For a class I am taking, I had to write an essay describing how I fit into my school – my role. I had to consider the school community, and determine my place in it. I described the people who work here – mostly older women who have been teaching for over 10 years. I talked about the bitterness and cattiness that dominate the relationships that people have in school. I described the divide between the older and younger teachers, and the resentment that people feel towards one another’s achievements.
Then I thought about why.
Teaching is unique in many ways. It is harder than almost anything I can imagine. It is physically and emotionally draining nearly every single day. This is not my first job. I have worked as a waitress which is physically draining, in retail, for a Congresswoman, and on National recruitment campaigns for a nonprofit. All of these are uniquely challenging, but there is nothing that I have encountered or heard about that is so completely draining as teaching. This job has sapped my social life dry, leaving me no energy to go out after work, and often making a simple phone call or conversation feel overwhelming.
Last year, my first year, was hard because I didn’t know what I was doing and every day was a surprise. I focused all of my energy on staying alive, not letting any kids die on my watch, and maybe forcing some knowledge into them in my spare time. I was a security guard and a babysitter who was struggling to learn what the word ‘teacher’ even meant. This year I almost never yell. My class doesn’t get out of control. I start a lesson and finish it, and every student hands in the completed work when the period is over. But it is no less draining.
Last year I taught 6 classes. They ranged from 603 to 701. 603 was lovely, and 701 was the devil incarnate. But I would get as angry in 603 as I would in 701. In 701 I would get upset and angry when I realized that no one was listening or doing their work, and that they had no interest in doing it, in listening to me, or in even acknowledging my presence. I would get angry when there were fights, when my classroom was trashed, when they threw things.
In 603 I got mad if one girl passed a note to another girl. These offenses are not equal. Logic would say that I would let the note passing slide in the silent and attentive 603. But I didn’t. My expectations adjusted depending on the class. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism – I couldn’t let the little things get to me in 701 or I would have jumped out the window every day. But in 603, those little things made me deeply disappointed.
This year, things are incomparable to last year. I am a million times better at my job, my kids are learning and working hard and showing me respect. And yet I am still emotionally drained. Now an eye roll will cut me to my core. A student who I expect to get 100% getting a 40% will make me feel like a huge failure. Kids not reading when they are supposed to makes me upset and frustrated, and whispering with a friend while I’m teaching feels like a lot of disrespect.
No matter how good you are at your job – no matter how much easier it gets, you are still spending every day pouring yourself into big groups of kids. And they aren’t empty vessels or even open bottles. They have their lids on tight and million scary things inside of them. Sometimes just the process of emptying them so that there is room for me to put English and math and social studies inside is so daunting and so exhausting that it’s hard to get to the next step. And they are people, who your emotions get wrapped up in, whose success or failure feels personal to you. Their bad decisions feel like a slap in the face, and their mistakes are inevitable and innumerable.
Teachers burn out. Despite summers. Despite spring break. Despite winter break. Despite being able to retire after 25 years. People hit a wall and they can’t keep going. I hear about it and I see it and it seemed strange at first but I am beginning to understand. Teaching is hard.
Which brings me back to the school community. If I teach for 20 more years, I will still be a teacher. I will be making more money, but my title will not change. My responsibilities will not change – at least not drastically. There is no ladder to climb, there is no corporate hierarchy. You only have superiority if you act superior. And after putting many years in, you certainly feel like you deserve some credit.
A teacher who has been here for 10 years is my equal. And yet they are 10 years better than me, 10 years more effective, 10 years more exhausted and more worn out. And so they create lines. The profession doesn’t have any formal separations, and so they create one. And it means that there is a school community that feels strained and stressed and filled with secret rules. But it’s a survival mechanism – you need to feel like you’ve earned something after putting so much into it. You feel entitled to better treatment, and a little more respect.
After 15 years in the corporate world you may have an advanced title, more money, and people who report to you. In a school, you just get the reputation of being over the hill, less energetic, and more embittered and exhausted.