In the summer of 2013, fourth-grade teacher Justin Ashley’s career was taking off.
The 28-year-old Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher had just collected two state awards for the creative way he taught history and social studies.
His students at McAlpine Elementary made a rap video about the Bill of Rights, with Ashley dressed as James Madison, and it racked up tens of thousands of YouTube views.
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That August, Ashley wrote an open letter to North Carolina legislators beseeching them not to eliminate the Teaching Fellows program, which had given him a shot at being something other than a Burger King manager. The “Burger King teacher” letter went viral, first on an Observer education blog, then on author/activist Diane Ravitch’s national one.
To the world he was a dynamo. In the mirror he saw something else.
“I thought I should be happy,” Ashley recalls, “and I was the exact, polar opposite.”
Within two years Ashley would be addicted to prescription drugs and nearly broke. He was still teaching, throwing all the energy he had into maintaining the star teacher image.
But his wife, Samantha, felt abandoned. She was pregnant with their second child, and wondered constantly if this would be the day she walked out.
When Ashley finished his first year as a middle school teacher, in June of 2015, he broke down, mentally and physically.
“I did the one thing I did not want to do, which was admit that I was wrong and admit that I was damaging myself in a lot of ways and go to rehab,” he said.
Now, at 32, he’s telling his story because he suspects a lot of his colleagues and students know what it’s like to hide depression, anxiety and burnout behind a perfect facade.
Dear North Carolina ...
In the letter that introduced Ashley to the world, he wrote about being a 17-year-old child of divorce, trying to decide between applying at Burger King and enlisting in the armed forces.
Instead, a school counselor helped him apply for the teaching scholarship that sent him to UNC Charlotte, where he fell in love with Samantha.
What he didn’t say in that letter was that he almost lost that scholarship his first semester, falling just short of the required 2.5 grade-point average.
He saw a doctor and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He said teachers had always told him, “Justin, you could do something great with your life if you could just get more focused and stop playing around.” A low dose of medication helped him bring up his GPA and launch his teaching career, starting at McAlpine in 2007.
As his success as a teacher grew, so did the pressure Ashley felt. About the time he won the awards and got all the attention, he asked his doctor to increase his dosage. He kept asking, until he was at the highest possible level. He got Xanax to calm his anxiety, he says, and Ambien to fall asleep.
He was showing his best face to the public, he says, but “I felt almost like a mannequin or robot.”
By then, he and Samantha had a son, Cole, and a home in Waxhaw. She was working, too, but they were barely covering the bills. Ashley started thinking about writing a book to bring in some extra income – maybe something about the teaching techniques that made his classes so much fun.
In May of 2014, he wrote another public letter.
“Dear North Carolina,” he began. “I’m leaving you.”
Out of balance
Ashley’s breakup letter said he was going to take a job in South Carolina to make more money because teacher pay in his home state had stagnated.
“I used to love you, but I really can’t do this anymore,” he wrote. “I deserve better.”
But over the summer Ashley decided to stay in North Carolina, taking a job at Community House Middle School in Charlotte’s southern Ballantyne area. Principal Jamie Brooks chose him from a large group of applicants, impressed by his talent for connecting with kids.
“He’s got some things going for him that you just can’t teach,” she said.
Ashley would stay late at school, then work on lessons at night. Some mornings he just couldn’t get up. Brooks says she thought his absences were related to a family matter.
Samantha Ashley, who works for an IT company, felt like she was left alone to care for toddler Cole. When she confronted her husband about changes in his personality and her feeling that he was neglecting his family, he got defensive. Their communication was mostly about schedules.
“There was really no fun involved,” she recalls. “We didn’t do a lot of things together as a family.”
By 2015 she was pregnant again, and things were getting worse. As the due date neared, she found herself contemplating life as a single parent.
Ironically, Ashley had updated his plan to write a book. Based on a career coach’s advice, he decided to write about something he aspired to, rather than something he was already good at. In March of 2015, he got an agent to help him sell his idea: A guide to work-life balance for teachers.
In June 2015, Ashley essentially staggered across the finish line of his first year as a middle school teacher. There was a trip to the emergency room, followed by five days at a rehab center in Huntersville.
It was, Justin and Samantha say now, the start of a new life.
But at the time it felt miserable. Justin was still struggling when he came home. Samantha was weeks away from giving birth to Savannah and wondered how she was supposed to care for her husband and two young children.
And just when they were in the toughest stretch, Ashley got word: Free Spirit Publishing had bought his proposal to write “The Balanced Teacher Path: How to Teach, Live and Be Happy.”
Coming back, opening up
Ashley says his awakening started in group therapy, when patients were asked to introduce themselves by saying one thing that made them proud.
Ashley was planning to talk about his teaching accomplishments when a young woman spoke up: “I am not rich. I am not a boss. But I’m a mom. More than anything, that’s who I am, and that’s what I’m proud of.”
Ashley decided that’s what he wanted to be: A proud husband and father.
His road to recovery became part of his book, which was released this spring.
There was a lot of work with counselors, individually and as a couple. Ashley says he has quit the drugs, renewed his faith at Elevation Church and learned to work out tension at a Ballantyne boxing gym. His joy and energy returned – and while he still gives a lot to teaching, he makes sure Samantha, Cole and Savannah Belle come first.
Ashley says there’s a reason he disclosed details about how far his unbalanced life was from his facade.
“There are other teachers out there with these same struggles that can feel the way that I’m feeling right now,” Ashley says. “That’s where I get the energy to share the story. It’s really painful to talk about some of the darkest days of my life.”
His principal and colleagues at Community House were supportive when he opened up, he says.
Brooks says it should go without saying that a teacher struggling with drug dependence or depression would get support, though she understands that many would be fearful.
“They are medical conditions,” Brooks said this week. “We don’t get mad at a teacher if they have cancer and they have to have chemo.”
And Brooks, whose own son was a student of Ashley’s, has no problem with adolescents learning of Ashley’s past. After all, many students experience anxiety and depression: “We don’t give up on our kids, so we as leaders should not give up on our staff.”
Ashley bursts into a belly laugh when asked about revealing personal details to a classroom of adolescents. “Do I want them to know that I went to rehab? Absolutely not.”
Then he gets serious: “But if it saves them from cutting their wrists and if it helps them when their parents are getting a divorce and if it helps them grow into something better, then I care more about what my story does for them than what they might think of me.”
A guide, he is
When Justin and Samantha Ashley talk about their journey, both seem amazed and grateful that they’re together and happy again.
“Thank goodness we stuck with it,” Samantha Ashley says, “because it did eventually turn around.”
Given his teaching style – Justin Ashley has returned to making classroom rap videos, most recently “Straight Intta Oregon” – it shouldn’t be surprising that he taps history and pop culture to explain his journey.
He notes that he was teaching The Great Depression recently when he realized that a line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most famous speech could refer to him as well: “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
Then there’s a self-help book that talks about playing the role of hero or guide, using Star Wars as an example.
“That’s my goal, to be more of the Yoda than the Luke,” Ashley says. “I’m not the hero in the story. The teachers that are reading (my book), I think they can be the heroes.”