It’s such a harsh word to stagger off the tongue.
With two words, I quickly felt diminished to nothing but a failure.
But I wasn’t. I did a pretty good job.
This week an administrator told me, “I know why you quit, but you’re just so good at it!”
It was such a compliment, but it was also a realization that I made the right decision for myself.
It had been a long time since I had done that.
You see, I have a firm belief that special education teachers are a special breed. Their hearts are huge, their tenacity is malleable, and their knowledge is vast. However, it’s not for everyone.
Entering a place in life where I was so concerned with doing it all and being it all, I completely burnt myself out. I was not listening to what I needed, because like most special education teachers, I was putting the students first.
My work/life balance was non-existent. If there were no reading/work levels for my high school students which were high-interest or appropriately leveled, I made the curriculum. I remember working for eight hours on one lesson about superheroes because there was no way I was going to give my students fourth grade texts. It was an insult. So, I gave up my friends and family for them. I knew they deserved it. They may not have wanted it and they didn’t ask for it, but I thought I had to do it all, and be it all.
Was I perfect? No! I remember one day I was passing out essays that I had poured hours of corrections and feedback into only to have the students throw them on the floor or toss them in the trash. I threw the papers in the air, stepped outside, and cried. I heard voices coming from inside the room saying, “Shh! You guys upset her, be quiet!” It made me realize they were kids. Sometimes I would forget that. They were just kids. Still kids. In weird and awkward bodies too big for their current minds. And they had big hearts. So, I kept going.
I loved my job as a special education teacher. It was the most rewarding position I was ever given. I will even say that it was a blessing to spend my years as a special educator. But then the harsh reality hit: my paperwork as a case manager was more time consuming than my class. I wanted to teach. I wanted to spend hours developing their minds and to help them form their opinions and worldviews. I wanted to help them dig deeper into symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I had to write IEPs, plan meetings, have meetings during planning, check schedules, finalize reports, send out reports, arrange testing accommodations, etc.
I began to dread being a special education case manager. And without being a case manager, you cannot be a special education teacher.
I didn’t shy away from work. Even though I dreaded it, I still worked hard to excel at it. Sometimes I failed, but I gave it my all. And it was destroying me.
I worked through my preps and I worked through my lunches. I stayed late. I didn’t want to accept that I couldn’t get my students interested in grammar or in literature, so I accepted the challenge and dove headfirst into creating curriculum and assignments. I was not asked to do so, but I did it because it was my passion.
I realized I burnt myself out when I thought about going at this pace another year and I was swollen with anxiety. I needed a break. I tried to take a break the year before, but I didn’t listen to myself and I came back even stronger than before.
I’ve been on a journey to be kinder to myself. Kinder about my body image, kinder about my thoughts, kinder about my actions, and kinder about my inner voice which tells me when to slow down.
I had a firm belief that if I stepped away from special education I would be stepping away from a challenge. I would be weak, because only the strong survive, right? No.
The truth is, it was strength that allowed me to step away.
Although it has taken me down a long and stressful road, I am so proud of the ground I had covered. I don’t regret getting my masters in special education because I believe every teacher should approach their students as an individual. It will forever shape who I am.
In a perfect world, I could teach special education reading and English language arts and not be a case manager. I could pour my heart and soul into my passion which is encouraging knowledge and skill growth. We don’t offer that in our state, and you’d be hard pressed to find that dream position available in other states as well. The truth is that this is a hard-to-fill area. Special education is always in demand because the burn-out rate is so high. I didn’t want to be a statistic. I wanted to prove I could stay. Why not stay if I was good at it?
Once I stopped trying to prove myself, I only had exhaustion. When I wasn’t doing what I was truly sold on, I was depleted.
I want to be clear.
I burned myself out.
I did not allow myself to be kinder to the case manager in me or to the teacher in me. I expected so much of myself that I did a horrible job managing my own needs.
Do I think it’s a great job? Yes. And no. There needs to be a lot of change before I go back to being a teacher and a case manager.
I am hoping to transition to general education English Language Arts in the future and I know I’ll take all the lessons and work ethic that I’ve learned and developed as a special education teacher and apply it towards my new set of students. I am not disillusioned, I know that my next position will be a lot of work. But I love work. I am energized when I believe in what I am doing. The idea of transitioning into general education excites me!
So, on a journey to be kinder to myself and others, I wanted to remind you that sometimes changing your career focus doesn’t mean you’re quitting, but rather putting yourself where you can thrive the best.
My future students deserve Mrs. Thorp who is passionate about her job. They deserve a Mrs. Thorp who take care of herself so she can best take care of them.
Being a special education teacher grew my heart five times in size. I say goodbye to the official title, but I know that once you have a special education heart, you always have a special education heart.
And there’s nothing but good things on the horizon with that positive outlook.
If you’re considering a career in special education, please read this and learn from my years of experience so you don’t have to. It’s a rewarding career which is perfect for many amazing people. And this career needs amazing people! If you’re a teacher who is struggling with where you are in your career and you feel it’s impacting your students, please read this. If you’d like to read more about my frustrations in our special education system please read this.