There are so many education trends that I can get behind: interdisciplinary learning and projects, culturally responsive teaching, and the promotion of teaching living poets and disrupting texts in an effort to expand the canon. I just love so much of what’s happening in education today and most of it is founded in grassroots teacher movements. One trend that has crept into education, however, that not only put teachers in the fastlane to burnout but is also damaging to the profession as a whole. This is the glorification and even celebration of the teacher-martyr.
I worry about this trend because we are promoting living life with no balance and pushing teachers to physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. The daily demands of the classroom coupled with the amount of work that can in no way be completed during planning periods forces teachers to take work. And while most teachers sign on realizing there’s no such thing as a 40-hour work week any more, most did not sign up to work most nights and all weekends. Teachers must get better at drawing boundries in order for us to not only survive our time in the classtime but also enjoy our time in the classroom. We also owe it to future teachers who will follow in our footsteps to model appropriate boundries. When I was department chair at my former school, I would tell my department, “When we’re here, give it your all. Figure out how to maximize your time at school instead of walking the halls hanging out in the workroom talking for extended periods of time to friends (this was mostly me talking to myself). Then when you go home, leave your work here – literally and figuratively. Exercise. Fix a healthy dinner. Take your kid to sports practice. Enjoy your life.” Most of us managed to consistently do that, but it is a struggle.
Physically leaving work at school is sometimes easier than mentally leaving the job. There are two specific ways we bring work home with us mentally even if we’re leaving our physical work at school. First, the emotional concern teachers have for students is difficult to cut off when the dismissal bell rings, and while this often keeps us from being fully present outside of school, I don’t worry as much about bringing this home with us. As a matter of fact, these are the teachers who I respect because they are there for more than the paycheck; they care about the students they teach. Teachers are human: we simply can’t turn our emotions off.
The second way we bring our work home with us is by feeling guilty. Teacher guilt frequently stems from work we have left undone, failure to live up to expectations which are often self-imposed, and taking time for ourselves. Teacher guilt also stems from what is valued in society, and society today values those who go above and beyond at all costs. I remember reading The Freedom Writers then watching the movie. The work that Erin Gruwell did with her students is inspiring (note: she was in the classroom four years) but in the movie her choice choose students over her marriage left me sad. Same song, different verse in Mr. Holland’s Opus (see what I did there?) Is this what makes a good teacher? Prioritizing our job above everything else – even our family? Above our rest? Above our sanity?
#StopTeacherGuilt is a concerted effort to give teachers permission to feel good about taking time for themselves. I hope that using this hashtag will encourage teachers who work hard but have a life outside of school without guilt. I also hope the hashtag will help teachers make healthy decisions. I am not proposing that teachers not work overtime; that is simply unrealistic. I also hope this blog will be a space for teachers to share stories about loving work while also living life. I am not proposing that teachers don’t work on break because this often eases the load during the school year. I am proposing that teachers make intentional decisions to support physical, emotional, and mental health which lead to long and fulfilling teaching careers. I would love to see the teacher-martyr trend reversed and society celebrate physically and emotionally healthy teachers who work with intentionality, attentiveness, and passion during school but also celebrate teachers who unapologetically take time for themselves to rest, enjoy family and friends, and step away from work without feeling guilty.
What is one specitic step you can commit to this month to work less, live more, and #StopTeacherGuilt?
Love this. And it is so important to note that Gruwell only spent four years in the classroom. Teaching that takes up all of your nights and all of your weekends is not sustainable…and the profession needs teachers who can last. I was just barely hitting my stride as a teacher at year four…in year seventeen I’m so much better at my job. I think the single most important thing that allows a (competent) teacher to teach for 20+ years is the ability to achieve work life balance. Balance in time spent on school, balance in emotional reactions to setbacks and frustrations, and balance in relationships with students and colleagues. It’s easy to pour your whole self into work (and those first few years you do feel like you have to just to keep up), but it’s never worth risking your relationships, your marriage, your health, your mental well-being. If we continue to make martyr-teaching the norm, we will continue to have the high turnover rates and high numbers of teachers leaving the profession before they’ve hit their stride, and that is problematic on both a personal level and a systemic level.