Dear Margo: A Teacher's Tears

Margo Howard’s advice

Teacher’s Tears

Dear Margo: I’ve taught for 20 years and can retire in 12 years. I don’t know if I can go the distance. I don’t know whether to quit and try to find a less stressful job, or keep hoping.

Instead of doing what is best for students, we are doing what is best for administrators: focusing on the tests. I used to have one classroom, and everyone did the same assignments, but I tweaked them for ability levels. Now I am planning for four different groups of students, and it takes a lot longer because I have to use all of the products purchased that promise glorious state test results.

It is near impossible to read the practice test to my ELL students, have a meaningful assignment for my gifted students who will finish the test 20 minutes early, make sure the students with the modified test are able to follow all of the notes and circle the right bubbles, and keep my ED student calm because frustration is his trigger. Oh, and then there are the other students, and they all deserve a teacher, too.

There are endless training days (for which I have to prepare notes for a substitute) and extra duties, but there isn’t any money for lunch monitors. I go home in tears sometimes because I am overwhelmed. My husband has a decent job, and he says if I can hang in for four years it will really help with our two kids’ college funds and our retirement fund. Sometimes I wonder if I can make it four more days, much less four years. — Beleaguered

Dear Be: You really are between a rock and a hard place. Of course, you are not alone, as many pubic schools are a mess. One does worry about the caliber of education our kids are getting. According to Marian Wilde, 16 other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and 23 scored above us in math.

As for your mental state, only you know your limit. You actually sound like you care, so on that basis it would be beneficial for your students if you stayed. And the four years your husband suggests is not 12. Perhaps you should explore whether there’s a job available that’s tied to what you’ve been doing, such as administration or an educational consulting firm — or whether there’s a job available of any kind, because your second income is required. I’m not sure I’ve even come close to solving your problem, but I hope I’ve given you some ideas. — Margo, sympathetically

Whatever Works

Dear Margo: Maybe it’s just where I live, but it seems like everybody and his dog is now glucose intolerant, on a gluten-free diet or allergic to peanuts. When I was younger, I didn’t know anyone who had those restrictions. I don’t want to believe that my friends are faddists, but I really don’t know what to think. Why is this happening? — Glenda

Dear Glen: Lust, avarice, sloth, Happy and Doc? Truly, I have wondered myself why these food situations are so prevalent today; they weren’t 10 or 15 years ago. It could very well be the food supply or some element in the environment. There’s a fight right now about Monsanto, whose genetically modified feed is harmful, according to some scientists — not to mention that we have cows and chickens taking antibiotics and growth hormones.

While I take these people at their word that they feel better and healthier eliminating certain things from their diets, I will say that some months ago, because of feeling bloated, I declared myself to be lactose intolerant (because that was a friend’s symptom) and stayed away from dairy. Then I forgot about my self-diagnosis and tried Greek yogurt, which I now eat every day. Just give your friends the benefit of the doubt. — Margo, individually

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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68 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Constance Plank says:


    I understand and sympathize with the writer.

    I have been working in the teacher 403b market place. There are nice matching funds in place to help with the very low salaries. I will spell how the categories are pronounced. She should check her “Stirs” report and see what is there, and what she can do and how much longer she must do it to reap the full benefit. Teachers work very hard, but they do have some advantages to go along with the downside. Before she switches categories from “Stirs” to “Purrs” (administrative or campus staff side of the union) or just says to the heck with it, she should contact someone who can give her some options with her current benefits.

    Then she can make an educated decision about what to do.


    I have serious allergies. Very few of them are food related. But, I’m mildly allergic to shrimp. I will occasionally, and quite safely, enjoy shrimp. (With an Epi-pen lying in waiting. That’s the problem with food allergies- you can switch from mildly allergic to deadly without noticing.)

    I can’t deal at all with smoke. Despite really great asthma drugs, I’ve spent a horrid summer, because a lot of Northern CA was on fire. 400,000 acres at one time close enough to make my summer sky gray.

    I do my best to keep as healthy as possible, and as best as I can to keep my allergies from impacting my friends’ lives. But, I have certain requirements in order to not be hideously sick: You may enjoy your scented candle- I may have to take a lot of drugs to deal with 5 minutes of your candle.

    So, you can blame a lot of things, Monsanto among them, for dietary allergies, but if your friends are telling you what they need, trust me, they need them. My daughters’ got over the “I’m so interesting because I can’t do X” stuff in 5th grade. I really doubt your friends are telling you they can’t do gluten, etc. for the sheer drama of it.

    How about you cut them some slack, or else cut them off because you can’t be bothered!


    Constance in the Sierra Foothills of CA who gets really irate when people think that other people are doing allergies to be fashionable. Or whatever! 87

    • avatar sfmoonfire says:

      Thank you, Constance! Well put re: allergies. I think one of the reasons so many people are dismissive of other people’s allergies has to do with the abysmal quality of science education in this country. Many of my relatives work in the fields of science and engineering, so there’s no struggle involved in making them understand the concept of an allergy. People with little or no scientific education (and who think that science in general is just a bunch of abstract concepts that have nothing to do with everyday life and can be ignored or dismissed when it’s convenient) are another story altogether. They’re ignorant, and they enjoy being ignorant, since it makes it so much easier to sneer and roll their eyes at someone else’s misery. And of course, it could never happen to *them* (cough).

      • avatar brizmc says:

        Very much agreed, Constance. I get so frustrated when people dismiss my allergies. I had a roommate who told me my peanut allergy was all in my head. I don’t think my near death at age 2 from anaphylaxis was “in my head.” I would much rather NOT have any allergies and be able to eat whatever I want without having to look at the ingredients! I can’t point to what has caused the spike in incidents of allergies, but I know my allergy is very real and has been retested over the course of my life and has never gone away.

  2. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2– This letter writer made me smile. I agree with both the letter writer and Margo, I too have thought what is up with EVERYONE supposedly allergic to this and that! :-)

    It reminds me of the spike not to long ago in a mass diagnosis of kids and adults with ADD and ADHD and prescriptions swirling for Retilin. (I’m not sure I spelled that correctly) :-)

    But then again when I was younger (back in the 60’s and 70’s) I don’t think we didn’t have all of the same issues we have today, I think we simply had not put a name to many of them. There were hyper kids and those that were unable to stay focused. There were people who reacted oddly when they ate certain foods but ignored it. My take on all the allergies people think they have today may have everything to do with our environment.

    As Margo pointed out, our very food is tainted in some ways by the additives given to livestock, which in turn we ingest and digest. The fruit and vegetables we eat are sprayed with chemicals. The water we drink and the fish that swim in those waters (dependent upon your region) can be very unhealthy to consume. So is it any wonder our bodies fight off certain things?

    Letter #1 – While I am usually the one preaching to “Live for today for you don’t know if you will have tomorrow!”    In this instance this letter writer sounds like such a wonderful, intelligent and thoughtful person, I would selfishly suggest she take her husband’s advice and stick it out for 4 more years.  Teachers can be mentors without even knowing it. There is always someone affected by that one particular teacher that inspired them in ways no other person could. I think we all have one in our lives when we sit idle in thought and think back. I know I have mine. He inspired me to write and understand that words have power.

    If I were to give this letter writer advice it would be this (to use an old line – If you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem) the big reason the public schools are in the shape they are in today is because everyone accepts the decline as a given. No one believes their voice or actions will have any affect. The system is too big to make any real change. Wrong!

    I truly believe if she starts taking some of her control back in terms of how SHE wants to run her classes and curriculum she will feel better about her job.   If she is feeling overwhelmed, say so. Find others within the school that share her frustrations and galvanize for change. Deal with the teachers union to verify what your rights are?  Are you being asked to do what is beyond the school’s authority to ask of you?   

    We all need purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning. I have been there in life when I LOVED going to work, couldn’t wait to get there each day. These days not so much….:-)  So I feel her pain. But the answer is simple, instead of coasting, take control of the reigns. Don’t just sit in the backseat and allow others to drive your life and control where you go.     

    • avatar Brooke Schubert says:

      I think you make a great point about the conditions we suffer today always having been around, we just didn’t have names for them.  My mother is an oncology nurse and comments on the increase in cancer, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case-While doing a history research paper in college, I was discovering that a lot of people died of strange and mysterious illnesses, but the symptoms described look an awful like cancer and other diseases we know of today.  We also now can detect things so early due to advances in medicine that more people are being treated because we catch it sooner.

      That said, I do think a lot of things are either self-diagnosed or misdiagnosed.  However, I think you have to give people the benefit of the doubt-I’m severely allergic to cigarette smoke (my throat swells and closes off), but I’ve had some idiot smokers tell me it’s all in my head and blow their smoke in my face to be ‘funny,’ and wind up giving me an attack.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

      • avatar sfmoonfire says:

        You have my sympathies, Brooke. I’ve had asthma since I was a child, and cigarette smoke is one of the worst triggers (I can’t imagine why, since it contains traces of lovely chemicals like arsenic and hydrogen cyanide). If some moronic smoker deliberately blew smoke in my face after I told them I was allergic, I’d be acquainting them with the concept of assault, with the assistance of a police officer. It’s hard to reason with any type of junkie.

        • avatar Carrie A says:

          “Junkie”? Wow, I’m guessing you won’t have to worry about anyone blowing smoke in your face because I can’t imagine anyone would ever want to stand next to you. I smoke and I’m very considerate of all my non-smoking friends, not just the ones with allergies. It’s terrible when people have to act like jerks who blow smoke in people’s faces on purpose but not all people that smoke are that rude. You can find asinine, rude people in all groups, including non-smokers, as your comment so perfectly illustrates.

          • avatar Miss Lee says:

            I am glad that your are ‘very considerate’ of your non-smoking friends but I could not be in an elevator with you without out significant discomfort.  The smell from your smoke saturated clothes would cause my lungs to tighten up immediately.  I am asmatic and I have sympathy for you, not anger.  I know several people who simply can not quit smoking.  It is a terrible monkey on their backs.  I have no sympathy for those who wear perfume however.  They are an imminent threat to folks like me and they are simply acting out of vanity.  Think I am harsh?  In reaction to strong perfume, I have had a coughing fit (in a public place) so hard that I lost all control of my bladder and had to ride to the hospital in a fire department vehicle and back to my home in a taxi, soaking wet, stinking of urine.  But at least, thanks to the fire department folks, I didn’t die, that time. 

          • avatar Briana Baran says:

            So, where does it stop? I know there are people who have allergies to certain chemicals found in perfumes…should all people stop wearing every kind of scent? I am allergic to the colognes and perfumes that contains specific man-made elements (these are absurdly common in celebrity fragrances, Avon, and the less expensive scents) that are actually dangerously toxic. I can’t breathe, become nauseated, and break out, everywhere. However, if a person chooses a well-crafted fragrance, and wears it correctly, are you going to tell them it’s forbidden?

            Here’s the thing: our school district had a group of parents who wanted to ban all products with peanuts, soy, shellfish, nuts (peanuts are different), eggs and a few other food items completely from the schools, including personal lunches sent from non-allergic children’s homes. This effort failed, just as it should have. Dictating what others do because your child, or you, are allergic, is the same as saying, “No one will skip because my child has CP and can’t”. “No one will make loud noises, such as clapping or exuberant laughter, because my autistic child can’t handle this” (the last one is highly relevant, my older son is autistic). It is up to parents to teach their children not to ask for things from other children (this can be done), nor accept food that isn’t their own…even at a very young age.

            We can ban smoking in the work place, but not smoking in the home, and if a co-worker chain smokes and comes to work reeking of 12-hours and three packs worth, we can’t, at most jobs, do a thing about it. The exception seems to be restaurants, many of which have gone to a policy of no perfume, no scented soap or hair products, and no smoking immediately before, or during, one’s shift.

            Some people want to ban wool clothing from workplaces because it makes them break out in hives. Others, ANY scented product. For some people, just being outside is hazardous. In the spring, I have asthma-like symptoms, because my entire yard is virtually toxic (I am allergic to grass, of all things, most common plants found in trim, and their beautiful, blooming flowers.). To others, a single sting from a bee or wasp will kill them. I fully understand the lethality of allergies, never mind the discomfort.

            I don’t know if it’s environmental toxins (in the case of many scented products, including perfumes, medical research HAS shown that the increase in man-made ingredients…read toxic chemicals…for scent has a dramatic effect of allergens and reactions) that have lessened tolerance for so many people. I know I’ve always had my allergies, and I’m 53, and I know people my age and older who always had severe allergies to peanuts, nuts, shellfish, eggs and dairy (not lactose intolerance). They never expected the world to stop for them.

          • avatar Lila says:

            BB, totally agree. Kids with food allergies absolutely should be taught to refuse all food other than their own from the earliest age.

            For anyone who thinks you can’t expect a 3-, 4-, 5-year-old to understand this – bull! Our German Shepherd was trained to refuse all food that didn’t come from us (his “pack”), for security reasons. Anyone want to claim our dog was smarter than their child? I thought not.

          • avatar Briana Baran says:

            Carrie A: Respectfully, if you are a smoker who is considerate of your non-smoking friends, and who even goes out of your way to be so, then you are NOT a “moronic smoker” who would deliberately set out to cause discomfort or even harm to someone who was allergic, and sfmoonfire was NOT referring to your sort. And “junkie” is not really an adequate term, as nicotine is more addictive, and harder to both detox from, and break the habit of, than heroin.

            I don’t think she was being asinine or rude. I quit smoking 23 years ago. Like you, I was an extremely considerate smoker…and I was also fully aware that I smelled of cigarettes, that my breath and hair stunk, and of what I got when I blew my nose….not any prettier than the gunk on the bottom of an ashtray. I know how terrible quitting is, and how many times I tried because I hated smoking. I quit more because of accident than intent…a bite from a feral cat, subsequent combined rabies/tetanus/antibiotic shots and infection made me deathly allergic to all tobacco products…so much so that I begin to wheeze when exposed, and break out all over my exposed skin.

            Cigarette smoking is a plague, from second hand smoke, third hand smoke, smoking related illness and disability, time lost at the workplace both from illness and break time (statistically true, unfortunately), jacked up insurance rates, and chronically ill children whose mothers insisted on smoking during pregnancy. You just can’t make it pretty.

            For every considerate smoker out there, it seems there are dozens who are not, who will smoke in places clearly marked as smoke-free…even in hospitals (including various kinds of medical professionals), while pregnant or in closed areas with children, or anywhere, all the while denying just how much what they do affects others. If you smoke, everyone knows. There is no hiding it.

          • avatar sfmoonfire says:

            Thank you, Briana! You got what I was saying and translated it for Carrie better than I could. The cold, hard fact is that cigarette smoke is toxic, plain and simple, and I don’t care what Carrie, or any other smoker, does to herself — she has the right to risk her own health, or life, if that’s what she chooses to do. However, no smoker has the right to force those same risks on anyone else, any more than an alcoholic has the right to get behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated and risk the lives of innocent people because of his/her addiction. Let me say it in the clearest terms possible: What you do to yourself is your business. What you do to me is MY business. Stay out of my face, and I’ll stay out of yours. Force your toxic chemicals literally down my throat, and “junkie” will be the mildest word I use to describe your behavior.

  3. avatar Jon T says:

    Would it be possible for the teacher to change schools? I say this realizing that most if not all schools are going to be following the same regime. But some schools do make adjustments within the structure to make it a little more workable. Plus if you’re vested in a state pension fund, you won’t jeopardize your retirement. Perhaps a change of scenery would give her a fresh start. For what it’s worth my partner is a teacher and I’m about to start my first year of teaching, so I can appreciate how frustrating it can be. Of course it doesn’t help that the public at large refuses to recognize how difficult teaching really is.

  4. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: My hat’s off to you. You obviously care deeply about your students; meanwhile you’re being forced to prioritize towards admin. Why is it that institutions always screw up? It’s not about scholars, it’s about jocks. It’s not about pupils, it’s about admin bragging rights. There is a limit to frustration and exhaustion; you want to do the right thing (totally commendable)…but can this continue for another 12 years? I doubt I’d have that sustainability; you sound very close to burnout already. If you’re like me, you don’t want to relax your standards. Perhaps your only true option, if you stay in, is to acknowledge admin’s attitudes/expectations while continuing to do the best for your pupils as possible; face that reality head-on and keep on. It is so sad you (and how many other good and caring schoolteachers?) are being put through this; on top of the everyday (unimaginable to me) stresses of simply dealing with pupils of varying temperaments, learning abilities, etc. If you do decide to take a different career course, don’t beat yourself up about it. You’ve done the best you could.
    L #2: I totally agree, and have wondered that too. My husband’s church offers gluten-free communion wafers. What, a *tiny* (dime-sized) regular wafer is going to mess up someone’s system? Seriously?? I remember peanut butter being available in the school cafeteria in HUGE bowls with big spoons (and a stack of bread nearby). Kids at PBJ after PBJ…no one ever swelled up or keeled over. Have to wonder if some of it’s faddish, and also attention seeking.

    • avatar bleeble says:

      Uh…yes, seriously. I have a friend with Celiac. Educate yourself a little by searching for some Celiac forums and read all about their experiences with cross contamination. My friend has severe intestinal distress for days if there’s any gluten in her food. She lived in severe pain and discomfort for most of her life until she finally got a diagnosis. I’m really happy for you that no one “swelled up or keeled over” because learning through example how Epi-Pens work is not a super fun experience for either the victim or the audience. I had a coworker have to go home early and take a Benedryl because she claimed she was allergic to apples and no one believed her because of all of these “fad allergies”, and another coworker jokingly rubbed a sliced apple on her arm. It immediately started swelling into a red, puffy rash.

      My reasoning is that it doesn’t affect you, so why put people who suffer from allergies on the defensive? Why perpetuate this “omg, seriously? Come on, you fakers” type of attitude if it’s not hurting you in any way? It’s not like we don’t have enough to worry about. Hooray, if I eat the wrong chocolate I’ll die. Let’s add people trying to sneak me chocolate to “prove” that I’m faking on top of that. Yeah, people with allergies definitely must be attention seekers – getting carried out of a department store on a stretcher isn’t for the shy.

      FWIW, Celiac isn’t an allergy, and intolerances are different from allergies. Auto-immune diseases of all kinds are on the rise, especially in women over thirty.

    • avatar marie9999 says:

      Cindy –

      Yes – a *tiny* dime-sized regular gluten wafer will make me seriously ill. I have biopsy confirmed Celiac disease. I too was incredulous at my doctor’s recommendation – what is this gluten free diet?!? How can it be?!? She explained that for years doctors didn’t look for Celiac so they didn’t find it… know they look and find. She asked that I give the diet a month and promised that I would actually want to adhere to the diet. The good news is that she was right and I felt much better physically.

      Unfortunately, this condition has changed the very fabric of my social life. Think of Thanksgiving dinner, family reunions, co-worker’s birthday cake, etc…. It has severely curtailed my career as frequently I am unable to eat at the restaurants chosen by my company… eat with others when they call out for sandwiches… and I do suppose that I’m seen as “attention seeking”.

      This condition is absolutely no fun and I have been amazed at the ridicule and social problems it has caused (my own mother was not supportive as first). Believe me if I could just eat without analyzing every single ingredient (standard US soy sauce contains wheat / gluten)… I would. I often feel that I am causing problem for my co-workers, family and friends when asking about ingredients. The condition has ostracized me and while I’d never wish this on another human being, I do so wish people would have a little more compassion… rather than the judgement.

      Sincerely – Marie

  5. avatar Eventergirl says:

    Okay, I’m just going to say my piece about consumer ignorance regarding their food supply and be done…it amazes me the amount of misinformation there is out there….

    You are consuming 105x more hormone by consuming soy than you are consuming beef from a steer with a hormone implant or milk from a dairy cow. Steers receive a small implant subcutaneously (under the skin) in their ear when they are steered (neutered). This implant is usually dissolved by the time they are a year old and all it does is replace the hormone their testicles would naturally be producing. rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is used a LOT more sparingly than the media wishes you to believe – it’s expensive and not very effective. In our cows, we use it ONLY for cows who have aborted/lost their pregnancy so we can keep them in milk long enough to get them pregnant again and then give birth. Besides, remember your biology – hormones only affect the body if the body has a receptor (“docking station”) for the hormone – humans do not have receptors for bovine hormones (and adult bovines have few – that’s why it’s not very effective and it works better on younger cows than older cows). Your body just passes it right through. It is illegal to give chickens hormones.

    All antibiotics must be completely flushed out of the system before milk can be consumed by humans (antibiotics have a mandatory withdrawal period during which all milk from that cow is dumped down the drain – many dairy farmers actually keep their cows off the line longer than the minimum recommended period to avoid accidentally having their milk test positive – the milk truck is tested for antibiotics after each dump from a farm, a positive test means the milk from whole truck is discarded and the last farm to dump into the truck has to pay for the WHOLE truck; hence why they’re so careful about it) and before a steer can be slaughtered. You are not consuming antibiotics in your beef and milk.

    • avatar bleeble says:

      Science!! 😀

    • avatar Koka Miri says:

      “105x more hormone by consuming soy”? Can you link to a study (a scientific one) documenting that?

      The only results I got when I tried to substantiate your claim was that it affected hormones in mice. There is a hormone-LIKE substance in tofu that mimics estrogen – but it’s not estrogen.  

      I buy organic tofu, by the by.

      Now, if you’re talking about soy PRODUCTS, that’s different than claiming all soy is worse for you than meat.     

  6. avatar hillidaa says:

    I work at a non-profit organization whose job it is to educate the surrounding community regarding health care and health careers. The guy who is the director of our Continuing Medical Education department (who organizes educational activites for physicians) was a teacher. We have another former teacher who travels from school to school teaching kids about the various health careers outside of the well known “doctor” and “nurse.” She also does summer camps for kids of all ages. We have a third former teacher who teaches medical practices how to improve their patient care, and a fourth education major (I’m not sure she ever taught K-12) who runs the Graduate Medical Education program (teaching residents to become independent physicians).

    Sometimes, not all teaching jobs are in schools. Those might make you happier!!

  7. avatar Lesley Morgan says:

    LW1 sounds close to her breaking point. I would take this very seriously. It’s more than just “suck it up and keep going.” If hubby has a “decent job,” why is it THAT necessary for her to remain in a job that has turned into torture? So her kids and husband can maintain some “standard of living” while she can barely stand to get up in the morning? Why isn’t hubby more empathetic? Today’s frustration and burnout could soon be tomorrow’s full-blown depression. I don’t know how school systems work, but is counseling available for teachers in these situations? LW1, do whatever it takes to take care of yourself.

  8. avatar Davina Wolf says:

    Twice I forced myself to stay in well-paying jobs when I was becoming very burned out because I didn’t know what else to go to.  Both times I became so mentally exhausted from forcing myself to stay in the job that I lost the ability to help myself and finally quit with nothing else to go to because I was so miserable that I was having death fantasies.  (These stopped the day that I quit).  I then spend the next two years not working and recuperating from what must have been some sort of post traumatic stress syndrome from forcing myself do something I didn’t like.  The teacher in the first letter would be wise to find a different job now, before she gets too burned out to help herself.  She sounds very bright and conscientious and could probably easily find something better.    

  9. avatar zz says:

    I truly sympathize with the teacher.  I, too, taught 20 years and got out.  I am lucky to have a supportive husband with a great job who helped to make leaving feasible.  I feel sorry for the young teachers just getting started.  They will never know the joy of walking into their classroom and being able to simply teach.  There is so much governmental red tape and so much administrative BS, plus you are expected to teach all the special needs children in with the rest of the class (usually without any training to teach those with special needs), and the testing never ends.  Principals jump on every new bandwagon that comes along, often just for the ‘feather in their cap’ that they get by saying “my school is doing….whatever…”.  Teaching is a tough profession.  So many children are not taught values at home.  So many parents are sure that everything and everyone is at fault except their own angelic child.  And, many administrators have “it’s all about me” syndrome.   I commend those who can make the commitment to it, but I would not…could not recommend education as a major to any college student today.   To LW#1…good luck to you.  Four more years sounds like forever, especially on a bad day.  But think about how quickly the school year passes.  Even though there are some excruciatingly long days……Friday comes around quickly….and all of a sudden it’s the start of a new month…and before you know it, the year is over.   Do your best…..but