Let's Talk About Teacher Burnout: It's Not the Kids

Let's Talk About Teacher Burnout: It's Not the Kids

By Mike Vinopal

So another school year is well underway. This year is different. For the last decade my career was teaching students with special needs of all ages. The last four years, I taught in a Chicago Public School. This is the first year that I am taking a break.

Let's talk about burnout. You've all heard of it and how it has plagued education since the beginning of time. But for clarity's sake, burnout refers to high turnover in education due to high levels of stress, long long hours, and a significant emotional load to shoulder. 

You are just as much a parent as you are a teacher or teacher's assistant. As a teacher, you spend just as many waking hours with these children that still have so much to learn about how to navigate the world. Not the world we knew as children, but this world.

Kind and compassionate people wear down overtime. Things can accelerate that erosion. Challenging kids are part of it but it's more complicated, more like a natural degradation of one's patience. Some of us are lucky to start off with more than others but we're only human. Even surplus stock can run out. 


It's not just the kids. The kids are often the joy that keeps the balance with all of the bullshit that comes with a job in education. They say funny shit that makes you laugh, things that you make a point to jot down, to tell a colleague because she cares a lot about that kid, too, and would get a kick out of it. Or kids that remark with wonder about a story you're reading or something that you teach them in science. Those little things help you get through the tough days.

Some might chalk it up to parents that undo all the good work done during a school day, that it's mostly adults that accelerate the erosion. But that's a bit self-righteous. Most of the time parents are busting their asses out of necessity, not choice, to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families' heads, breaking their backs to give them good schools, to buy them nice things. Raising a family is not like it used to be.

Sometimes you have a colleague that holds an ideology that clashes with your own, but hey, that's the way of the world. You have to work that out. And luckily, the overwhelming majority got into the education business for the same reason you did—to help people, so it's not really your coworkers either. 

Is it teacher institute days? The kind where the "professional development" in which you engage feels like a foolish waste of time, considering you've never once been able to finish all the items on today's to-do list for tomorrow? As a teacher, you are spread thin. So thin you think you might disappear entirely sometimes. You shave off whatever sliver you have left to spare for whatever you can do that day. You skip lunches. You skip preps. You do what good you can.

Is it leadership? If you're lucky you have somebody you can look up to, someone you can go to for support and guidance, and someone who will have your back when your back needs having. Leadership often started off where you were and climbed the ladder, dealing with all of the bureaucratic bullshit and politics along the way. More power to them. I couldn't do that shit. 

I couldn't do that shit precisely because there are a lot of people in control of education that are so far removed from what it's like to actually teach children, yet they are making all the important decisions. It infuriates me with a rage so thick...

And the further you go up the chain, the more convoluted it becomes. 

For the entire time I was a teacher in CPS I would ask why. I'd watch wonderful, inspiring people get beaten down by these frustrating hows and whys and the answers that eluded us. How can we prevent public education in Chicago from degrading any further? Why can we spend money on a new Ferris wheel while school budgets get slashed?

Most importantly, how is the quality of one public school to another across this city and so many others so disparate?

Thankfully for unions, teachers haven't been screwed even harder. But unions are just fighting for the teachers, not the children. The people on the ground, working their asses off to ensure quality education for the students in their immediate sphere of influence are worlds away from the CPS officials in charge of policy and still further from the local government that makes budget decisions.

If our leaders have more realistic priorities, schools will get the funding they need.

In the modern society we've created, we need more people per kid to do the job well, not less. Children nowadays don't develop the same skills of imagination, focus or patience as previous generations because it’s not required growing up nowadays. They’ve known no world other than our click culture, and so an overwhelming percentage of students have difficulty attending to mild stimuli like teachers talking since they’re getting blasted with full color and sound all the time from a device in their pocket. But still they give us less.

Governor Bruce Rauner, what the hell is the matter with you? Mayor Rahm Emanuel, you should be ashamed of yourself. Is potentially privatizing schools and making education for-profit the answer? No way! Is it too much to ask of the world for politicians to make a commonsense choice that will clearly benefit future generations of this community? Fucking act like civil servants! 

To those of you still fighting the good fight, I commend you, I support you, and I hold on to hope that all is not lost.  

Governor Rauner and Mayor Emanuel, do you want to talk about burnout

So yeah, it’s definitely not the kids. 

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