In his recent NY Times op-ed, “In Honor of Teachers,” Charles M. Blow addresses why so few people enter the teaching profession and why, of those that do, half leave within the first five years. In response to his own inquiry, he reveals the many arduous (though often ignored) demands on teachers: poor working conditions, long hours hours, less pay, lack of professional credibility. Importantly, he poses the following question which gets to the heart of the issue:
...how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide failure.
I'm sure by now you all can hear my pseudo-beatnik-agreement-snapping from wherever you are in the country (hopefully you are doing the same but with more style). This article got me thinking, however, about an under-reported difficulty of teaching not addressed here: emotional stress. I think that it is this stress, as much as the issues enumerated above, which contributes to high teacher burnout and turnover.
I present here two problems which most represent the high emotional demands on teachers:
- The Catch 22-
Teaching is a profession of love. As a teacher, your life is inherently wrapped up in the lives of your students. You acutely feel their successes, their challenges, their joys, their cares. But therein lies the problem. If you care too much-- if you agonize over a student's rough home life, if you feel their stress during high-stakes testing, if you internalize all their successes and failures -- you will burn out. On the other hand, if you didn't care in this way, why would you be in the profession?
This catch-22, I believe, is exemplified by the stereotypical urban teacher who sits in the back of the room reading the newspaper instead of teaching. We are quick to judge that person as someone who does not try, who does not care about kids, etc.-- but what if they are just emotionally exhausted? What if they are creating distance to maintain some semblance of emotional stability? I'm not arguing here that we should excuse such teaching, but that we should at least try to understand the conditions that lead to it.
- Constant Failure-
I remember being told often during Teach for America training that teaching would be the biggest challenge I'd ever face and that I needed to grow comfortable with failure. This axiom is absolutely true, but it misses something.
The truth is, it is not as simple as "Well, this didn't work today in class, let's try something new tomorrow." That is failure in a way, but it is a productive failure. It's experimentation; it's exciting.
The classroom failure that eats away at you is that which comes when you know exactly how to help your students, but are too constrained to do so. It is knowing that students learn in different ways, without possessing any tools to address multiple learning styles. It is knowing that each child needs individual attention, yet they will never receive it in a 30-person classroom. It is knowing that students need engaging and creative lessons without any time to plan for them in light of paperwork, phone calls, grading, etc. It is knowing the vital skills that students need to thrive in the world while teaching a (mandatory) narrowed curriculum that ignores them.
The sense of powerlessness in all this mess can be overwhelming. In light of this, educational reformers should re-focus their efforts on supporting teachers across the spectrum. This will go further than the incessant teacher-blame that is so popular right now.