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This Is How I Learned to Prioritize My Well-being After Eleven Years in Education

The wake-up call that made me walk away from teaching

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By fizkes/Shutterstock
By fizkes/Shutterstock

My first year of teaching in 2006 was a memorable year. It was full of excitement, nerves, new experiences, and some of the greatest challenges I have faced. Perhaps the greatest challenge of them all was the impact that teaching had on my physical, mental, and emotional health.

I have always been a competitive and ambitious go-getter. I want to be the best at everything I do. So naturally, I brought this mentality into my first year of teaching. I wanted to be Teacher of the Year material. That was unrealistic, but it certainly drove me to work in a way that greatly impacted my health and wellness.

I started strong. I gave my all to my job: fourteen hour days, six days a week. I only took Saturdays off to do something fun with my now-husband. And to be completely honest, I still thought about the work I had to do on those “fun” Saturdays.

It’s not hard to guess that this pace caught up with me sooner rather than later. About two months into my new career as a teacher, I began to feel myself burning out and breaking down. The wake-up calls were unmistakable: constant and overwhelming fatigue, migraines, paleness, weakness, turning down opportunities to do anything enjoyable, becoming a passive observer to my own life — the list goes on. I wasn’t taking care of myself, nor did I have the energy to. I couldn’t live this way any longer, and I certainly couldn’t continue teaching this way. I thought that if I didn’t make a change, I would end up in the hospital.

So, I began to make changes. First and foremost, I started setting strict boundaries for my work: a non-negotiable time to leave work, no taking work home, no Sunday work at home, and setting limits on the number of extra duties I took on. I started a workout program and began to cook at home more, a little bit at a time. I began to use organizational tools to help me manage the chaos in my head.

These changes completely shifted my work experience. I began to enjoy it more. I had more energy and clarity to perform my work well on a daily basis. I felt more well rounded as a person rather than a fraction of a human being.

Over the years, prioritizing my well-being and spending time in a non-classroom role allowed me to continue in a difficult profession. But learning to listen to the wake-up calls that my own body gives me is something I take very seriously after my first-year experience, and I am not afraid to act to preserve my health when they appear. And appear they did – again. During my last couple of years in education, with the ever-increasing demands, the wake-up calls began with more urgency than ever before.

I began to experience chest and stomach pains before work almost daily. I found myself enduring panic attacks frequently. I even had to begin therapy sessions to help myself make it through the workweek. I knew this was not right. This was not how work was supposed to be or make me feel. And that’s when I knew I had reached the end of my education career.

My husband and I made financial preparations for me to leave, and after eleven years working in two different districts, I walked away. It hasn’t always been easy since then, as I’ve attempted to change careers, but I can sum up in four words how worthwhile it has been: I feel human again.

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