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.
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:
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.
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.
Johnny comes home from school and complains his teacher plays favourites because his teacher praises only a few students and bashes the rest. Johnny hates when his teacher talks about him behind his back to other teachers and even students.
Maria complains to her parents over dinner that her teacher never has time for her and never answers questions.
Jason hates that his teacher is lazy—he sits and sips Starbucks and lectures behind his desk— while expecting only the best work from his students. “It’s hyporcritical!” Jason cries to his parents. Another teacher takes days to reply to Jason’s emails and takes weeks to mark his work, yet expects Jason’s homework to be handed in on time. “It’s just not right!” moans Jason.
Walmart’s back-to-school pencil ads and our janitor waxing our classroom floors can only signal one thing: the start of another school year. Along with the right-of-passage teacher nightmares of missing photocopies and the classroom troublemaker, leaving us sweaty and vigilant in our beds, the new year that rises to meet us teachers offers a handshake—a truce, an agreement to do this year right.
Will you do this year right?
Looming large in most teachers’ minds is classroom management. Last year, the spit balls were too wet, the gum under desks too sticky, and the noise level in their classrooms too loud.
Ragged and resentful, these teachers decide: something must be done.