I. Learning to Take Care of Ourselves.
“The only pride of her workday was not that it had been lived, but that it had been survived. It was wrong, she thought, it was viciously wrong that one should ever be forced to say that about any hour of one’s life.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
The Kleenex boxes started to go missing in the school, and I knew it was only a matter of time. Now, I am sitting here feeling the remnants of the codeine in my system supposed to curb the coughing. My nose is burning from the constant drip, drip, drip of mucous. My partner, who is not a teacher, is wondering how I can get so sick so many times throughout the year, and is disappointed that it’s another night in with Buckley’s and a Netflix series (A Series of Unfortunate Events, at the moment).
As a teacher at a private school, I am responsible for teaching seven core classes, coaching sports teams, facilitating literacy clubs, attending open houses and learning fairs, and the list continues without end. The pressure is on to work tirelessly, even competitively, to be the most involved, the most hands on, the most committed.
I truly desire to teach and engage my students in innovative and meaningful ways, and to be present in all aspects school life in the dynamic place in which I work. However, my immune system cannot seem to keep up with both the school’s expectations of me and my own expectations for myself.
Some days, I really am deciding that it is easier to come to school with a puke bucket in hand than it would be to book a substitute and make lesson plans. While it may sound like I am simply overdoing it and need to bow out of some professional obligations for the sake of becoming more effective, I think burnout is a real challenge for many teachers.
How can teachers keep up with the demands of being creative and innovative educators, while also maintaining their health, relationships, and social life? Besides the odd professional day here and there (which are usually demanding, not leisurely), what are schools doing to help promote teacher health and wellbeing? What are some ways that teachers can take personal initiative to better manage the expectations of their administration, colleagues, parents, and students?
II. I is Broke. I is Tired. I is a Teacher.
“If you commit to giving more time than you have to spend, you will constantly be running from time debt collectors.” – Elizabeth Grace Saunders
As a private school teacher in Alberta earning an excellent salary, I often wonder how my bank account is drained by the end of the month. Then I review my statements and see Michaels, Dollarama, Teacherspayteachers, and Indigo Books.
The school has a very limited budget for “extra” supplies and has very strict rules concerning asking parents to bring in supplies. Thus, I am often spending my own money to execute and enhance the projects that I facilitate in my class. Judging by the reactions of store clerks when they see my cart, I think this is the case for most teachers in Alberta. Yesterday, a store clerk in Staples exclaimed, “I hang my head in shame that I don’t have a teacher discount to offer you for all of this photocopying!” (I had spent $40 copying invitations for a Story Café that I will be hosting in a few weeks).
And just try being a teacher asking for a donation of recycled products at the bottle depot (whether bottles for making Diwali lanterns or milk jugs for creating masks). No, they simply have too many teachers, and cannot donate the recyclables to everyone.
A few examples of recent activities followed by the kinds of materials that I purchased in order to execute them, include:
– Renaissance Faire: science fair boards, acrylic paint, and cardstock paper
– Story Café: cookies, coffee, invitations, and decorations
– Explorer Journals: Forty-five journals, paints, and scrapbooking materials
– Aztec Masks: Eighteen milk jugs, Mod Podge glue, paint, and beads
In addition to spending my own money on supplies, I also find myself spending money on students who, for whatever reason, do not have lunches, jackets, proper shoes, or school supplies.
How can teachers enhance classroom projects without breaking the bank account? Would anyone argue that I should not spend any of my personal funds on my students and our classroom activities? How can teachers best respond to the reality that this is a form of competitiveness now between teachers in an effort to impress their students, the students’ parents, and their administration?
III. Those who CAN, Teach.
How often have I heard such remarks as: “I cannot believe that you get all of those holidays off. What an easy gig!” “Teachers make too much money and they have it so easy. I should have been one.” “I cannot understand why you are so tired.”
As I am not a particularly confrontational person, I often smile and keep quiet. In truth, I wish I could yell: “Do you wake up and go to work in the morning only to have forty-five children, their parents, an administration, and other teachers pulling you in every direction? Do you feel your heart break every day when you see that young person with no lunch and greasy hair because of absent parents? Or, are you responsible for educating a child suffering fetal alcohol syndrome because his own mother made poor choices? Do you have parents call and yell at you because their child failed to hand in an assignment on time? Do you come home and spend all evening planning how you can best live out the next day? Do your weekends consist of countless hours of marking and driving around the city searching for items to bring into your classroom?
I often spend my holidays working a second job to pay for a Masters degree in education, which I am pursuing in order to make me a more equipped educator for the next generation. Sometimes the income from that second job is also used to pay for supplies in the classroom, so that my students can have an enriched experience and know that they and their education really matter.
In Taylor Mali’s famous poem, “What Teachers Make,” he says:
You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
Challenging the notion that teaching is a low-paying option for those who could not do anything better, Mali insists: “Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true: Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?”
How can teachers break the sort of stereotypes I’ve mentioned? Can changing society’s view of teachers help us to become better at what we do? Who gives the most important affirmation to teachers? (Students, parents, colleagues, the administration, or friends and family?)
IV. Work/life Balance – Ha!
I teach seven core classes, coach the girls’ sports teams, have a literacy help club on my “free mornings”, work on my Masters, work a second job to pay for my masters, and attempt to have a social life. In Alberta’s economy, I am fortunate to have a job right now. At a private school though, where students pay a significant fee to attend, I must do absolutely everything possible in order to showcase the school, and me as a teacher, to retain the student body.
When one teacher goes above and beyond at school, the other teachers or the administration either: a) Continue to add to that teacher’s workload because of his or her obvious competency or, b) Become upset because that teacher is “up showing” them and their work.
Since parents are paying, they are always demanding more. And so, I built a beautiful website for my class. It has all the class work for each grade and subject, rubrics, additional readings, and recommended links. I also post the students’ homework assignments nightly. This is not enough for parents; some complained that I did not use the school’s own platform so that they would only need to open one browser.
Contracts are signed on an annual basis, so as a teacher I constantly feel the need to impress and be the best. If parents are upset with something that a teacher does, they generally bypass the teacher and go directly to the administration. For example, I gave an assignment that many of the students did not complete adequately. They received a zero on that portion of the work that they had failed to accomplish according to my explicit instructions for them. Parents were outraged that their child could receive a zero on anything, and phoned the administration demanding that I remark the 45 papers because it was my fault that the students did not put the appropriate effort into their work.
The administration then had me remark the papers. I could hear the students proclaiming in the hallways, “See, all we have to do is get our moms to call and our tests and marks get changed!” Private schools certainly instil fear that you must perform 110% all of the time and that any failure on the part of the students can only really be a failure on the part of their teacher.
In her LinkedIn article, “7 Ways to Deal with Workplace Competition,” Dr. Marla Gottschalk offers some tips to bear in mind in order to master workplace competition. She says, “Competition can be healthy — and does have the potential to drive us forward to excel. But, if the very thought of it derails us, we have a serious problem.”
How can teachers specifically react appropriately to the intense culture of competition within schools? Does teamwork demand mediocrity? When should teachers stand their ground and what sort of battles with students, parents, colleagues, and the administration are probably not worth fighting?
Gottschalk, M. (2013). 7 Ways to deal with workplace competition. Retrieved February 15, 2017 from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20130328141522-128811924-let-s-talk-about-workplace-competition
Mali, T. (2005, November). Taylor Mali: What teachers make. [Video File} Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/taylor_mali_what_teachers_make
Rand, A. (2016). Atlas shrugged. New York: New American Library.
Saunders, E. G. (2013). The 3 secrets to effective time investment: achieve more success with less stress. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.