When I started writing as a part of my living a few years ago, I learned quickly that, if you want your words to have an impact on people, you must tell your truth–sometimes that means being brutally honest–sometimes that means being vulnerable enough to reveal parts of your soul that you’d just as soon keep hidden. This is one of those times. I am an 18-year-veteran public school teacher. I am a vocal proponent of public education. I write a weekly newspaper column in which I often go to bat for and defend public education. And I remain a loyal soldier, even though public education has come near to killing me. This is my confession.
Education has changed a lot since 2001 when I first entered this stream. Being a brand new teacher can be nearly overwhelming at first, but there is an innocence and arrogance within new teachers that still tells them they can change the world overnight. That naive notion quickly gets worn away and teachers that last settle upon an endless course of trial, error, modification, and adjustment. Teachers who last soon find out that every year is different, every class is different, and every student is different. Flexibility and willingness to embrace change–there will be change, oh yes, there will be change–become job requirements of utmost importance.
One of the stressful changes since I began is the increased emphasis on standardized testing and the pitting of one school district against another based on a convoluted formula to evaluate their effectiveness. Depending on the state, it can be an insanely complicated and extremely unfair system. Many teachers go year after year without a pay raise because their school is deemed as “failing” despite the fact that it might be full of poverty and trauma-effected students but are nonetheless compared to affluent school district as if the playing fields were level. Teachers are now forced to jump through so many more hoops than when I first started. It can be extremely stressful and it wears on so many.
But, perhaps the most disturbing change has been in the students themselves.
When I started teaching, I was brand new to the type of school in which I found myself. I came from a small town. My high school had an enrollment of about 700 in four grades. We were almost devoid of diversity. Everyone looked the same, knew everyone and, by and large, lived very similar cultural experiences. The middle school where I teach is in a large urban area and has more than 1,000 students in two grades. We are very diverse both racially and socio-economically. Poverty is a fact of life for a large percentage of my students as more than 3 out of every 4 qualify for the free and reduced meal program. Drugs and crime are a daily sight for many of my students–for some, that’s in their own home. I wasn’t very prepared to teach the kind of students I had. I started by trying to run my classroom the same way my own teachers had run theirs, but I quickly found that led to great stress and frustration for both me and my students. So I had to adapt. This process happened slowly over several years but, eventually, I understood that empathy was the number one requirement for teachers in situations like mine. Until you build relationships with your tough kids, until you build mutual respect and trust, you’re in for a long, bumpy ride.
Finding my way to this understanding was not easy and it wasn’t a quick process. I made a lot of mistakes in handling student behaviors that seemed to me–from the perspective of my own upbringing–completely over the line. I frequently took those behaviors as personal affronts to me and my authority. Too often, I would react in kind, sometimes losing my composure and, I fear, damaging relationships with some of my students. This was my experience for the first several years of my career.
But here’s the thing about that: those kids back in the early 2000’s were not nearly as challenging as some of the students I’ve had in the last few years. Times have changed. So many more of my students are scarred by the kinds of trauma that I have never known and, God willing, will never know. I have had many recent students who’ve been to hell and back. I’ve had students who have had both of their parents in prison at the same time. I’ve lost count of the amount of students who’ve had a parent die of a drug overdose. I’ve had students who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted by family members. I’ve had a lot of students who have had a drug habit themselves–all this at the age of 13 or 14. These are problems that have increased since I started. Many of my kids are carrying serious baggage that I can’t possibly comprehend. When kids like that come under stress, their reactions can be completely involuntary and out of their control–they kick into fight or flight mode.
Add to that the fact that my students today were born into a world of smart phones and social media. When I started, there were no smart phones or social media. This has added a whole other layer to modern students who now are caught up in all the drama that can be found on social media–not to mention the ubiquitous pornography that is always just a click away. Make no mistake, this has changed our kids.
Because of all these factors, the game has changed. The way it was when I started would be unrecognizable today. What used to get students removed from school, often doesn’t even get them removed from class today. The atmosphere of stress and trauma that accompanies the students in my class can and does have a toxic effect upon me. I have become the victim of trauma-based collateral damage. This is the case for millions of teachers across the country. We work so hard to try to maintain a positive and uplifting culture in our classrooms–to not take the behaviors and comments of some of our troubled students personally–that the stress builds up within us and we, too, become scarred by that trauma. This has been the case with me. It just wears on you over time until, before you realize it, you’re in a mental health crisis.
I know it’s grown by one.
Here’s where I bare my soul a bit. Here’s where it gets brutally honest.
Despite my best efforts to adapt and change with my ever changing students, the stress and trauma began to get to me. The last three years have been particularly rough on me–really rough. As I approached and entered my 50s, my mental health began to deteriorate. Challenges brought by increasingly damaged kids and other factors related to my job sent me into a depression. I didn’t own that fact right away, but eventually I couldn’t ignore it any longer. This year, it came to a head right before Christmas break. I have one class at the end of my day that is, without question, the worst mix of students I’ve ever had in one room. One on one, they can be quite personable and delightful, but as a group, they are, quite frankly, a nightmare. I struggled through the first weeks of school trying all the tricks I’d ever learned. But what worked one day would fail miserably the next, sending me back to square one and adding another layer of stress upon me. I became mired in a depression. Though I am only 7 years from retirement, I could see no possible way to continue in this career. I retreated deep within myself. My sleep was destroyed. I’d wake up every night between midnight and 2am with that class on my mind. I was almost never able to get back to sleep. Sometimes I’d just get up and go to work at 2:30 or 3am to try to reinvent the wheel–to try to come up with something that would work with those kids. But nothing did. I was having dark thoughts. I was miserable. I wasn’t a present father or husband. All I wanted to do when I got home was retreat to bed. I’d go to bed at 6:30 or 7pm and watch old familiar television shows to find something that would comfort me and shut down my thoughts. Then I’d drift off to sleep for a while, only to suffer through restlessness until I would finally give up and and get up. I was becoming a mental and physical mess.
Essentially, I was a ticking time bomb. I was headed down a path toward nothing good. A heart attack, a stroke, a late-in-life career change–all scary. It seemed only a matter of time.
And then I hit bottom–and thank God for that.
One day in early December, my last period had a particularly bad day–imagine throwing an angry lion into a monkey house at the zoo and crank it up a couple notches. I felt completely powerless. I began to feel anxiety like I’d never felt before. I was having a panic attack. Fortunately, it came right at the end of the day. I went into that fight or flight mode like I’d seen in so many of my students. As the students were filing out to go home, I turned and kicked the wall, breaking my big toe. I didn’t feel it at that time, but I sure did in the days the followed. I walked out of the building that day in such a state that I couldn’t even speak. I drove home and immediately scheduled myself out of school for the next three days.
I was in trouble. I had to get help.
The next day, I went to the doctor. I was put through some tests to identify my mental and emotional states. It came as no surprise to find that I was mired in depression. I also had high blood pressure that put me in a pretty risky place physically. I was placed on antidepressants and went to several sessions with a therapist. Thankfully, winter break was right around the corner, giving me about 18 days of peace and rest with family, and time for the medication to take hold.
I emerged from the holiday season a new man. Medication may not be for everyone, but it sure has helped me.
My last class of the day is the same as it ever was, but I am different. My blood pressure is lower now than it was before my little breakdown. My stress levels rarely rise and, if they do, it’s very brief. I no longer take the behaviors of those troubled students personally in the least. Removing stress from the equation has allowed me to see through the behaviors to the scarred, frightened young people beneath. My relationship with that class is now excellent. They come to me and tell me about their troubles. I was honest with them and told them about my struggles, too. I even told them about my new meds. They could relate to that. Many of them are on those kinds of meds, as well. They still don’t behave in the ways I’d like to see most of the time, but they are getting better.
And so am I.
I have slowly come to see my job as being as much missionary as educator. These kids need to feel loved and supported–even while they are cussing you out. It takes a lot of work to get to that point where you can maintain that kind of relationship with those kinds of kids. It’s not easy, not at all. But if you’re going to make it to the end, you’ve got to find a way.
Now, May of 2026–my retirement–seems quite doable. I’m still in this race and I can now easily envision crossing that finish line with a smile in my heart.
Check out the latest episode of the Empathy Mining Podcast.