“There’s no tired like teacher tired.”
That statement is generally accepted as true, and there are a whole slew of memes to go along with it. But as I’m winding down on winter break and finding myself a little mentally exhausted at the thought of going back to school, I have to wonder why.
What do we expect from our teachers? A few years ago, I explored the idea of what is “good teaching” and what makes a “good teacher”. Some of the points that came out of my personal investigation into good teaching indicated that good teachers have all of the following:
About a year later, I talked about “good teaching” on a podcast with some other teacher writers and we agreed that good teaching isn’t sustainable in isolation, and it is something that can/should be developed, rather than being an innate quality of a teacher. We shouldn’t expect to be excellent at teaching every day, from Day 1.
Yet right now, in the middle of my 6th year teaching, I find myself wondering if we still expect too much from our teachers, if we as teachers expect too much from ourselves.
In this 6th year of teaching, I still find myself working crazy hours. My timecard from before winter break showed too many 12 hour days. (And yes, I have a timecard because although I don’t get paid overtime, my school district requires us to clock in and out.) I sometimes think that I’m doing myself a favor by staying late and grading, but there is always more to do. And I feel like I already work at 100% efficiency, but I still need more hours in the day. It’s hard to get away from the mentality that I should return assessments to students ASAP (particularly mid-unit assessments) so that they have the feedback, that work done for a team should take priority over work done just for myself (I teach on two different subject teams), that I should be available for students outside of school hours, that I should contribute to my school community by sponsoring clubs and joining committees. All of these these “shoulds”, plus the work of, y’know, teaching and the other aspects of my life.
And I so wonder – what is the value of my time as a teacher? Is the value of that time different than the value of my time not spent teaching? There was an interesting article about a similar problem in higher education, where PhD’s find themselves in low-paying adjunct faculty positions. Elizabeth Segran argues that PhD’s are choosing to stay in an unfavorable labor market.
No one but Ph.D.’s themselves expect Ph.D.’s to live without the dignity of a living wage or to work for academic institutions that do not respect them. Indeed, when adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them. The laws of supply and demand dictate the academic labor market as they do every other labor market, and universities have no incentive to change their labor practices when adjuncts willingly work for so little.
I see her argument, and I see similarities in the K-12 teaching profession, where teachers are continuously expected to do more with less. But I don’t know how to shift the market to incentivize higher value for our time, or if that’s even a good way of thinking about the problem. (I have issues with applying a market mentality to education, and this Washington Post article articulates better “Why schools aren’t businesses”). I know I contribute to the problem when I stay for 12 hr days, when I sponsor the Scholastic Bowl team (which does Saturday tournaments that go all day several times a year) for no additional compensation, when I take care of work that may or may not be explicitly within my job description (I honestly don’t know what is explicitly in my job description). I also struggle to be okay with doing less on a personal and moral level – in order to teach at the standard that I hold myself to, I need to do all those “shoulds”.
Jose Vilson, a teacher and a writer whom I respect enormously, wrote about the value of a teacher’s time recently. He argued that we should be given less classes, less students:
However, in countries that have done away with those arguments*, they’ve learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they’re obligated to grade.
* “Those arguments” being that students need more time with teachers/teachers don’t spend enough time with students
Don’t get the wrong message – I love working with students. When my non-teacher friends ask me what’s the hardest part about teaching, it’s never the students. Yes, there are challenging students to work with, and yes, if you catch me in a certain frame of mind I will vent about said students. But honestly, if I had fewer students, fewer classes, I could give those students and those classes more of my attention. I feel guilty because I don’t know all my students, but I have 150 of them and that makes it hard. When I hear that a student of mine is through something in their life that I had no idea about, I wish I had the time to cultivate more and deeper relationships with my students. And if all of the teachers at our school had this time, what would be the impact on our students? Would there still be as many students who are struggling, academically or personally? Would we finally be able to close the “opportunity gap”? And would we as teachers feel less tired, less burned out or demoralized, by the work that we face every day?
There are a lot of narratives about teaching out there. Becky Van Tassel, another teacher writer whom I admire enormously, wrote recently about how the perception of what is “normal” can shift our behavior. But what is “normal” for teachers? Is “teacher tired” just normal, and I (still) need to figure out how to just deal with it? Is the lone “superhero teacher” who bucks the system and rises above (and pulls their students up with them) normal, and what I should be aspiring to? Or is the disempowered, burned out, demoralized teacher the normal, and I need to find my own personal coping mechanisms? I don’t want any of these things to be normal for teachers, or for myself.
I go back to school on Monday, and although I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, I’m taking the time to take stock of where I’m at. I’m still tired, and I don’t want to continue this way. There are things I can tweak to take better care of myself personally and professionally, which I will probably try. But I’m still wondering how we can shift the narrative, shift the perception of what is “normal” for teachers, and how we can make school a better place for all who pass through, both students and teachers.