Recently, I received the following letter from a teacher. I reprint it here with her permission:

A little over two years ago, I packed up my classroom at the end of the school year knowing I may not return – ever.  I was somewhat heartbroken but also liberated.  I was about to have another child and was burned out and exhausted after several  years of teaching while starting my family and trying to do it all.  I could barely keep my head above water with 2 kids  – there was NO way I was going to be able to do it with 3 kids whose needs seemed to be expanding, not diminishing.  I’ve been on family leave since, but I feel myself being pulled back to the classroom.  I was good at what I did and that is part of the reason I got so burned out – I cared so much and poured so much of myself into what I was doing, but I was terrible at setting boundaries and got continually discouraged by the never-ending workload and unmotivated students.  The job was all-consuming, much to the dismay of my husband and kids.  I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching and research about mindsets, meditation, and time management (that’s how I came across your blog and podcast).  I am still petrified about the demands of going back full-time, but I’m considering it.  I have to have faith that the universe is at work and things always work out somehow.  In the meantime, I’m using this year to develop better habits and teaching methods while also shifting my thinking to a more positive framework.  I’m willing to try anything because, when the job is good, it’s SOOOOO good.  I just need to find better balance.

With some small revisions, this was my response. . .

Dear [Teacher],

Your email was very powerful and I absolutely understand your dilemma AND your ambivalence about returning to the classroom.  Allow me to share some thoughts:

You said you were about to have a third child and had spent 10 years teaching and “trying to do it all.” I believe you because it’s obvious that you care about teaching and want to do a good job. I also know that, as teachers, we very often try to do it all. But we can’t.  NOBODY can do it all.  Teaching can be a 24/7 job if we let it (and I see teachers every day who try), but there’s more to life.

And the funny thing about realizing there’s more to life?  And putting some stuff in place to keep things reasonable and maintain your own sanity and energy?

It doesn’t make you a bad teacher.

And it certainly doesn’t make you a bad person.

So what DOES it make you?

It makes you smart.  It makes you wise. It makes you healthy.

I can’t tell you if you should go back into the classroom or not. Only you can answer that. But what I can say is that my intuition says you’re good at what you do and that students would benefit from what you would bring to the classroom.  If you care enough about yourself to set some boundaries and not push yourself until you burn out, then you’ll probably do fine.

In your letter you say that you were “terrible at boundaries.” I think teachers are givers and so I figure many of us find ourselves in the same situation. But the boundaries we set for ourselves are for others as well as us, meaning that if we aren’t at our best, then how well can we serve those that we love and who are under our charge?

Answer: Not very well.

As the old saying goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

So one suggestion I have is to look closely at your responsibilities and obligations in life (family, church, hobbies, etc.) and set some clear and non-negotiable boundaries  that allow you to focus on those things, as well as your teaching. Your husband deserves you, your children deserve you, and your other obligations deserve you.

But please remember that YOU deserve you, too!

You also cannot be expected to put in the same amount of time and effort as a teacher who is single, who has no children, who is an empty nester because she is near retirement.  No one is in your particular circumstance so you can’t measure what you’re doing by others.

I don’t know if you compare yourself to others, but if you do, STOP.  To paraphrase the old saying, “the best time to stop comparing yourself to others was last year. The second best time is today.”  You need to set boundaries and then follow them without comparison, and perhaps even more importantly, without judgment—meaning you need to let go of any guilt or reservation you have taking care of yourself first.

I know that’s easy to say and harder to apply, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Later in your letter, you say: “The job was all-consuming.” It is. That’s a fact.  There are lessons to plan, essays to grade, forms to fill out, noses to wipe, shoes to tie, and tears to dry. And that doesn’t even count huge class sizes, a testing machine that’s out of control, difficult parents, and a slew of administrative or curricular hoops to jump through whose misguidedness and uselessness will, all by themselves, drive us absolutely bonkers.  I have several friends who left teaching and now do things like work at camps, teach Zumba, etc. because it’s still teaching, but without the specific issues found in public education. So there are certainly other options. If you can live without being in a classroom.

Furthermore, I often say that if I thought too much about the individual stories of each of my students—the ones who haven’t eaten, who were verbally or physically abused, who got dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend at break, who had nowhere to sleep the night before, or who had a fight with mom in the car on the way to school—I’d quit my job and never look back.  It’s no wonder so many of them don’t care about Thursday’s test on The Great Gatsby.

But the funny thing is that those are exactly the things that make what we do SO important. It’s why we are called to do what is some of, if not THE, most noble work on the planet.  There is no job like this and it’s not for the faint of heart.  But by the same token, it’s also not worth us pushing ourselves so much that we become burnt out and leave the profession simply because we gave too much.

So here are some other suggestions for a healthy teaching lifestyle (some of which I made in my last email to you):

* Find ways to take care of yourself (without feeling guilty). Mani-pedis? Reading for pleasure? Long    
walks through the woods? What will pamper YOU? And again, carve out the time without guilt.

* You said you were looking into meditation, mindset, and
time management approaches. Keep doing
that. Find a system that is based on YOUR needs and that works for YOU. One of them will work. Don’t
give up.

* Learn to subtract the non-essential so that you have time and space for what matters (My fight is with
Facebook, for example. . .). Can you get rid of a piece of furniture, empty your email inbox, throw out
some junk in your file cabinet?  What will give you the space you need to thrive, in and out of the

* Discover your Zen Practice (that hobby or activity that you love to do so much that you lose track of time
and it replenishes your energy and renews your spirit). Do you want to quilt? Sing karaoke? Make birdhouses?

* Listen to, and trust, your intuition about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do, what you should keep, and what you should jettison (based on YOUR values and standards–not the school’s or the district’s or the state’s).

* Increase your practice of self-care and self-compassion (which means, in part, to forgive yourself when things don’t go perfectly.). How would you treat someone you loved? Treat yourself the same way.

You end your letter saying that you have faith that the universe is at work in calling you back to the classroom and that maybe you just need to develop better habits and teaching methods to deal with all of the expectations and responsibilities or that maybe you should shift your thinking to a more positive framework.   And yes, all of that can help.  As you know learning is all about hearing a new idea, trying it out, seeing what it’s all about, stumbling, and then trying again. Ironically enough, teaching follows the same dynamic.

I don’t know if any of this will help, but I hope I inspire some ideas and approaches that will help you clarify your path.  As you said in the closing of your letter, there is MUCH to love about teaching.  But it’s your last two sentences with which I am in total agreement. You said,

“I’m willing to try anything because, when the job is good, it’s sooooo good.  I just need to find better balance.”

Finding better balance—or what I call Harmony, which means working within (and making choices based on) what you know is true for your best and most genuine self, even when things are crazy and overwhelming—will help you figure out what you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to be.

No matter what you choose, I’m behind you. And no matter where you end up, please know that the influence you had on the students during the first ten years you taught will have a positive ripple effect in the world the magnitude of which we can only imagine.  The impact a teacher has on his or her students may sometimes seem ephemeral, but it is also incalcuable and cannot be underestimated.  In the end, however, if you do what’s best for you, you’ve done the right thing.

Good luck.  Please keep me posted.


Dan  TZT