What if every Monday through Friday you were trapped in a room for eight hours with only 10 minutes in which to escape it? Unfortunately, I got to experience this particular brand of misery.
I just left the worst job I have ever had—teaching high school for two months in a charter school. That which made it the worst job was due to penny-pinching, dubious staffing, and a callous executive director. When a staff meeting was held after a fellow teacher and a student at the small campus were stricken by Covid, she responded to concerns by saying, “You can quit. You can be replaced.”
When I took the job, we were assured that everyone on campus would be tested for Covid on Fridays. This never happened, and it was never made clear why.
I had been a teacher before so I never imagined that I could be given a schedule without breaks and 30% to 40% more of a class load than traditional school districts.
Thanks to finally getting wraparound mental health services and devouring medical journals, I achieved stability from manic and depressive episodes years ago. However, my recent two-month experience provided what amounted to an assault on my highly sensitive neurological system.
If you are able to figure out your triggers and how to disarm them, you’re on your way to stability. Working long hours doesn’t necessarily trigger symptoms for me. Whereas, not exercising regularly does.
This was the first job I have ever had that triggered so many physiological symptoms. After a while, the conditions could have led to persistent mild depression.
All systems slightly off
Projecting my voice to teach 30 or more students while wearing a mask for close to seven hours left my throat tender and my head light.
It’s not as if I never experience twinges of anxiety. I do. However, I pretty much got rid of full-on panic attacks by giving up crash diets and changing the way I ate so as to stabilize my blood sugar. In my twenties, when my blood sugar plummeted, I became panicky and on the verge of tears. A nutritionist explained to me that I have sensitive blood sugar, which reacts to stress by dropping. Keeping it on an even keel helps to counteract its reactivity.
Although it has been years, I still remember how during manic episodes I would eat more, yet dramatically lose weight. Well, during this abysmal job, I was much hungrier. I was eating 800 to 1,000 calories more a day and not gaining weight.
I experienced several other symptoms. I misplaced and lost things more often. It started taking longer to take attendance because the fields onscreen would jumble. I worried about getting bladder infections as I experienced many of them when I was in my early twenties. I can get so wrapped up in what I’m doing, my body signals shut off.
It became almost impossible to write a blog or anything that required originality. I was working an average of 55 hours a week. I wrote lesson plans and graded papers for hours on end, but those tasks are more routine.
There were so many obstacles that didn’t exist in a traditional school district, such as no classroom printer, no access to a copy machine, supply room, or workroom. No teacher’s area to have meals or to meet and talk before or after school. No PA system (they would constantly text you while you taught). No mailboxes.
Trust your inner voice
No matter how much I streamlined my lesson prep and grading procedures, had fun with the curriculum, or enjoyed motivating students, the job was not healthy for me.
Traditionally, middle school and high school teachers have one period per day toward grading and lesson planning as they have approximately 180 students. This is not enough time to accomplish all that is necessary, but it certainly helps. Also, you are not “on stage.” This school not only did not grant that, but they also added a seventh period instead of the traditional five. Mid-day I had 30 minutes between bells to refill my water bottle, use the restroom, prep for the next class, and wolf down lunch.
Of the six to eight new teachers, one resigned after six weeks without giving notice. Another new teacher did end up with a prep period, and some days two prep periods, yet she started looking for another job after eight weeks. Even with her prep periods, she was aghast at the incompetence that created so much unnecessary work and that most other teachers had no prep periods.
One small example of their incompetence is that during our mandatory training days right before the school year started, the administration did not execute their agenda. They were not prepared. Instead, to fill time they did things like have a preacher talk to us for two hours. A few weeks later, we get an email with a link to a routine mandatory two-hour training to be completed within three weeks on our own time. The training was provided for free by the federal government and stated that it was to be completed during company time.
You can try too hard. This experience made me realize that I sell myself short. It’s fantastic that I have been able to avoid episodes for years, work full-time while raising children, do freelance work on the side, maintain my clean time, and abstain from compulsive overeating, but the creative soul within me deserves to be nourished.
Call centers are notorious for high turnover because of the demanding nature of the job. I have read about warehouse workers getting docked for going to the bathroom. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times about a woman who cleaned professional sports stadiums who was forced to use an additional fake social security number to enter her overtime hours so she would not be entitled to the overtime rate for those hours.
There are even worse working conditions for so many others. I am lucky to be out of that toxic environment, but I love teaching and had a lot to offer those students. That part makes me sad. However, as long as I can keep my sense of humor, I will keep on trucking.
Author of the memoir and information guide Intact: Untangle the Web of Bipolar Depression, Addiction, and Trauma, is a speaker, mental health advocate, and educator who lives near Los Angeles with her two children. Some of her feature articles have appeared in bp Magazine and Esperanza.
Visit her storytelling blog at www.DrivenToTellStories.com.