Heart attack helps teacher find joy
Candace Chellew-Hodge
May 25, 2018

It was a routine Monday two years ago when second-grade math teacher Mike Dunlea told his co-teacher he was stepping out for a moment. After informing the front office that he didn't feel well and was headed to the hospital, it was only a few hours later he was flown to another hospital after doctors told him that he was having a heart attack.

Dunlea, in a recent Education Talk Radio Interview, says he feels the stress of the job along with his involvement with two national teacher fellowships and his pursuit of national certification may have played a role in his heart attack. The often overwhelming demands of the job, Dunlea believes, points to a larger problem in the profession.

"I have friends around the country and they are experiencing a high level of stress and burnout and it's unfortunate because I believe it's also impacting the pipeline of teaching," he says. "So many people are not entering into educational programs because they're looking at what's happening to the people already in the classrooms and it's not a very desirable situation to voluntarily place yourself."

Dunlea, who was a 2012 finalist for New Jersey State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, says the cause of his stress stemmed from a district he characterizes as being more concerned with using scripted lessons that fulfilled state standard requirements but failed to put the student in the center of learning.

"I understand that the job of administration is incredibly challenging but I believe there is this over-focus on providing evidence of accountability and it's led to some bad decisions about teaching," Dunlea says. What's put in the middle now is this desire for proof of learning instead of the student's needs and how they should be taught."

In his new district, where Dunlea teaches at Tabernacle Elementary School in Tabernacle, N.J., he says he doesn't have the same feelings of frustration as he did in his past job. He notes that administrators encourage him to be creative by bring more real-world lessons into his math class along with projects that connect his class with students around the world. Dunlea does not speak ill of his past district but notes that any system with a culture that is rigid about accountability will eventually burn teachers out and sap their creativity and joy.

"Everything is so much better when you have the ability to bring creativity and innovation into the classroom and not follow a set of rules that are handed to you that someone created for hundreds of thousands of classrooms without stopping to think that what's at the middle of every single classroom is the kid," Dunlea says.

Now, Dunlea notes, he's excited when administrators come to his classroom because they have empowered him to put students first.

"My goal is to try to help other teachers have the same experience, because it's painful to watch them go through it and not have the joy I'm feeling right now in the classroom," Dunlea concludes.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a freelance writer and contributing editor in Smart Brief's education department.

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