I used to regularly cry at work as a learning support teacher. I never cried in front of my students, and I think I only cried in front of my administration one time. But sadly, crying at work was a regular thing.
Now let me just say that I am definitely a crier. Hallmark movies get me every time. I can’t watch military homecoming videos. Honestly, sometimes commercials even get me teary which really makes my husband laugh. Regardless, call me crazy, but I don’t think anyone should be crying at work on the regular.
There was a time where I absolutely dreaded going to work. Sunday nights felt overwhelming and I was honestly mourning most of August. Fast forward a few years and now I am excited to go to work each day! I miss my students so much when I have to miss a day for an appointment. I no longer am filled with dread when I think about my day job.
So what changed? Today, I am sharing my story as a teacher. How did I get to the point where tears came regularly? How did I get through that horrible season and find a different way to be a learning support teacher?
Becoming a learning support teacher
Many people will say, “I always wanted to be a teacher.” I guess somewhere in my head, I was always thinking about being a teacher. It wasn’t because I was so excited to teach children to read or add. Really, I was so excited to decorate my classroom. I would critique my teachers’ classroom layouts and decor. When she would give out a project, I would think about how I could recreate this project in a different way one day. Honestly, I was a pretty judgy little kid now that I think about it.
For many years, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I really enjoyed debating. My mom always fondly remembers how I would leave well written letters on her pillow explaining in a five-paragraph essay why I should be allowed to have a sleepover with my best friend and why her argument was flawed. Who knows, there is still time and I think about going to law school every now and then.
When it came time to start looking at colleges, I settled on the idea that I would like to teach. I loved working with young children at church, summer camps, and coaching cheerleading. I also really liked the idea of having my summers off. It’s a great perk, right?
I spent four years at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. This small private school was the perfect place for me to learn and grow. Between elaborate themed dinners, small class sizes and meeting my husband, I loved every minute of it. My professors taught me so much about the basics of teaching. I worked in general ed, learning support, autistic support and multiple disabilities classrooms. By graduation, I felt prepared to have a classroom of my own. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Then it all went south
I took the first teaching position that I was offered. I was very lucky to score a few interviews in the spring and was offered a contract by the end of the school year. I knew that I really wanted a learning support position but honestly I would have taken anything that paid. I was getting married a few weeks after graduation and needed to start adulting asap.
I toured my building and met with my principal. I would be the only learning support teacher in the building serving students in kindergarten through 4th grade. I was so excited and so naive. By September, my classroom was looking like a Pinterest pin. The only problem was that I had no idea how to make a schedule or how to teach students with totally different IEP goals at the same time.
That first year, I only had 12 students. My husband was working until 8 PM each night so I could stay at school until 7 PM and still have time to run home and make dinner before he got home. I’m an early bird so I would get to school early and often spent twelve or more hours at school each day. Does this sound sustainable? No, it wasn’t. I survived that first year and was so proud, but I had no idea how bad it would get.
My crazy circus
As I said, that first year I only had 12 students. As my years went on, it felt like I was getting more and more students each year. I was more experienced so I felt more comfortable as I learned how to juggle having multiple grade level groups running at the same time. Behaviors were increasing but so were my strategies. I always felt like I was drowning in paperwork, but don’t all resource room teachers feel that way?
When my caseload hit 30 students, the district hired a second paraeducator. We all know that paraeducators are absolute angels from heaven. I was so grateful for the wonderful ladies that have worked in the classroom throughout the years. I was also frequently reminded that paraeducators were not to be doing any new teaching. They were only allowed to reteach and review. Let’s be completely honest, how the heck are you supposed to provide instruction on five different grade levels in reading, phonics, writing, math and social skills in one day?
I voiced my grievances to my administrators. I met with my special ed consultant who told me that there is no way they would hire another teacher. My principal told me to not put so much pressure on myself and do the best that I can. Then, I met with the special ed director who kindly let me know that the district is legally okay so if I don’t like it, they can find someone who will. When I finally sat down with the superintendent, I took the time to outline how many minutes of instruction I was providing per day (over 15 hours), she smiled and said, “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”
The breaking point
I never considered leaving the classroom. I had tenure. Contracts were hard to come by. I always thought if I were to leave, it could be worse elsewhere. The evil you know is better than the evil you don’t, right?
Then there was this little pandemic. About six days after I returned from my second maternity leave, all schools shut down. We had no idea what was going on. No one knew how long the shutdown would be. The whole world was stopped and waiting.
A few weeks later, we started virtual learning. I was creating assignments for all 30 students that were unique to their IEP goals. I zoomed with each one of them throughout the day, while I had a two year old and a newborn at home. It was a mess.
When we returned to school in the fall, we found out that we would be providing both in-person and virtual instruction, simultaneously. So now, not only was I teaching multiple grade levels at the same time but also some were over zoom. I had to figure out how to get students in and out of breakout rooms with my paraeducators while I still had a group in the main room all while there were actual students in my classroom.
This is where the stuff hit the fan. Now parents had a front row seat to see exactly how many students I was working with and how often their child was working with my paraeducators instead of me. This led to some very interesting IEP meetings to say the least.
I cried almost every day of that school year. I knew that I was burned out and that I wasn’t going to make it through another year. For teacher appreciation that year, the district gave us the very generous wrapped cheese danishes that they serve the students for breakfast. They didn’t even include the plastic apple juice cups as they had in previous years. As I choked down the danish, I knew I needed to make a drastic change.
By this time, I had started creating products to sell on Teachers Pay Teachers. Using my brain in a different way was a refreshing escape from the work I started to loathe. I would retreat to my laptop in the early hours of the morning and after the girls’ bedtime. It felt good to have something that was my own and didn’t make me feel like a terrible teacher. I spent so many hours that first year pouring energy into creating new resources and it felt great.
I was blessed with a student teacher that spring who was so excited to get into the classroom. She reminded me what it was like to have energy and motivation. It was such a wonderful experience. I got to know her supervisor really well throughout the semester. By the end, he asked me if I would be interested in being an adjunct professor. This is not something I had considered doing before, but I got excited at the idea of a new challenge.
A few interviews later and I accepted a position as an adjunct professor. I agreed to develop an online course over the summer and run it in the fall. Since it was an online course, I would only have to zoom one time a week, which felt manageable.
Around the same time, a colleague told me about a position opening in a different district. This was still a learning support position. My first thought was that I didn’t want to trade one crappy situation for another. I learned that this position was for just 2nd grade learning support. Hold the phone. One grade? I only have to teach one grade? Sign me up!
When I asked why there was an opening, I found out that the teacher was retiring. Now this may sound totally normal, but here is what I heard: someone stayed long enough to retire. In my time in special ed, I had seen countless teachers leave their classrooms and leave the profession because it just wasn’t sustainable. The idea of staying until retirement was revolutionary!
It was nerve wracking to go through the interview process because I didn’t want my administration to know I was interviewing elsewhere and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. My husband reminded me that the worst case scenario was that nothing changes. I accepted the position the next week.
Grass is actually greener
Telling my principal I was leaving was terrifying. I was dreading it. We had many conversations over the years where I expressed how unhappy I was, but nothing ever changed. I was burnt out, taken advantage of, and taken for granted. Despite requesting a transfer into general ed for four years, I was never considered for the countless openings in my building.
When I finally got up the courage to tell her I was leaving, she cried. It was awkward. I kept thinking, “I clearly explained that I was unhappy, I gave options of how we could fix this situation so that I could actually meet the needs of students but nothing has changed.” This shouldn’t be a surprise. I remember exactly what she said, “The grass will not be greener.”
Well here I am, a year and a half after making that big change and you know what? The grass is greener because it has been watered. I work in a district that values teachers, recognizes that each child has unique talents and abilities, and cares deeply about having a productive partnership with parents and the community. When I met with the superintendent to accept my position, he really listened to me and welcomed me to the family. He meets with every single new hire personally, every teacher, paraeducator, bus driver and custodian because it is important that they understand that we are one big family who supports each other.
I will always be grateful for my time in my first district because it gave me so much experience. I don’t think I would have felt qualified to teach Master’s courses in special ed without the crazy experiences from my first position. My best selling products on Teachers Pay Teachers are ideas I had while working that first position. I know in my heart that I am a better teacher because I worked there.
More importantly, I know I am a better wife and a better mom because I recognized that something needed to change. I can show up better in the classroom each day because of this change. The quality of instruction I provide has improved so much because I narrowed my focus. I thank the Lord every day for His perfect timing.
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