Let’s Be Real: What Teachers Need

I’ve heard it again and again from faculty. Different words, sure. Different tones, different rifts on the same melody. But the gist is the same: “Julie, I know you mean well, but I don’t have time to read those emails you send out.” “This year is somehow much more stressful than last year.” “Anytime you send out an article or idea in relation to teaching/learning it feels like you are shouting that I am not doing enough.” “Why is it the teacher is always the one that has to make adjustments? What about the students’ sense of responsibility?!”

I’m always grateful for crumbs of truth from folks I trust and respect, even if the very utterance means that much of what I spend my time doing in my daily job may, in actuality, be perceived as a distinct waste of time.

It turns out that these sentiments are not exclusively a St. Andrew’s phenomenon. Last week I ran across the latest Cult of Pedagogy piece in which Jennifer Gonzalez writes poignantly about how teachers are doing this 2021-22 school year in “Teachers are barely hanging on: Here’s what they need.” She put a question out to teachers on Twitter to get a sense of what was going on:

Gonzalez analyzed the hundreds of responses and boiled it all down to three themes: time, trust, and safety. And she doesn’t just talk about them in the abstract; she offers school leaders concrete strategies for how how to do better. I have taken every single recommendation to heart: from this blog I shared, but also from the many conversations I’ve had with all of our faculty. You may also be glad to know I’ve shared this with my senior leadership colleagues. This is a historical-social moment in which all of us who labor are thinking differently about the work we do, the way we are compensated, and the sustainability of our efforts. For this, I am grateful.

Lest you think administrators are exempt, I too have fallen prey to a sense of overwhelming frenzy. I feel it in the air. It seeps into my everyday. Sometimes, most of the time, my calendar reflects my feeling. Other times I wonder how days fly by with very little to account for them. I think sadly to myself: “I used to be productive. I used to have a zero inbox. I used to be able to hold it in my head all at once.” I wonder if it is middle age, or now working at both campuses, or covid fatigue, or all of the above. I’ve heard our students feel this way often as well. From our vantage point, they aren’t doing the reading, aren’t trying their best, have lost their pre-covid commitment to rigor. Yet many of our youth cite feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and stuck.

And yet, I also firmly believe that our very imperfect community is a good one to teach and learn within. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’ve never worked with smarter and more sincerely kind humans: at the faculty, administrative, and student level. I’ve never been at a school that exudes such warmth: in classrooms, courtyards, faculty meetings. This is not a paragraph of toxic positivity. This is not my attempt at gaslighting. This is simply my truth.

My two cents: I do not think the answer is always reducing, reducing, reducing. When I am doing the work I love, even when it is difficult and time consuming work, I am reignited. What rejuvenates you? I think the answer is different for each of us. This is why I strongly believe in professional opportunities that are not one-size fits all. For some, a school visit will remind you of why you love what you do. For others, conferences or blogs or podcasts are more your style. For still others, an informal conversation with colleagues about what is going on in your classrooms fits the bill. Others enjoy deep thinking alone with texts to reimagine the possibilities in their classrooms.

What is draining you? What is enlivening you? Can the answers to these two questions help inform our everyday small realities and our larger institutional commitments? How can we make room for more of the rejuvenating stuff and less of the other? I honestly don’t know, but I am eager to, alongside all of you, imagine my way into a better 2022, 2023, 2024 . . . work that feels sustainable and challenging but also deeply rewarding.

I want to end with an apology, one that Jennifer puts in her blog in a more compelling way than I ever could:

“A few weeks ago, I had an eye-opening conversation with my sister, who has been a high school science teacher for the better part of two decades. I’m paraphrasing her here, but basically she said this: You put out really good stuff, Jenn. I mean, the ideas are great. It’s stuff I really want to try. But most of the time I’m thinking “That’ll never happen.” Because there’s no time. So I end up feeling like a crap teacher because there’s this ideal out there that I’m clearly falling short of and I know I’ll never get there. You just don’t understand what it’s like. For the past eight years, I have been putting out content on my platform to help teachers do their jobs better. And I really hope that it has been helpful, that you’ve been able to use it to improve. But I am deeply sorry if I have ever implied that doing it should be a piece of cake, that you should happily ignore all the jacked-up expectations that make it nearly impossible to do this job well, or that being a good teacher means running yourself ragged for the sake of the kids.” (Gonzalez, 2021)

I’m hopeful you don’t feel the same way as Jennifer’s sister about this blog, our podcast, any of our coaching conversations, our PD days, or our faculty meetings. My feeling is we all need all the help we can get because this job is so impossible. For some of us, these initiatives and ideas spark joy, collaboration, and feel like one manifestation of community. But they are never meant to infer anything beyond that.

Be well.

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