie_roller_coaster_by_okseart-d3cve8lBy Nick McDaniels — I’ve spent some time (hopefully not too much time) thinking about a good metaphor for my job.

Most everything I thought of was amusement park related. This is probably good and bad. So here’s what I settled on and then I’ll explain how this all relates to the title.

If you’ve ever worked in the roller coaster that is an inner city school,you know there are incredibly long, almost not-worth-it, lines at the copy machines, you know there are times when a bunch of kids are moving around really fast, yelling loudly, and flailing their arms, and you know that after each ride, when you get off the train, the people you see on the next ride might be totally different people. Of course the kids are different every year, but the staff changes from year to year in sadly predictable ways.

Just like when you’re on a roller coaster, there are people who get off the train, and then go get immediately back in line for more of the same, but there are also people that take one ride, realize the hassle it takes to enjoy the ride is too much, and go eat an eight dollar, three pound turkey leg from the concession stand (this is not part of the metaphor).

Oh… and because I know you were thinking it: Working in an inner city school, like the elevator business, has its ups and downs.

So why does this happen: changes of cast from year to year (in this way it’s almost like a Circus, but I didn’t want to have to decide who in a school is the person who follows the elephants around with a big shovel)?

Burn out.

We all know the statistics. Teachers, particularly new ones, don’t stay in the classroom, or at least not in an inner city classroom for very long. I see that. I see a lot of teachers complete their contracts with their certification organizations and leave, I see some others stretch another year out of themselves and leave, and I see a few more who are sticking with it longer. I have also seen some veteran teachers who reach a point when they know it is a enough and move on to other, hopefully greener pastures.

In my fourth year now, and already committed to a fifth, I am nearing the less traveled years statistically for new teachers, but I will admit that this year I felt the burn out creeping into my psyche in a way that I never have before. We all, or the sane ones, burn out a little bit every year. You’d have to. Summer generally heals all wounds. This year however, I felt that March feeling in November. It scared me then and I know it had an impact on my year.

I’ll admit to having a rough year, new curriculum, new grade level, new classroom, large class sizes, some particularly challenging students, and the impact of a generally low school morale. All of this contributed to my burn out feeling, no doubt and the cause, while important, doesn’t matter as much as the effect.

So how have I minimized the effect? I tried to get more joy out of my students rather than worrying about test scores and curriculum. I tried to boost the morale of my colleagues. I tried to spend more time with my wife and daughter. All of these things worked to some extent. But none of them worked so much as to keep me from looking elsewhere for a job as most people do.

But the moment I pulled up the employment vacancy list, particularly looking at non-classroom positions, I realized what I was doing. I was getting off the roller coaster and going to buy an eight dollar, three pound turkey leg (maybe this part of the metaphor does work a little). I decided at this point to reaffirm my commitment to children. I needed to get back in line for another trip around the track.

There is no trick here, no secret. Just will and timely reflection. I am managing my burn out year by owning it and not letting it consume me. After multiple burn out years, it will consume you, and you probably need a change, but for me, this is my first experience. What helps me, when thinking toward next year, is remembering that every year for an inner city student, is a burn out year. Things are worse for students than they are for teachers, generally, and we see the impact that it has when they let it get to them (terrible grades and attendance, violence, etc…). I realize that my duty to my kids, is to manage my burn out, and stick it out for them, because they don’t have college degrees that can allow them to change their situation as easily as a teacher can. In this way, we, as teachers, can shoulder their burn out too by being reliable and dependable.

From this, I have found a way to gain comfort. Burn out year or not, Summer will heal things, and next year will be better. I will plan to stand up straight and make sure I am tall enough to enjoy the ride, because as we know, the times when it is fun, it is really fun, and I won’t let one year derail my commitment to children.

4 Responses to “Managing my Burn Out Year”

  1. 1 Matt March 25, 2013 at 9:12 am


    It looks like you and I wrote these blogs sitting next to each other! And I don’t work in an inner city school. I too am trying to spend more time with my wife and new daughter so minimize that feeling you have. I think you’re going to see more turnover next year when Act 10 hits MPS in full force. Good Luck!


    • 2 nickmcdaniels March 27, 2013 at 7:05 am

      Thanks, Matt

      I think burn out is something that corporate ed reformers are counting on to drive the cost of education down. One of the best ways to fight back is to stay put.

      I actually teach in Baltimore, but we are in lockstep down the ed reform pipeline with Milwaukee. From what I’ve heard about Act 10, your assessment seems on point. Thanks for the comment. Hang in there!



  2. 3 Mich7782 February 23, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post, and I hope you can pull through the burnout and stay on the ride. Inner city schools in particular need people who care, and it sounds like you are one of them!


  3. 4 nickmcdaniels February 26, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for reading! Nearly a full year after this post and I have pushed through the burnout and now find new energy in teaching new material. Sometimes a little tweak in the routine is all that is needed.


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