Confessions of a Type A, Work-a-holic

So I had a mental breakdown. No, really. I did. In the grocery store. Last Monday. In the prepared foods section. I was deciding between a pad thai bowl and a chicken caesar salad, and I found myself in tears. A man started staring so I ducked in an aisle so he would stop wondering if I just came from a wake or a funeral or another logical tear-jerking location. If only he knew I was crying in a grocery store because I am a complete type A work-a-holic and I had snapped, he would probably tell me to get a real problem. I know that because I tell myself that all the time. Get a real problem, Sarah. Everyone's job is hard. Everyone works hard and feels defeated. But this time, I have taken my problem and I have learned from it. A week later, I have to say that I feel like I am in a completely different world and I can't believe that last week I was in such a different state of mind. Now let me digress a little bit and say that I am NOT disrespecting people who struggle with depression, anxiety and terminal unhappiness. I looked up the definition of a mental breakdown and found that it is exactly what I went through: an acute, time-limited phase of a specific disorder that manifests primarily with features of depression and anxiety.

Yes, that's what I went through.

Rewind four weeks ago, New Year's Day. I was at home on the couch in a serious funk. I don't like to use the term depressed,
because as I said just a moment ago, I don't like to misuse terms and take anything away from people who suffer from depression. Some of my nearest and dearest friends and family members suffer depression. So, I was in a funk. Ordinarily, New Year's Day brings rejuvenation, motivation and pure ambition to me. I just. wasn't. having it. I didn't want to go back to school. I didn't want to get off the couch. I didn't want to pack my lunch. I didn't want to iron my clothes. I didn't want to go back to work. Feelings like this led me to feelings of guilt and questions... Why do I feel like this? Why am I so ungrateful? Why can't I be happy I just had 7 days of paid vacation? Do I really love my job? What's not to love? Am I the only one who feels like this?

In the weeks that followed, I found myself driving to work and daydreaming of a job I don't have. Wishing for a classroom that doesn't exist. Praying for the strength to break the funk. In the weeks that followed, I began packing boxes, bins, crates and totes. I began report card comments, progress monitoring, writing thank you notes, taking down posters, labeling bins, sorting through files and packing my life. My life of 5 months. I was moving out of a classroom that had molded me as a professional, and passing off a group of students that molded me as a person. I didn't realize until last Thursday, as I carried the last box to my car, that the day that my funk began was the day I realized it was the beginning of the end with that class. Don't get me wrong, teachers have to say goodbye to kids every year. But there is something about having to say goodbye to kids every four months that begins to wear on you. It's hard to lose your job over and over again. In short, it's hard to be on a non-stop job interview for three years. But that's what I've been doing, and this January, I realized I may not have another year left in me. As I drove home on Thursday night, I thought to myself "I don't think I can keep doing this. School after school, month after month, kid after kid."

It's an incredibly stressful position to be a long-term substitute. I have been SO fortunate that the schools, teachers and administrators I have worked with over the years have been so welcoming to me. However, it still remains an incredibly stressful position. It is stressful because most of the time, you do not have an adequate amount of time to prepare. Most of the time, a lot of pertinent information about curriculum, programs and routines are left to the imagination. Most of the time, you are expected to just already "know." But you don't. You figure it out as you go. If you are like me, you spend nights in your classroom until 9:00 trying to figure it out, and then walking to your car eating a bag of warm celery sticks and calling your mom crying. If you are like me, you spend weekends on blogs and Teachers Pay Teachers trying to find out what everyone else is doing for the Common Core, hoping you can throw it together by Monday. If you are like me, you spend afternoons and evenings tutoring, teaching review classes, supervising clubs and chairing committees so you will be noticed when the school someday, somehow, has a job vacancy. If you are like me, you spend mornings in an empty school laminating things that the students never notice. If you are like me, you are up at midnight showing your boyfriend how to tie ribbons on holiday goodie bags for students that leave them in your classroom empty. If you are like me, you are replying to parent emails on your iPhone while you are on the treadmill at the gym, because you are determined to stay healthy despite your busy schedule. If you are like me, you never believe anyone when they tell you that you are doing an excellent job. You beat yourself up over what you never got to, what progress wasn't made, what you could have done differently. If you are like me, you create way more work for yourself and hold yourself to an unreasonable, unmanageable, unbelievable standard of excellence. And then you pack up your type A Vera Bradley bag, and you go.  

Friday morning came, and my students showered me with love. I've already gone on longer than planned so I won't give you the play-by-play of my goodbyes. After the day ended and the children were finally gone, I dried my tears and I returned to my classroom to do the dirty work that I had put off all week- the progress reports, the grade book, the report cards. I told myself I wouldn't read any cards or open any student gifts until I got home. I just didn't have time. My co-teacher had all 75 of our students write a book called Memories of Miss Eager. They each wrote and illustrated their favorite memories with me. There were so many that I decided to save them for my couch and a glass of wine because I didn't want to cry again. When I sat down in front of my computer, my stress levels returned to the roof as I agonized over the quality of job I had done. Had I collected enough data? Had I increased fluency? Had I improved writing mechanics? Was it okay that we didn't do as many basal units as I had hoped? How many units would the "real teacher" have done? Will she be disappointed? Was I enough?

I finally closed the door to my classroom at 9:30pm. Yes, on a Friday night. I drove home in a stunned state. Overtired from a lack of sleep and a lot of tears, I got home and I read the cards and books that my students had made. There were the many heartfelt and appropriate lines about how I helped them read or taught them a funny math trick. But then I opened one that changed everything. One short sentence that got me out of my month-long funk.

"The best thing about Miss Eager is that she cared about my cousins."

In October, one of my students went through a very difficult time. His two teenage cousins were in a car accident and spent weeks in the intensive care unit. As a 10 year old boy with autism, he had a very difficult time understanding why and how life would move forward from such a tragedy. We spent hours, sometimes days, sitting on the carpet in my room, just the two of us, trying to reason with why tragedies happen. As the cousins miraculously recovered, his conversations, questions and stress over the accident had subsided. He barely spoke of it anymore. Now in January, when asked for one line about Miss Eager, that was what he wrote. That was what he remembered. That is what he will remember.

In one line, I was reminded of why we do it. Why we work 75 hours a week for a $38,000 salary. Why we spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on prize bin fillers, yards of fabric, crates, books, clipboards and Expo markers. Why we spend our summers ON; setting up our classrooms, shopping for new books, changing grade levels, realigning our curriculum, getting through the Target Dollar Bins before they get picked over in July. Why we lose sleep at night when something didn't sit right at school. Why we go home at night wondering if we remembered to put a note in a folder. Why we think of our best math lessons in the shower. In one line, I was reminded that I am enough. I learned more from this child than he could have ever learned from me.

It's not about the math lessons in the shower, the Expo markers or the Target dollar bins. When comparing teaching to a corporate job, grade books and progress monitoring are the daily clerical duties. Those are the expense reports and the concepts and the communication between clients. But to touch a child's heart when they needed it most, that is nailing a deal. That is landing the promotion. That is why we do it.

So now looking back to last Monday and my mental breakdown...yes, get a REAL problem, Sarah. You have been blessed to be a teacher. In many ways, Friday was the New Year's Day I never had. I am rejuvenated, motivated and ready for my next job adventure.

If you made it to the end of this, thank you. This was cathartic and I needed it.

16 comments

  1. I love this post! You are exactly and sometimes we need to hear that especially on certain days (I just had one)

    I will start a long term sub job soon! :)

    Amber
    Sparkles, Smiles, and Successful Students

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  2. if the world had more people like you, it would be a better place.

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  3. I think the most important attribute of the best teachers is caring... which you have an abundance of. I think you summarized all the passion, time, dedication and love that substitute teachers put into their jobs. If you had ever been one of my teachers, I'm sure you would have been one of my favorites!

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  4. Hey Sarah, I loved your post. I know how you feel as if you your jobs is always changing and it seems frustrating, but stick through it. The school that you were meant to teach at is around the corner. Keep doing what you doing because someone will take notice, and you'll realize why it did not happen before. Plus, all of the time that you are working towards that full time position, you will have a learned many lessons and grown as a teacher. :)

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  5. Beautiful post, Sarah! Remember that, just for now, you just might not be destined to teach in a certain school, but you ARE destined to teach certain children, and to touch their lives forever. The way that you so beautifully helped your little boy though his cousins' accident proves it.
    Your job is out there - don't give up!!

    Linda Nelson
    Primary Inspiraton

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  6. Yes, you are right. You are blessed. Sometimes we can be so in to what we are doing we lose sight of the big picture. Our perspective is so limited because we are in the trenches. But if we take a step back and look at the good...we have it pretty easy. I am happy that you are feeling better about all of this. No one has a perfect life, job, etc. Everyone goes over mountains of hard times. It is normal. Just know there is always a rainbow if you keep moving forward. Best of luck to you!


    Always A Lesson

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  7. I just want to say that I understand how you felt. I am in the same funk right now and doing the same wondering. I'm feeling broken right now, but your post has given me hope that I can make it through the year!

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  8. Dear Miss Sarah - your post brought tears to my eyes, and I hope you won't mind if I share it with two of my wonderful siblings, both life-long teachers of special kids. Your love, insight and tenacity are so inspiring, and you have my prayers and heartfelt wishes for the most perfect classroom, filled with grateful students, just waiting for you, right around the corner! Love, Trish

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  9. Thank you everyone for the love and well wishes! It's comforting to know other people go through these same life changes and crises.

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  10. Wow, this was timely! i go through a similar funk and just had mine yesterday & this morning. Yesterday was doom & gloom and the questions & doubt while this morning was tears of gratefulness for what I didn't see was good in my life yesterday. Now, guess who I wanted to walk, talk, & have tea with today to bring positive closure to my funk? Your mom. I wasn't crying, just checking in with a friend to make sure she wasn't having the same funk. Never enough time to spend with your mom. I send you a funky hug! I love your heart on your sleeve honesty...you aren't alone. I love you.-Marybeth

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  11. My mom went back to school at the same time I started college. She was over 45 years old, and took the leap because she knew she wanted to teach. She'd been an aide for 6 years, and after graduating in 4 tough years, she is an aide again.

    She's been an aide or long term sub for 3 and a half school years now. She, like you, does breakfast duty, or homebound teaching, or volunteers for extra work and then sends thank you notes to the administrators for "allowing" her to- all in the hopes of getting noticed and offered a real job. The school loves her, thankfully- but billions have been cut from education in our state and they are suffering so much that they aren't even replacing retirees (just raising class sizes instead).

    I was lucky enough to get a "teaching" job when I graduated, but I was an interventionist. I was referred to as the "assistant teacher" and worked to help my "lead teacher" in her classroom. After one year, some of the assistants were given a classroom, and I wasn't. I felt like such a failure, and then halfway through the year, I found out I would be RIF'ed, and lose even my job as an assistant. For months, I wallowed. I feel like that's the only word to fit.

    I job-searched from January to June, and finally, the first week of July (less than 3 weeks before my wedding and 2 weeks before my apartment lease ended), I was offered a job.

    The relief that someone wanted to hire me- and then, the relief after my first observation that she didn't regret it- was overwhelming. I hadn't even realized how much I'd sunk into self-pity until I had a chance to rise out of it.

    This is a job that scares me sometimes, because I don't feel I could ever do it halfway. I don't know that I could ever truly balance a family and the type of work I put in, because, well- it's a job that takes your whole heart. Maybe I'll learn, but in the meantime- I totally understand what you mean about putting your all into it. Goodbyes are always hard, but goodbyes that feel too soon are always harder.

    It will come, at some point, where you get a class that's truly your own. I wish I could say it was soon, but I have no idea. I do know that there are a lot of teachers out there in aide spots, short-term subbing, long-term subbing, or interventionist positions that know exactly how you feel, and I'm glad you had the courage to open up about it.

    If you are anywhere near me in Indiana, let me know. I think we have some retirements this year and I think my principal might be tempted to hire you just from reading this post.

    Thinking of you- and happy you sound more positive now! (P.S.- Sorry to write a novel :)

    Jenny
    Luckeyfrog's Lilypad

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  12. Jenny,
    Your comment was so thoughtful and kind. THIS is why I love blogging, because you connect with people who have gone through the same things as you! I am nowhere near Indiana, I am in Buffalo, NY. But I appreciate your kindness. I hope your mom finds a job soon too. I totally understand how you feel about not being able to do your job halfway. It really does require your whole heart to give the kids what they truly deserve. Thanks for reading and spending the time to make that connection with me! :)

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  13. This is a beautiful post! It is obvious that you are a great teacher! (and I totally agree about thinking of math lessons in the shower!!) My teammate and I are constantly thinking of/making math games for our classes and it's just ridiculous how much time and emotion we put into every part of our jobs! We always make each other crazy thinking about how we're going to arrange our classrooms the next year; always trying to make something work better or something more perfect! We've both been guilty of drawing out our classroom maps while on summer road trips!

    Anyway, this is a great post and I am excited to have found your blog!
    Katie :)

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  14. What a beautiful post. I noticed your blog on TpT, I'm a teacher in Rochester. Best of luck in your new position!

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    1. Hi Karry! Awesome. What a small world :) Thanks for reading!!

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