Authored by Marty Kelly
After falling down a rabbit hole of teacher memes, I saw this post on Instagram (I’m not cool enough for TikTok or savvy enough for Snapchat and certainly not young enough for either). This particular post was a picture someone offered of Work/Life Boundaries for teachers. “I will only enter grades on Wednesday.” Okay, sure. “I will use an ‘out of office’ email notification after 5 PM.” Got it, done. “I will not do work on Friday or Saturday evenings.” Cool, cool. “I will stop working by 9 PM during the work week.” Sounds goo… wait, what? That’s a “boundary”? Good grief. How did we get here? A colleague just this morning (cheerfully) said to me he “only” has around 6 hours of work to do this weekend. Um, just no.
So, I don’t know about y’all, but I’m feeling kind of, well, tired. That feels so unoriginal that I can’t believe I’m saying it. Everyone is tired. But maybe teacher tired is its own special tired? Here’s the thing though: I love our students and love my job and love this place. Like LOVE. I literally am sitting here drinking tea out of a Gail Pittman Saints mug made in 2003 (the year I graduated from here) and wearing my self-imposed uniform of a navy polo with “SA” embroidered in white that I ordered from Land’s End. (I’m also eating dry peaches and cream Quaker Oats, but that’s a different story that would get into my weird childhood tastebuds so let’s not.)
Anyway, the point is, to say I’m “all in” as a teacher and for this school is a colossal understatement. So please please please do not read this as a criticism against our school; I would do most anything for this school. Which actually may be part of my problem. Sigh. How do you create a work/life balance when the borders of your life and your job are so fuzzy that they bleed into one another? Maybe fuzzy is too negative in connotation; bleed definitely is, if accurate. Beautifully blended? Magically melded? Inextricably intertwined? After all, this place raised me and shaped me and taught me and gave me my best friends and now my career. So is my job my life? Is that bad? Is that healthy? I have no idea.
I owe this school so much for gifting me the life I have now. But I also know my students and colleagues get the best of me and my husband gets whatever is left over at the end of the day. Poor guy. And he’s a talker. Who wants to chat when we happen to be home at the same time. Because he has spent hours in a car by himself for his own job. But I have spent the hours of 7am to 4pm “on.” Performance level on. And sometimes I am tired. And here’s a brutal confession: I haven’t read a full book since school started. I look forward to going home so I can sit and stare at one screen or another and just be. Which is ridiculous. I’m an English teacher and apparently a hypocrite. And it’s not like my job is physically demanding. Plus, my students are great. My coworkers are great. My administrators are great. So why am I tired? Do I even deserve to be tired? Have I earned my tiredness? Why do I think I have to earn my tiredness?
The internet tells me teachers suffer from decision fatigue. That sounds right. Maybe it’s decisions, maybe it’s grading, maybe it’s committees, maybe it’s extracurriculars, maybe it’s a new schedule, maybe it’s adding and not subtracting, maybe it’s shouldering the emotional burdens of our students and coworkers, maybe it’s a pandemic, maybe it’s all of these or some of these. I just know I’m kind of tired. For whatever reason. But I also know I’m not alone. The narrative of teachers being tired this year is everywhere. Which is why I was loath to even say it myself; it’s so predictable, so ubiquitous. And everyone is tired of teachers saying they are tired. And I wonder: is this tiredness a self-fulfilling prophecy? Have I imbibed that message of teacher tiredness so much that now I feel permission to be tired so I am? And what’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing? Clearly I have a lot of questions about being tired. Lots of questions, fewer answers.
We certainly couldn’t be tired last year because we were even deeper in the trenches. This year, we are emerging from the trenches and perhaps over-optimistically thought everything would be beautiful and wonderful and perfect; and so much is. But we are also clumsily in the process of re-building our worlds (not to mention the pandemic isn’t exactly over…), and as I keep telling some of you, “It’s like we have forgotten how to human.” We don’t know what to do with our emotions. We are mentally maxed. We don’t have the social stamina we once did. There have been a number of times where I have said to friends, “I just need everyone to calm down,” knowing full well that, like the meme says, no one in the history of the world ever calmed down because of being told to calm down. I’m also trying to remember to just be kind. To each other. To our students. To our administrators.
Side point: there’s a toxic sentiment in schools that places teachers and administrators squarely against each other. I don’t like that. Our administrators are dealing with *stuff* too, and sometimes it’s hard to see because we don’t (or can’t) know about much of what they are handling; but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot. A whole lot. And so I’m pretty sure they are tired too. Do I complain and get frustrated? Obviously. But do I think my administrators care about me as a person? I do. Do I think that they are working as hard as we are? Yes. Do I think they get overwhelmed and frustrated and tired too? For sure.
Okay, back to me. As an English teacher, I always reach for a literary analogy, despite the fact that apparently I don’t read anymore. Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking. Maybe this particular moment in the life of teachers and schools is like when the naval officer shows up on the island at the end of Lord of the Flies. The island is burning and Ralph is being hunted, and when the boys chase Ralph onto the beach, he falls down in the sand. It’s over. But he has fallen at the feet of the naval officer. Ralph is safe; but he’s exhausted and he knows what he has been through and he has seen what humans are like and he cries for all of these things.
Or when Odysseus finally arrives home to Ithaca (asleep on the boat, by the way, because he’s exhausted!), but his work is nowhere near done even though he is home. Finally, once he has cleaned house of all the swaggering suitors and he is surrounded by his loyal serving-women, “he, overcome by a lovely longing, broke down and wept” (XXII. 527-8). Maybe for us, for teachers, last year was a battle or journey or chase or fight for our lives or whatever analogy feels right to you; and this year we are home and safe(r) but still righting our houses. So maybe it’s a time to be tired. And a time to weep. A time to weep in lovely longing for time and things and people we cannot get back. In lovely longing for a future that will forever look different. And all of that is okay. Or it’s going to be okay. We will be okay. I rest in the comfort of the cliché that “this too shall pass.” And that even heroes get tired. And even heroes weep.