My Dream Was to Become a Preschool Teacher, But I Burned Out After Only 3 Days

Three days into my very first job as a preschool teacher, I found myself huddled by a park bench near where I worked, crying my eyes out.
Publish date:
June 23, 2014
education, jobs, teachers

It was almost something out of a bad movie: I was on a study abroad trip when I realized with a fool’s certainty that I wanted to be a teacher.

As part of the trip, each student had to volunteer at one of the various organizations in our new city. You could volunteer at the city hall, a nonprofit organization, or a primary school. I hated politics, I already had had my fill of office jobs -- but I loved kids -- so I chose the elementary school.

I was only with the children for a short amount of time, but I absolutely fell in love with the classroom. I loved the students, I loved the teacher I worked under, and –- most of all -– I loved watching the students learn. I asked the teacher if I could create my own “lesson” so the kids could learn a little bit more about where I came from (and why my “accent was so weird.”) I watched over recess, provided instruction during class assignments, and helped decorate the classroom. I would annoy my fellow classmate/volunteer teacher’s aide, nagging her to get ready faster so we could get to the school as early as possible.

My experience was limited: Aside from babysitting, I didn’t know the first thing about working with children in a group setting. I had spent the first three years of my college life convinced I was going to work in an office somewhere. But my naiveté drove my passion to figure it out, to learn about the teaching world, and to someday become a teacher.

This passion is what led me to find an internship at a local preschool back home. This passion is what led me to enroll back in school almost immediately after graduating, since I was in my third year of an English degree when I had decided to become a teacher (insert joke about the uselessness of an English degree here). This passion led me to downright beg any institution, public or private, to take me in -- for any position, for any pay. I was ready to work for free if it meant I was teaching.

Cut to me over four years later. It’s June of 2013 and I’m waking up for the first time as a former teacher. That May, I had handed my resignation letter to the school I had been working at for the last two years, letting them know that I wasn’t renewing my contract, letting them know that I would be done, effective the last day of school.

At the height of my unhappiness as a teacher, part of me had been hoping I’d walk away feeling like I had overcome something, pumping my fist in the air like I was reenacting the last scene in "The Breakfast Club." Instead, I woke up that morning in June feeling disoriented, unsure, and –- most of all -– scared.

I was and continue to be scared out of my mind. Because I wasn’t sure what the future held. Because I didn’t know what I could or should do next. Because I lacked even an iota of the passion that I once had for teaching.

Teaching had felt tailor-made for me. From the guidance and instruction, to the empathetic talks, to the fancy DIY borders on bulletin boards. I would tell people I was planning to become a teacher and they would respond with, “That seems like the perfect job for you.” Or, “You totally look like a kindergarten teacher.”

For those first three years of college I'd barely cared about landing an internship but now I knew without a doubt: I was going to teach little children.

But somewhere along the line, I burnt out. If I’m being 100% honest with myself, I burnt out the third day of being a teacher. Three days into my very first job as a preschool teacher, I found myself huddled by a park bench near where I worked, crying my eyes out, wondering if I’d ever calm down enough to go back. The details as to why I ended up in such a state are irrelevant, because it wouldn’t be the last time this happened: Between that day and when I quit, I had four more breakdowns during school hours, in different classrooms, at different schools, and for different reasons. Sometimes I could hold it in until my lunch break. Other times, I could not. And this is not including the times I cried before school and after school, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into.

I spent the better part of three years telling myself that I would toughen up, that I just had a difficult classroom that year, that someday it would all click. Then, as I approached the midway point of my fourth year, I realized something I had been denying myself since day three:

I was not cut out for this.

Instead of toughening up and learning the ropes, I had become more and more and more strung out, until whatever passion I originally had was gone.

The rest of that year provided me with a brand new type of misery. I was conflicted, torn, and –- most of all -– guilt-ridden. I knew I needed to quit, lest my mental health deteriorate beyond repair. I had already learned that no amount of rest or vacation would fix this issue. But I was wracked with guilt. I loved the kiddos, and quitting teaching felt like I was quitting them. I felt horrible for wanting out of the one career field that I had actually wanted to be a part of. I felt like I was giving up on everything: on my aspirations, on the children, and on myself.

Some people were understanding. I would tell friends or family about my predicament and they (especially those who were once teachers themselves) would reply with, “I don’t blame you.” One (former) teacher even joked, “Get out while you still can.”

Others were less than empathetic. On the opposite end of that spectrum were the people who would offhandedly say that teaching “was a part time job” or “just babysitting." They would hear what I was doing and simply roll their eyes, telling me that they couldn’t believe I would leave a job that isn't even a “real” job in the first place. My feelings were immediately invalidated due to the inherent “easiness” of my job.

Other people would view my decision as weak-willed. They stayed in their jobs, even when things got tough. Why couldn’t I just get a thicker skin? Why couldn’t I just learn to play the game? I mean, what hope is there for me if I’m going to run and hide every time I don’t like a certain job?

But none of the comments were as damaging as those who would say things like, “But it’s those good moments that make it all worthwhile!” or “But teaching is such a noble pursuit!”

My guilt was highest after those conversations. I felt like I had proclaimed that being charitable and nice was too much work, so I was now resigning myself to a life of pure selfishness -- as if I had written down “Hedonism” as my reason for quitting.

However, at the end of the day, what people were saying could not sway me. I knew I had to quit. It was getting to the point that I would get emails about teaching workshops or classroom techniques, and instead of feeling inspired or driven, I felt nauseous.

I was having visceral reactions to things that simply reminded me that I was a teacher.

My last day came and went in the most anticlimactic way. People asked about my plans for the future, and I gave various answers: English tutor, yoga instructor … maybe I’d go for that office job after all. I then spent the next week –- my first week of pure unemployment –- dealing with the emotional fallout of quitting (which included a lot of DVRed talk shows, online articles with cat pictures and GIFs, and the music from Evita playing at inopportune times of the day).

Sometime around August of that year, when the rest of the teaching world was attending one of those ubiquitous in-service days and preparing their classroom for yet another school year, I received an email from my martial arts instructor –- someone I have known for years, someone who had been bugging me to teach martial arts on my own. A yoga studio owner had recently contacted her about starting up a class -– a class that my own instructor did not have the time for. She asked if she could send my name along instead, especially now that I didn’t have a full-time job.

Part of me froze -– the same part of me that felt sick when she got those emails about the education world, the same part of me that could only give the job search a half-hearted try before collapsing. That part of me wanted to politely turn down the offer and go back to cat GIFs and Evita music. But another part of me pushed forward, met with the studio owner, and, just a few weeks later, starting running my very own tai chi class.

I couldn’t help but chuckle: I had left the teaching world … to go back to teaching. But guiding adults through a few breathing activities and form movements was on a completely different level than attempting to run circle time with upwards of 24 young kids pawing at each other (or attempting to monitor a cafeteria with easily a hundred or so children inside). I went into the yoga studio with the same amount of inexperience that I had once had as a teacher’s aide -- as well as something that almost mirrored that spark that had once brought me down the road of early education.

Before long, I was back in school yet again, this time to become a registered yoga teacher. My career was shifting into the realm of physical well-being. The one thing I had clung to when the teaching world got rough was slowly transforming into the one thing I might be able to call a career.

My story as a former teacher is almost identical to the story of thousands upon thousands (perhaps millions) of teachers and former teachers, who went into the education world with unbridled optimism, only to find themselves struggling to just stay on their feet. Public school or private. Early education or high school. A vast bureau of administration or a single director. Our song and dance is the same. We wanted to help. We wanted to teach and guide children. But the beast proved too much for us to conquer.

Maybe it was the oversized classrooms that did us in. Maybe it was the disrespectful parents, or the unruly children, or the inane and ever-changing policies. Maybe it was the crushing realization that the education world was what it was and that it wasn’t changing anytime soon. Maybe it was the fact that we struggled through all of this while people called our profession a “part time job” or “babysitting.”

Regardless, we were left feeling like pretty ignoble people, looking at our classrooms with our shoulders drooped and our lips pressed together. The same way the blame has always shifted to the teachers when discussing bad test scores and failing schools, we blamed ourselves for not being able to pursue such a “noble” profession. Even when we vocalized our frustration for all of the above, there was always a part of us that internalized that sense of defeatism for leaving.

We’re the ones giving up on the future. We’re the ones not fighting the good fight.

But I look at the different fields that the former teachers I know ended up working in –- one is a nanny, another works behind the scenes for enrichment activities in her town, another is an editor for a textbook publishing company –- and I see a common trait: help. Whether it’s providing love and care to a child in a one-to-one setting, or making sure there are productive things for children and teenagers to do, or ensuring the quality of a section of a textbook -- or perhaps, whether it’s guiding people through yoga or tai chi as a means of a little calmness in their lives -- the drive to help people is still there, even if the drive to teach children in a classroom setting is not.

There are other ways we can impact the world for the better; there are other “noble" pursuits out there, aside from teaching children. Admitting that classroom management or politics is not exactly your forte is not admitting that you’d rather hoard all your time and energy for yourself.

Over a year later, I still feel like a woman trying to go on a first date after a major divorce –- a divorce that happened in the midst of family and friends telling me that my ex-husband is a great guy, a horrible guy, an easy husband to have around, or someone who’d only leave if I were doing something wrong. I’m still a little confused, a little exhausted, a little afraid to ever have that much passion about anything ever again. But I’m still taking that step forward. Understanding that a job does not necessarily make me, but it does have the power to break me if I don’t walk away when I need to.

I have no idea where this path is going, or how long it will last, but I’m on it, and I refuse to stop or turn around. And that right there is quite a noble pursuit.