As a teacher, it can be hard to maintain your autonomy.
The district, principals, other teachers, and parents—all may want to have a say in how you do things in your classroom. This tug-of-war between politicians, teachers, and parents can leave teachers frazzled and exhausted. This is my advice for teachers to take back some of their autonomy and love their jobs.
Teachers face disrespect; facing disrespect is tiring; disrespect causes some teachers to burnout and leave teaching. These are stories of real teachers and the disrespect they faced. Their names have been changed to protect their identities:
When I began teaching years ago, I entered the profession with dear friends, people I knew to be the most resilient, kind, and ambitious. Within six years, half of these friends had left the teaching profession burnt-out, tired, and bitter.
Research across countries shows us that teacher attrition is generally higher than in many other professions, with attrition among teachers cited as affecting 30-40% of our profession.
If you’re a frequent reader of the news, you will likely agree with me that the conversation about teaching in the last few years has been telling.
With headlines such as “Teacher Stress is Killing My Profession” (CBC), “Overwhelmed Canadian Teachers are Quitting in Droves” (The Epoch Times), and “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time to Address the National Teacher Shortage” (NPR) circulating the press, we know these are troubled times in teaching.
When I was a little kid, I loved to read. And then I went to school.
When I was in middle and high school, unless it was required for class, I rarely picked up a book. I was just staying afloat with my teacher’s reading list. I didn’t particularly care for To Kill a Mockingbird or Ender’s Game, but damn it, I had to read them. I needed to read 30 minutes each day! I had a project due on these books at the end of the month! If I didn’t do well on this book project, I might never get to university! I’d die on the streets, penniless, an unrecognized poet, wearing a ratty beret, smelling heavily of cheap merlot…
Nobody wants to become THAT teacher. The teacher that has given up on teaching, treating his or her classroom as a holding cell from 8 AM to 3PM, and a place for hungry and haggard inmates—teachers and students—to escape from at the first ring of the end-of-day bell.
Nobody wants to become THAT teacher. The teacher that photocopies his PowerPoints and throws these packages at students with the instructions: “Silent reading, then summarize.”
As a kid, I went to Poland every summer to visit my family. My cousins and I would drink plum compote on my grandma’s porch, throw corn nibs at chickens, harvest potatoes in the field and then fry them into the best French fries we’ve ever tasted, jump into the local ice-cold creek and play harmonicas.
Interspersed between these country pleasures and mischief was talk of school. Our parents—although or perhaps because they had been born in a small village in poverty—valued education more than anything. And so, it was natural that my cousins and I would talk of what we were reading in school. These conversations went something like this:
Penny Kittle, a world-renowned teacher and literacy expert, once put into words what I think most English teachers are thinking, but not saying:
“Do the math. I just don’t have the time.”
Sometimes former students come visit me in my classroom. These visits are always welcome, but in one case, somewhat unwelcome. One of the students who has came to visit had once –mid-semester—asked to be transferred out of my class.
The Pain of Blame
The student who had asked to be transferred out of my class did so while we were going over the basics of grammar—sentence structure, capitalization, and comma usage, and for him, grammar was hard. His marks were falling. He had never gotten below an “A” in English. I was too hard, too demanding, and the classes weren’t as much fun. So, he decided, it was time to drop my class.
Bent on protecting their son from failure, disappointment, and boredom, his parents set up meetings with my principal. Behind closed doors, the parents and the principal debated the issue of moving classes, until the student was told to stay. So, he remained seated, upset and resentful, in my classroom.
The whole thing was awful.
When I was in grade nine, I adored Mrs. Cohen. Something about the way she moved, with purpose, and how she dressed, with flair, made me want to be her. Although she was not a beauty, her pressed blouses, her beautiful jewelry, and her matching lipstick all oozed elegance. And in this respect Mrs. Cohen stood out. Of all the teachers I had as a student, she was the only one who dressed really beautifully. She was the only one to enter the classroom and announce, through the clothes she wore, “Pay attention! I am here! This is important!”
The pride Mrs. Cohen took in her appearance communicated to me that she cared about her job. Whether or not she took pride in being a teacher is uncertain, but it certainly made that impression on me. Even as a student, I intuitively knew that the way one dresses expresses not only how one feels about oneself, but also how one feels about one’s work.