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.