“Teaching is a high pressure and stress filled profession, Justin. Lots of people just aren't cut out for it.”
My principal's words were salt in an open wound. They cut deep. And they hurt. They hurt because I knew he was right. The after school conversation was not what I had hoped.
It all started last spring when my depression was getting worse. The stress at school and home kept mounting. I knew I wasn't feeling like myself. My medicine wasn't working like it used to. I was feeling terrible and waking up sad more and more frequently. I knew things were not going well.
Then I got the email from my principal.
You know the kind. The Do you have a few minutes after school? I'd like to meet with you kind. I started getting hot and itchy.
My principal is great guy, don't get me wrong. He was a pleasure to work for. But I didn't want to have the what's going on conversation.
He knew something was up. I was having my biggest failure as a teacher among other things. He told me it seemed I'd lost my spark. He was right. My spark was flickering like the last embers in a fire.
I told him I was getting on some new medication, and that I was committed to making it through the year even being depressed. And you know what? I did make it through the year. I started to feel better after our big state tests. I even enjoyed May. I felt like I finished the school year like a champ.
Then summer came along and ruined everything.
The Summer of My Discontent
Summer break began. I felt refreshed. I was excited to recharge and relax. After a week or so, I was already getting excited about what projects I was going to do next year.
I was toying with the idea of going to ISTE. I was giving my blog a redesign, and readying a mobile site. I was actually writing posts, and participating in #4thchat again. I even wrote my most popular post ever. It received over 800 Facebook Likes and was Tweeted over 600 times. Things were actually great.
Then I cracked.
The summer had slowly been grating on me as it tends to do. Lots of extra time at home with the four kids and the 100° Texas heat were wearing me down to a nub.
I distinctly remember the moment. I was out mowing my back yard. As I pushed my aging mower across the overgrown lawn, I started to get sad. Just sadness for no reason at all. Then I got angry. Real angry.
I don't think I've recovered even eight weeks later. I backed out of going to ISTE. I stopping working on my blog. I stopped writing. I stopped being patient with my family. I had a horrible time on our family vacation. All I wanted to do was sleep and get away from everyone.
It was about that time I began to think about the beginning of school.
Supply Lists of Impending Doom
My faculty had elected to come for two days during the summer to help offset the hordes of meetings and nuts-and-bolts type stuff that plague the beginning of the year for teachers.
I attended those days hoping for a much needed rekindling. I ended up with char and ashes instead.
I came home after those days more frustrated than ever. Being the only guy teacher at an elementary school sure can get lonely. I also hate to feel like the contrarian so often. Differing opinions are good, but they can get tiresome quickly.
I found my frustration growing rapidly. For the first time since, well, ever, I looked at the school supply lists at Walmart with dread. I realized I wasn't looking forward to the start of school at all.
That really surprised me. The start of the school year is always hard. It's always frantic. But, it's always been worth it. Now I wasn't so sure.
The Panic Attack
The first official day back in my district is a special convocation for the whole district. We all pile in to what's known as Six Flags Over Jesus. It's usually great. It's usually inspiring. Usually.
I froze as the doors opened into the main seating area. So, so many people. I wanted to walk out and hide in my car, but I pushed myself forward. I sat down with my school and immediately began to feel tense.
15 minutes in and I was getting hot and itchy. I kept scratching my arms and wiping my forehead. It was getting hard to breathe. What in the world is going on with me? I kept thinking. I felt as if I was going to crawl out of my skin. I could no longer take it.
I got up and walked straight to the nearest bathroom as quickly as my legs would go. I practically ran into the first stall, locked the door, and sat down. I felt like I wanted to cry.
Even with the Xanax I took an hour before, I was shaky and confused. I did some slow, deep breaths and tried to calm myself. My heart rate began to return to normal.
Then I tried to get up. But I wouldn't. Or rather I couldn't.
I sat in that bathroom stall for over 90 minutes. I simply could not get myself to go back to the convocation. I have never felt anything like that before. I knew something had to change.
The Panic Talk
The following day I was supposed to be part of a small presentation on what was new for Language Arts and Social Studies this year.
It was hard for me. It wasn't a presentation on anything exciting, like how to help challenging writers or best practices of reading conferences. It was the drab read the inscrutably small bulleted text off a PowerPoint kind of thing.
I could feel it again. The hot, itchy sensation building up. The heart rate increase. It was all I could do to not run full tilt out of the library. But I managed. I muddled through the bullets and got to sit down. I hated it.
I had a long talk with my wife later that afternoon. I was complaining (again) about disagreements with curriculum, pedagogy, school procedures, and who knows what else. I was irritable to say the least.
She told me flat out that she couldn't handle another year of the complaining and frustration. I knew it wasn't fair for me to take it out on her and the kids. I get so frustrated about education because it's something I'm so passionate about.
I knew I was already getting more stressed. Taking care of my wife, my four kids, and trying to be the best possible teacher I could be was continuing to twist its knife slowly into my soul. It was simply too much. I knew it, as much as I didn't want to admit it.
I have a very small plate. I can't juggle many things. Even with basically no friends, no hobbies, and no social life, I was barely hanging on to being a husband, father, and teacher.
My wife finally said the words. "Why don't you just quit?"
Why Don’t I?
That was an incredibly hard question I kept asking myself. I had tossed it around many times before. I'd even looked for other jobs as a temporary panacea for my frustration. But could I really quit?
I thought about it for an hour or so. Stewed is more like it. My family had left to go run errands. The emptiness of the house was deafening. I paced. I fretted. I cried. And I paced some more.
I knew what I needed to do.
The Last Call
I sent a quick text to my principal to see if he was available for a phone call. He was. He picked up on the first ring. I didn't even know where to start.
Most of the call was a blur. I know I started out teary eyed and ended it in a full on sob. I remember blubbering that I just couldn't do it anymore, and that I was sorry to disappoint him so close to the beginning of school.
I told him it was really the best thing for kids—something he often said when speaking about the focus of our school. I remember that striking a nerve when I said it out loud. I wasn't the best thing for kids. I knew it was true no matter how badly it burned.
The next day I turned in my formal letter of resignation. I was no longer a teacher.
Here I Stand, Broken
It took the next full week for it all to sink in.
I've wanted to be a teacher since I was in second grade. It's all I've ever really wanted to do, and it's the only career I've had. It's heartbreaking. The only profession I've ever known has been stolen in the black night of depression.
Teaching wasn't just what I did, but it was also part of who I am. I feel I've lost something profound. I don't regret the choice, but I am deeply saddened by it.
Even though it was about the only thing I was really good at, I had to quit. I had to, because the students that were going to walk in to my classroom deserve someone so much better than me.
And so, I walk away.
I walk away from a dream.
I walk away unsure.
I walk away from a significance.
I walk away broken.
I walk away.
I have no idea what's next, but I don't think I'll ever be the same.