Musings from a sick day
Since Tuesday, I've been feeling under the weather. It came on fast; during the school day I felt normal, and by the time I was leaving the gym an hour and a half later, I could feel my lymph nodes swelling and a tickle at the top of my throat. I trudged through the next school day, and debated late last night about requesting a sub for today, despite having a fever and continuing to feel worse. It's a common guilt for teachers, to miss even a single day for fear of getting behind. But my colleagues are thankfully amazing and convinced me to stay home. I took their advice, and stayed home to rest today.
To any fellow teachers reading this: the kids will be fine if you're gone for a day or two. Really, they will. Though the reason I do my job is for those kids, and I'm sure it's the same for you, I think we all need to step back and remind ourselves, often, that this is just our job. It's only a job.
I'm so glad it's being talked about more often these days that the expectations for teachers have gotten way too high. That's not to say that we shouldn't care about the kids we teach, or strive to be good, quality teachers - strive to be mentors, even. Frankly, I don't think you should go into teaching if you don't want to achieve those things. That said, the idea that we need to reach every student, improve every student's life and their love for English and reading and their motivation to go to school, and ask how they're doing and know them on a personal level and build a relationship with every single one of them, and give them all quality feedback all the time on every single assignment...it's bullshit. I'm sorry. It just cannot happen when you teach 130 kids. I'm lucky enough to be paid well, which is a rarity in the US. My district has ample money and resources flowing into their education systems; we can provide students with supplies and essentially any book they could ever want to read. But when that isn't the case - when you teach in areas with low pay and limited resources - it becomes even more impossible to uphold the expectations placed on teachers.
There is a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to look forward to in what I do. I love the people I work with, kids and colleagues alike. I have the cutest classroom and wonderful conversations on the daily. I don't want to complain. But man, when it comes to the endless grading of things our county makes us do (that are in no way, in my eyes, beneficial to their learning), adults in the community instigating culture wars over things that the kids aren't even phased by, hostile school board meetings, the politics that gets thrown in, the health and safety issues, the stress, the low-ball efforts from higher-ups to remind their teachers to take care of themselves, kids who are obviously jaded and unmotivated way too young...it takes a toll. I'll be honest (though I'm guilty about it), I'm burnt out.
It's hard to outweigh the negatives with positives, sometimes. What I'd rather do is work toward a plan.
I'm in this field to do good by people, to help my kids realize their potential. I think the biggest roadblock from that goal, though, is that there are so many other things that we have to teach and have to do, there is simply no time left to get to the deeper stuff. Even more discouraging, I often find that when I do try to "go there" with my kids, as in open up a little, have real discussions about the world, they don't know how to respond and participate in a conversation of that caliber. I think they want to do it, but are fearful. Perhaps embarrassed? I haven't figured out how to pull it out of them.
But I think that's ultimately what we're meant to do, as teachers: teach our subject, AND our experience. Hand down wisdom. I'm still young, and often feel that I don't have much of that yet. But I do have an appreciation for the subject I teach - classical literature, genre studies, linguistics, poetry, beautiful words, read and written. I also have an intense love for being active, being outdoors, gardening, nature in general, good food, friendship, music, exploring...and I want to connect on these things. I want to connect on what the kids want to talk about.
Therein lies another huge problem with modern education, though: our students have gotten so focused on their grades, their performance, their futures, that they cannot possibly live fully in the present. They cannot focus on anything other than getting an A, and then the mind-numbing activities they invest in to dull the extreme stress of doing so. Even their sports have being highly competitive and stressful when they used to be a form of stress-relief, so now it feels that all they turn to are their video games and TV shows. They don't know what they even want to talk about in terms of "the real world." They're numb. Not all of them, of course, but enough to the point that it is a palpable feeling in the room every school day. Why are we setting them up to be so competitive, so stressed, and so focused on a fucking letter? I have seen Honors students cry over a B+. Academics, those who are at the grade level, are so jaded that they don't even try. It's heartbreaking. And I don't know when, why, or how it got this bad.
Back to the plan, though (which I clearly need some help in rolling out). We take the focus so far away from the grades that school as we know it in 2021 doesn't even look the same. This has to start somewhere, and I believe there are tiny steps being taken to alleviate it. For one, my county is going to stop including class rank in transcripts starting with the current freshman class...but we need more than that. Higher education needs to ease the fuck out of their expectations for high school graduates. Even more so, we all need to redefine what it means to be an "average" student. Remember when C's were average? I don't. We need to stop putting all of our attention, as teachers, into the students' grades, and their point values, and their percentages, and all the numbers. Reward them for asking great questions instead. Ask them to elaborate, and to tell stories. Let them explore possibilities, new ways to work through assignments, new ways to work together. Let them work together. Let them meet each other. Let them talk. For God's sake, we have got to stop telling them to be quiet. Now more than ever, post quarantine, they need to learn how to talk in real time again.
So anyway, I stayed home sick today and thought about all of this (and yes, I still graded journals and answered emails, in case you were wondering). I thought about when I started graduate school in 2019, perhaps wearing rose-tinted glasses on what teaching would be like, to an extent - I thought about how that version of me, as a teacher, wanted to put a huge focus on environmentalism and sustainability in the classroom because I cared so much about it. I'd like to have a conversation with her to see how we could get the ball rolling with that idea again, because I know these brilliant kids care about the environment. They just need someone to guide them in how to care better. In my first year of teaching, just over a year ago, my biggest focus was on connection through virtual learning. I think my heart is still in that place, even though we're back together. How can we really, deeply connect? I know these kids want to...they just need someone to guide them in how to do it better.
Maybe in a lot of ways, they can guide me, too.
I thought a lot today about how we've been listening to the wrong people, as teachers. We get so caught up in public opinion, school board decisions, colleague comparisons, parent complaints, and all the rest, that we forget to listen to the damn kids. It's not usually going to be what they directly tell us, either. Even if we give out surveys to ask what we can do better, which I do, we have to look deeper than that. What are they not saying, but obviously yearning for? What are they yearning for without perhaps even knowing yet? I'm not suggesting we assume, I'm only suggesting that we get real with them, as much as we can.
Though the day of rest and contemplation was desperately needed, and though the burnout is very often real, I am excited to get back and see those 80-some eager faces tomorrow. It's just a job, at the end of the day, but it's such an important one. If we can make the environment better, less stressful, less tunnel-visioned toward some arbitrary end goal, I believe we'd be in a much better position to actually take care of ourselves and our students.