Letters from Miss Jill: Teacher Burnout Started Way Before the Pandemic

Jill Carstens

A few weeks into the pandemic, March 2020, I had been teaching my last class of preschoolers before a planned retirement from the profession at the end of that school year.

I was the sole proprietor of my preschool and was doing everything I could think of during the stay-at-home order without any template for this disaster.

I delivered boxes filled with activities to each child’s home. I finished and delivered their spring report cards and offered to do phone conferences. But rent became due and with only two months left on our calendar and no end in sight for the pandemic, I chose to close for the rest of the year. 

What evolved in the schools overall was a bit chaotic. The pandemic revealed a lot of what was already broken in our education systems. Colorado has the fourth worst teacher salaries in the nation, in a state where the cost of living is becoming prohibitive.

I ran into professionals before the pandemic who shared a desire to become a teacher but were continuing in their corporate-type jobs until they could “save enough money” to afford to enter the profession.

I’ll state that again—they didn’t have enough savings to enter the world of teaching children. 

It baffles me how such an important job is diminished in this way. Certainly the field attracts people idealistic enough that their passion for the job will outweigh the challenges initially.

However, the “little things” add up over time. While working with preschoolers, for example, the simple endeavor of a teacher using the bathroom could prove to be an impossible task.

Indeed, I entered the profession because I had somewhat of a calling. Becoming a teacher was a completely fulfilling aspiration that I tackled with steadfast intention. I worked above and beyond, doing research to enhance my curriculums.

In addition to standard assessments, I developed my own insanely lengthy and individually curated reports that included each child’s portfolio of work samples.

Although most times my work was appreciated, I weathered criticism periodically from parents or coworkers when I might not be following a traditional path. I fought the good fight and stood up for my students’ needs, which often meant straying from prescribed curriculums.

The criticism, over time, made me a better teacher. I learned to preemptively head off questions about my methods with weekly letters to the parents that detailed everything we were doing and why, with copies of the research to back it up. I worked hard to justify teaching the best way I saw fit.

What are we going to do, though, with a system that often belittles that hard work or simply continues to ask for more and more out of its already stretched teaching population? I have read about kindred spirit teachers who, whether they taught for five years or 25 years, worked themselves to the bone during this pandemic, yet they were still asked to do more, often with less resources.

Many of them have transitioned out of teaching into similar professions where they realize, “Gosh, I can go to the bathroom when I need to or get a cup of coffee!” And, often, they are also making more income. But what a shame to lose those intentional and hard-working teachers.

The system needs to be reworked, not only by addressing the pathetic pay, but by also providing  adequate support staff and substitute teachers in order to allow  critical time for planning and appropriately assessing students. A top-down method of managing schools is outdated. Teachers need to be heard and integrally involved in planning how to teach.

I heard one school is changing their requirement for Friday afternoon meetings to allow teachers to catch up. Having time to catch up would be nice. I worked at a school that had half-day Fridays for students to make time for staff workshops.

Do you know how burned out I was on Fridays? Like any other person who works hard all week, the last thing I wanted or was able to do on a Friday afternoon was go to a lengthy meeting or workshop. I simply did not have the bandwidth left.

I loved teaching with all my heart and soul and worked hard because I was devoted to my classroom. After a couple of years’ distance from the profession, I realize, indeed, how hard I worked. I am tired.

Let’s advocate to take better care of our teachers and in the meantime, keep in mind the broad scope of a teacher’s job. And remember, a “thank you” goes a long way.

Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! Email her with comments or story ideas at jill@denvernorthstar.com


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