How Mainstream Schooling Burns Teachers Out

Or, Why the Status Quo is Not Sustainable

“In public schools, the educator is backed by an entire system of demands, inducements, punishments, measuring devices, and packaging of knowledge: testing, grades, standards, curriculum units, textbooks, psychological and medical labels, detention slips, and much, much more.” ~ Ron Miller

Teaching is, hands down, the most challenging job I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot). Yet the rewards of working with children every day, seeing them grow and grasp new ideas outweigh the stress.

Less than a year after quitting my advertising career and completing a whirlwind teacher certification program, I stood before 22 eager third graders in my very own public school classroom in Austin, Texas. It had been a rocky road to get there, with a plethora of coursework, planning, preparation and anxiety along the way.

I always enjoy a challenge, so I had decided to become a bilingual teacher despite my rusty Spanish. Determined to gain fluency through self-discipline, I managed to pass the required oral Spanish proficiency test. Nevertheless, I was far from fluent by my first day of teaching. One student raised his hand and asked, “Ms. Fajkus, why are you a bilingual teacher if you can’t speak Spanish?”

I nearly broke down in tears. “Well, I am here to learn, just like you are,” I managed to say.

In November of that year, I attended a weekend yoga retreat and took a powerful kundalini yoga workshop. Later that night, I abruptly decided it was time to cut off all my hair. I guess I wanted to reflect externally some big changes I was feeling internally at the time. The next day, I went to Supercuts and had it shaved into a buzz cut.

When I showed up at school the following Monday, I wore a knit cap to cover my almost baldness. When I took it off to reveal my new ‘do to my class, the girls and boys shrieked, “Miss Fajkus! What did you do?! Why?!? What have you done with the real Miss Fajkus?!” This was a roomful of mostly Mexican-American kids from a culture in which all women are meant to have long hair. Of course, being children, they got over it by that afternoon. My friends and family were utterly supportive and complimented the roundness of my head and the boldness of my choice.

My principal, however, was none too pleased. She began a passive-aggressive campaign against me which nearly sabotaged my budding career. She lied to, manipulated and attacked me through fear-based tactics that I fell for, being an insecure, frazzled, first-year teacher. Thanks to my sweet students, respectful parents and amazing colleagues—and a last minute intervention from the school district’s Human Resources department—my career and I survived.

I continued under that same terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad principal for two more years before deciding to pack up and move abroad to teach in Guatemala in 2009. She had been forced by the powers that be to contain her disdain for me, but still tried to get rid of me twice more by: (1) claiming that I had breached the strict standardized test administration rules, a bald-faced lie that was dismissed in due time, and (2) switching me last-minute from 3rd to 1st grade, then to bilingual special ed.

All this is to say, the sole reason that I am still a teacher (now in my 9th year) is because I am no longer in the mainstream system. Three years of that and I could take no more.

The main reason? Aside from the nightmarish principal, it was the standardized testing. Teachers are forced by the public school system to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students for benchmark tests in math, reading and writing and sometimes science and social studies, depending on the grade level. Weeks and weeks are wasted teaching them how to pass these multiple-choice tests or how to write a formulaic essay that will receive high marks—and administering the tests themselves.

I always thought I could get around it. You know, be creative, de-emphasize the tests’ importance. But the entire system is built around the importance of these test scores. Kids feel the pressure from their parents, teachers, principals and peers.

So I opted out, and it was the best career choice I ever made. Still, it pains me to read about and think about the millions of schoolchildren in the U.S. and worldwide who are being subjected to this absurdity. No Child Left Behind? Race to the Top? Please. Stop. The. Insanity.

My personal philosophy of education is ever evolving.

  • I believe that as adults, we can best instruct kids by modeling character traits like mindfulness, kindness, open-mindedness and responsibility.
  • I believe that helping students develop positive ways of handling their emotions and interacting with others is just as important (if not more) as engaging them in the academic curriculum.
  • I believe that all students can learn and flourish in an environment of honesty, respect and equality.
  • I believe letter and number grades are worthless and specific, constructive comments are valuable.
  • I believe everyone can be a meaningful mentor and a lifelong learner.

How do you feel about the mainstream school system today? What’s your philosophy of education?

teacher owl meme

One thought on “How Mainstream Schooling Burns Teachers Out

  1. Thanks, Michelle. I burned out after year 3. I didn’t shave my head and get harassed by my boss, but I, too, felt desperate to find another way of living/teaching. In addition to teaching, we are often expected (or contracted) to take on extra-curricular activities. I was the head coach of the soccer team and during season, I wouldn’t get home sometimes until after 11pm and was on my way back to school by 6am the next day. Also, because I wanted to be a more effective teacher, I signed up for an MA program to try to revamp the reading lists for the English department. I worked on that most weekends in between grading essays. Oh and then there was coaching on weekends in the off-season to supplement my salary. This is not sustainable or even realistic for teachers or students! Looking back, I’m not sure how I found it desirable or where I drew the motivation from. Maybe it was just what I was used to from my experience as a student in school and as soon as I took the time and space to question it, my illusion crumbled.

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