Chronicles of a Recovering Teacher: Implicit Messages

I was at an event today where everyone works on their own at tables; you can hear one another’s conversations and you can join in or just listen. Some ladies happened to be teachers, and started talking about teaching, and they talked about being micromanaged and the difficulty and began to compare stories.

Instead of joining the conversation, I grabbed my purse and dove for my headphones. I didn’t want to hear how much being a teacher hurt them, and I didn’t want to hear how difficult it was and how tiring. But I think at least part of my reaction was because I am tired of thinking about how teaching makes teachers feel; or at least, tired of talking about that without talking about why they are made to feel that way.

A while back, The Atlantic published an article that wondered if introverts leave teaching because they are forced into too much group work, or because they’re surrounded by too many loud extroverts. But I don’t think so. I’m a proud introvert myself (one friend described me as an observant super-ninja, and I won’t dispute the accuracy of that), and my humble opinion is that introverts are good at hearing what someone says and quickly figuring out what they really mean. As an introverted teacher, I was always attuned to the implicit messages we were getting, and it was a major cause of my burnout.

This is a huge issue to unpack, as the education system is seen to “belong to all of us,” and so the average teacher is constantly receiving messages about her value from administrators, parents, and from society at large. So here, I’ll focus on the messages we got from administrators.

  • You can’t be trusted. This is probably the most prevalent message. Teachers’ lesson plans are all but scripted in some cases, and for many, their value is determined by factors almost entirely beyond their control (testing). The growing amount of paperwork required for everything from field trips to throwing papers away (!) sends a message that our work must be checked, checked, and re-checked, and tells us that we cannot make any decisions without a committee or a bureaucrat overseeing us. Then, we are constantly being asked to “be creative.” With what?!
  • Your time has no value — not to you, anyway. Teachers’ time is extremely valuable, but not to the teachers themselves. The amount of extra unpaid work required by school districts means that, in terms of hours, schools are powered by thousands of hours of teachers’ unpaid labor. When teachers complain of the extra work, they are scolded or shamed by those who imply that they just aren’t committed enough. And, as is possible in any job, a teacher cursed with micromanaging bosses will also be subjected to harassment and guilt about how she uses her own time, even if she is sick, on vacation, or paid leave.
  • Your work is the most valuable thing on earth. If you teach lower income kids, you’ll hear this one a lot. It basically means that all of these children come with additional issues, and you might be the only one who can save them! But it will never be enough! This “hero teacher” narrative is exhausting and detrimental. Every time there is a study about what “poor kids” are missing, the school system comes up with another experimental initiative designed to get teachers to try and fix it. We can’t make up for everything they lack, that is a fantasy. You see this played out in teacher movies, which all have a pervasive and offensive “white savior” complex about them. The last time one of these movies was shown during a “teacher work day,” I quietly walked out (probably to get some actual work done). I will write more about this “white savior” narrative later on, but it’s harmful to everyone — students and teachers of all races.
  • You aren’t doing anything. This one will resonate especially to those who taught an “alternative” subject, like music, drama, P.E., or anything else that isn’t science or “reading, writing, & ‘rithmetic.” As a music teacher, I was always told of how “fun” my job must be. “How nice to sing all day!” Of course, I knew I was lucky to have a job at all (many states cut their music programs ages ago), but being reminded of that all the time, and being implicitly told I should put up with subpar conditions or outdated materials because I should be grateful to even be there, is grating. It invites a dismissal of your hard work (and that of our students’), and it reinforces the unimportance some people have for these subjects, which leads to budget cuts, which creates a vicious cycle.

If you asked an administrator directly, they’d never admit to anything on this list. They’ll tell you they value all their teachers, that they appreciate them, that they understand their stresses and difficulties. But the messages they send through their actions and requirements are the opposite.

The nature of teaching, the emotionally draining, constant giving of yourself, means that these messages are particularly demoralizing. Not only are you being given these messages at every turn, but you can’t help but internalize them. The heroic narrative. The “never enough” narrative. The “well, if you don’t like it, you’re probably not good enough” narrative. These are painful things. One of the biggest problems with the way teachers are treated by “the system” is that they are not being treated like educated professionals, and the constant invoking of martyrism (give us all your time, save the children, just be glad you’re even here) is a major impediment.


Chronicles of a Recovering Teacher: Never Enough

I plan to write more about my teaching experience as time goes on and as I continue to recover from it (I voluntarily left the profession last year), but I wanted to react to this new teacher book, recently released.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

There are so many teacher books, but this one is in the category of “books I would have loved to write but couldn’t because I was too busy teaching.” This particular paragraph, (not from the book, but from an interview with the author), is prescient and painful:

Part of a system of oppression is allowing the folks who have the power to create change feel as though they’re responsible for keeping the narrative. So a lot of black teachers go into urban schools and within the first 3 months they become the king or queen of discipline. Why? Because the system sees a black face as a person who’s supposed to help them meet their goals. But I don’t want to meet those goals; I want kids to feel free. I want those kids to feel what emancipation is like in those classrooms, to feel like they can be themselves, their culture to be expressed. Just a black face in the classroom helps the kids to connect, but it’s not enough if that black person feels their role is to be the enforcer of a white folk’s pedagogy.

While I worked hard on discipline in my classes, I wasn’t any sort of queen, though in retrospect I can see that I was expected to be. And I did specifically and very deliberately foster a sense of personal and cultural freedom in my classrooms. But one of the things that caused me great pain & cognitive dissonance in my years of teaching was the realization that as a black person, I was an anomaly and too small of a person to fix a system that is broken, and even more broken for children of color.

As one of a few black teachers in a white-majority district (teachers, not students), this meant a lot of day-to-day interactions where I was expected to perform blackness in ways that helped it fit into a particular narrative. Sometimes it was as the “discipline queen.” Sometimes other teachers called me “Girl” or “Diva.” Sometimes I got asked to sing at random (to be fair, I was a music teacher, but me singing while the rest of you eat lunch is a little much). I was constantly hounded for being too quiet. And sometimes the tokenism was more obvious.

One day an administrator came to my room. She said, “John’s* grandmother is in the office. She is accusing us of racism. I know you’ve documented problems with John when he visits your class. Will you come to the office and help us?” She pulled me right out of my classroom and away from my students, and I spent an hour in the office with John’s grandmother and some administrators and another teacher.

John, who was black, did act up in class, like many students did. John’s grandmother was, quite honestly, dirty and disheveled, and she was a spacey and not “all there.” But the first thing I did when I walked into that room was to smile at her, greet her, and shake her hand. The thing I noticed most was that I was the only person there who did that. No one else looked her in the eye and no one would touch her. Most of the others showed a nearly palpable condescension and disgust. Grandmother didn’t understand the school system, with its educational jargon and odd, arbitrary reward systems, and had trouble reading the reports the other teachers had given her. In fact, I don’t think she could read at all.

I wasn’t John’s main teacher, and I wasn’t given much time to speak. I knew why I was there. But I tried not to let my anger at being used as a token keep me from showing compassion to this woman, from trying to help in some small way.

After the meeting, I tried speaking to John’s main teacher, telling her the things his Grandmother didn’t understand, that a kind voice might be preferable to one full of frustration. But the teacher had been so frustrated with John, so tired of having to deal with his outbursts and behavior along with 29 other kids, several of whom had similar trouble (itself another failure of the system), that she didn’t seem to care anymore. When I saw John in my class, I always took the time to talk to him individually, even when it meant 29 other kids were hopping around. Some time later, John moved away, and I never saw him again.

Later in my teaching career I did all sorts of things to try to compensate for the futility I felt as a black teacher. I became a diversity trainer. I wrote sociologically about race and presented my articles to other teachers. I tried to speak up on behalf of my students when they were too quick to be judged by other teachers. And when I got the rare chance, I spoke frankly with my black students, and sometimes their parents, about the unfairness of the school discipline system and how, in its own sick way, it is a preparation for life as a black person in America.

On an implicit level, a subconscious level, the values taught to public school children are those of whiteness (not white supremacy, just whiteness), to the extent that in many cases, literally saying the word “black,” even when describing yourself, can be considered racist. These things shouldn’t be a surprise at all when you consider that the body of education is made up of white, middle class people (women), many of whom subscribe to colorblindness and genuinely don’t believe they are racist.

As I get used to my life as a non-teacher, I am still haunted by a pervasive sense of futility, and by the insidious expectation of “martyrism” that is woven into the profession. Every public school teacher carries these weights, and they are made heavier when you add racism.

Will I read the book? Maybe. Honestly, I’m still so exhausted that thinking about educational theory and reading a whole book detailing the racial failures of education might be too personal right now, because if you haven’t guessed it, I still take these failures personally. I think the biggest legacy of being a black person in a school system where there aren’t many others is that you are never enough to fix a broken system. It’s like I’ve internalized the “Hero Teacher” narrative.

If all that sounds like I need a therapist, well then, consider this my contribution to the personal-essay genre. There are many incidents where this came from, some that involve race and some that don’t, and I think what I most look forward to in writing them down is the idea that maybe I’ll connect with someone else recovering from these same things.

*Names changed, of course.