I went to the doctor on the first day that school was out, in an attempt to discover the cause of my recent headaches and fatigue. It was my first time in years going to the doctor, and I was happily surprised by the experience. He sat with me for forty-five minutes, asking questions about my relatively benign symptoms, and seeming genuinely interested in my responses.
I told him that I was a middle school teacher in the Bronx, and he replied “Oh, well then I’ll have to address you with extra awe and respect!” This made me smile, because it’s always nice when someone outside of education professes to understand how challenging this job is.
Just the other day a friend had said to me causally, “Oh I really need to get into teaching so that I can have my summers off.” This is the type of remark that slices me, making me feel at once a little embarrassed by my leisure time, and incredibly lonely in a conversation where the person who I am talking to so clearly misunderstands the nature of the work that I do.
I want to strike back, tell her that I should get into her field so that I can have measurable success, financial compensation for my efforts, a nice, clean working environment, problems I can solve, and no one ever cursing at me or fighting me hand and foot every step that I try to take. Or I could just say that I should get into her profession so that I don’t have to be underestimated by so many people in the world.
After a series of questions about my lifestyle and health history, and a review of blood tests, my doctor declared me an incredibly healthy 26 year old.
“Have you considered that perhaps it’s more mental fatigue than physical fatigue?” he asked me, and seeing my less that receptive expression, quickly finished with, “not to say that it isn’t real, but very real fatigue can be caused by mental exhaustion, and you have a pretty tough job.”
I nodded, acknowledging this, but not ready to give up on the idea of a pill that would bring me back to life in the afternoons, when my eyes have been rolling back into my head in exhaustion.
“How many kids do you teach?”
“I teach 30 kids three subjects in a class that is half special ed, and have general ed.” I tell him, picturing the classroom and the kids in it as I speak.
“Well that’s a lot...”
“Yea,” I say, and I am surprised to feel my voice break and my eyes well up with tears. I blink furiously - after all, this is a relative stranger I am talking to, and there’s no reason to get so mushy! “It is a lot.” Again my voice betrays me, and in frustration I commit myself to silence, smiling brightly at the doctor, and nodding to show my agreement, and my surrender. Perhaps it is mental exhaustion after all.
He advises me to see how I feel now that school is over for the summer, and refers me to an optometrist to see if my eyes are the cause of my headaches. I agree to do this, and leave the office feeling a great sense of relief.
I don’t know if it is the fact that he ruled out other causes, or just the fact that it was the first time I have ever had a doctor sit and talk to me for more than ten minutes. The more I find myself thinking about it, feeling a bit embarrassed by my emotional reaction, the more I know that my relief came from the empathy that he had.
Teaching is really really really hard. All teachers know this. It can be wonderful, it can be rewarding, it gives you your summers off. But it’s really really really hard.
I know that it’s hard for it to be appreciated by people on the outside. I myself am guilty of underestimating the amount of work that it takes, the level of emotional exhaustion that accompanies it. Every day you face new challenges, that have to approached in a new way. You success is based on a hundred factors that are out of your control, and on the compliance of people under the age of fourteen, who are fighting daily battles of their own, and whose decision making is impaired by an over abundance of hormones and peer pressures.
It’s hard to appreciate it for what it is. We’ve all had teachers, and they always had that big book filled with answers, and they were older and wiser and bigger than us. How hard could it be? Maybe it’s not as hard for everyone - some are surely better suited to the profession than I am, so perhaps it feels more natural to them.
Teaching isn’t the only job that is hard, and it may not even be the hardest. But it is one that leaves you threadbare, and depleted by June. For the next two months there won’t be hard work, and there won’t be lesson plans or presentations. But it will be another kind of work - the work of rebuilding, so that in September you have a whole self to give to your students. For teachers, summer is not just a time to relax, it’s a chance to reload.