Teeny, tiny rant ahead. Proceed with caution.
In recent weeks, I have read an abundance of posts about teacher burnout and compassion fatigue. And I understand, I really, truly do get it. I feel it too. I hit the snooze button twice just this morning. I wake up already tired and low-grade discouraged. It is an epic effort on some days for me to get up and return to my classroom. I keep looking for the big answers to why I am like this, and why we are all suffering like this right now. All (or most) teachers are struggling. So far, I have received no big answers, but there are many small ones. And so far, those have been resoundingly unhelpful.
A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to be on a retreat in the wilds of Idaho. And I was, but whatever peace I attained was short-circuited by car trouble. Every car we own(which is two at the moment) stopped functioning in quick succession and one left us stranded in central Idaho with no way to get home. And our clock is ticking because we have to get home to go to work. It is not an extended vacation, it was only supposed to be a weekend. So we went through some pretty impressive mental and logistical gymnastics to get both cars to the shop. (In one case, having a car towed the 158 or so miles from mid-Idaho back to Spokane.) With these efforts came the very real and tangible cost of money, time, and decision fatigue. We made it home three nights later in a rental car, expected to jump back into our busy lives. Sadly, neither of us had anything left in the tank. (Literally or figuratively.)
For me, that meant I came to work the next morning in cheerful zombie teacher mode. I was running on fumes and not sure what was going to happen next, except that I had a ride home at the end of the day in a rental car, cruelly the same make and model as one of our cars that had broken down. Oh, the irony! I felt weighed down with stress and worry, and defeated at having zero functioning cars. Only a month ago, we were celebrating getting a second car after almost a year of sharing a vehicle. And now here we are.
I know that every teacher wants to feel shiny with purpose and inspired every time they walk into the classroom. I know that I want to bring my best self to work every day. The daily stresses, things like non-working cars, uncooperative insurance companies, and tow trucks who call to tell you they are on their way….and never show up; these things take a toll on every person with a job. However, I fantasize that when others get to work, they slip into their private office (or cubicle) and it is quiet. They sip peacefully at the hot drink that they picked up on the way to work and ease into the day by slowly checking emails and scanning the calendar. They can come in late and no one is the wiser. They can leave early, citing a personal appointment, without having to arrange for a substitute to take over. No children are waiting at their door, clamoring “what are we going to do today?” There are places to take a breath, and that is what I have been missing in my profession lately. Those breathing places in between.
Frantic is a good word. Everyone, parents, admin, other teachers, and students all seem to be in a state of rumbling panic. Everything is an emergency. Standards! Learning loss! Close the gap! Testing! Ack! Ack! Ack! The din is unbelievable.
But all of it is like, in a whisper voice. Don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, suspect that teachers may not always be the superheroes we expect and need them to be every day. WE ARE ALL FINE. EVERYTHING IS FINE. As any honest teacher will tell you, we are decidedly NOT FINE.
We are exhausted AF by our own expectations and the expectations of others. We are suffering from EDF (Educational Decision Fatigue) from trying to please and placate all the players in our world, assuage their worries, and reassure them that we will most certainly catch up by spring testing. No, actually, we will not be doing that. We will be making the best of the results of a global pandemic and virtual (shit) teaching. We will be making the most of our time with students, always on the lookout for social-emotional damage and trauma that so many come to school lugging, like an unnecessary encyclopedia in their backpack. We will have priorities, and they will always be focused on the greatest needs of our students. Well, always for some; sometimes or rarely for others.
I say this because there are snakes in our grass, and teachers in our buildings who are jumping on the panic-at-the-disco bandwagon with both feet. They have taken up the chant of “Learning loss! We must double down, we must work harder!” The looks on the faces of our ill-equipped students, to begin with, are heartbreaking. They could anchor any number of tragic fundraising commercials, with Sarah McLachlan wailing in the background. The children are also exhausted with what they have been asked to do, to be, to chase. They just want to go outside and play. They know in their old/young souls that they will catch up and learn things and become productive members of society at some point. They know that we are all recovering from so many things. They are much more realistic about what can be accomplished on any given Tuesday.
We would do well to listen to them.
For me, I have to go home every evening and untangle the frantic yarn ball of anxiety and panic that takes up residence in my stomach. I have to coax it out of the darkness into the light. I put my arm around it and lead it to the door. I thank it for its service and I gently close the door behind it. I return, drained, and need the whole time before school the next day to recover so that I can go and do it all again.
So these little things keep adding up. I do not have a dramatic story of what led me to daydream about leaving the profession. No one is throwing desks at me or threatening me. I have a great admin and support staff. I do not have a business model for a company I could start to replace my income and reduce my stress. However, “ these “little things” are not negligible. They are piling up inside the back door of my brain’s mudroom and they are starting to stink. I seem to spend a large amount of my free time clearing them out and mopping the floor, over and over again. They keep showing up because I keep bringing them home.
What can we do? What can we encourage our teacher friends and fellows to do? We have to figure out a way to protect our already burdened mental health from these pesky, dangerous
“ little things.”
I am tempted here to borrow a page from a Marvel story (one of them has this feature, I am sure.) Could we craft a protective armor that we put on before we come to school? Could it let in all the good stuff (kids and their learning) and keep us safe from all the bad stuff (intense admin, unrealistic parents, state testing, sense of foreboding.) with its magical properties? Could we, when trapped in a loop of negativity and panic, simply lower our protective helmet over our ears (and hearts)? Could we program the arms to automatically put down any grading or planning we try to take home at the end of the day? Could we have some software embedded that scrambles emails and phone calls after 3:30 and delays them until the following day during contract hours?
If I could invent this device, I would quit for sure. I would be a millionaire. I would win Shark Tank. All the teachers on the planet would fall at my feet in gratitude because of how much better they felt, and how much their mental health has improved. We would make it onto Instagram, trending with teachers and all who find fault with teachers. It would be a phenomenon for sure.
It is cathartic to write this ranty little diatribe (from my desk at school no less). It helps to see the words and know for sure that I am not nuts. (Well, no more than usual, anyway.) We are all in this together. (Cue “High School Musical-Zac Efron edition, please.) Let’s heed the admonition to be kind as often as we are impatient, to give others the benefit of the doubt as often as we jump to conclusions, and to refrain from speaking as often as we speak. I know that those are little things that I can control.
I am no Avenger, Marvel has never heard of me. I do not particularly want to be called a superhero. Calling teachers superheroes or saints is just a cop-out for the admin who does not want to change how they are doing their job. If teachers continue to do everything, our districts are off the hook for not finding other, more sustainable practices. I do not want to belabor and I do not want to blame. I have very little bandwidth for badmouthing others when my own work takes everything out of me. I want the world to know that we are doing our best, every day. That’s all. Rant over.