On Hamster Wheels & Hamster Shortages

This post was contributed by Michelle Portera.

Are you aware we are in the midst of a hamster shortage? The news media may not want you to know, but according to several area pet stores, it’s one more part of the economy experiencing supply chain issues. I know, because during the first week of school, my class made it clear that they want to have a class pet like our neighbors, Mrs. Menist’s class (ya feelin’ my side eye, Judy?) The outspoken leader of this movement is the daughter of art teacher Jane Cleek, so if you know this cutie, you know the pressure is ON. Pet stores in Madison and Jackson turned up empty, so one weekend I searched them out in Oxford. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable clerk at the pet store (who had one in stock!) informed me that hamsters do not handle change well. If I were to bring this hamster back home with me, it would likely develop a disease and not be with us very long. When a shipment arrives, a good pet store will quarantine the hamsters for several days and give them extra care to ensure they can handle the stresses of a new home. He also informed me of the hamster supply chain problem, and that as soon as stores can get the furry friends, they are usually spoken for by the customer who is next on their call list (who knew?)  I was back to square one. Back in the classroom, my own “hamster wheel” started to turn a bit faster, and my students hopped on, too. We are rolling along, sometimes at a dizzying pace, and I haven’t yet had the capacity to launch part 2 of the great hamster search. I’m giving myself until Christmas Break. My class has been patiently waiting, but they are faithful to routinely circle back. 

If we are, in fact, on the metaphoric hamster wheel, that makes us the hamsters. We are cute and some of us bite. Every day we hop on our wheel, for our own benefit and the benefit of the children we serve. Goodness knows, teaching can feel like a race against time. The wheel on which we run is exhilarating and life-affirming at best, exhausting and depleting at worst, and sometimes even monotonous. We find comfort in the structure and predictability of the wheel, but, after a while, we may find our thoughts wondering if there is more out there. Enter, the wheel alternative–the ball! If you are placed in the ball, lucky you! But watch out, the ball can quickly transport you to unexpected, fearsome places. Sometimes you’ll bump into things and have to back up and try a new direction to get the heck back to safety. Sometimes you may discover a new favorite place with an amazing view that you would not have known about otherwise. Some of us hamsters need to be alone, while others function best as part of a pair or group. One thing we can mostly agree on–we don’t enjoy change! We prefer change in small doses, and when we are asked to change, we require lots of extra time and support. If everything changes at once, you might find us huddled in the corner under our bedding. 

So what about the shortage as it relates to teachers across the country? Is it something we can chalk up to Covid and hope it gets better? Is the problem truly that education is built on a system in which, generally, teachers don’t feel well managed and taken care of? Is it more complicated than that? There are metaphorical “pet shops” managed by those who are more focused on quantity and appearance than inner well-being.  This kind of environment makes it difficult to identify the cues indicating it’s time to hop off the wheel and take a nap.  I am grateful for managers and admin with a more holistic approach who ask for and respond to feedback as it relates to overall quality and well-being. It makes a huge difference in career longevity and quality of life. No school is perfect, but as a seasoned hamster, there is no doubt this is a place I can run the wheel instead of the wheel running me. There is no final destination when you’re running around, much like there is no perfection at any point in this vocation called teaching. We hamsters have learned to thrive in the tension between what is ideal and what is.  The important part is the forward movement.

It’s likely I won’t have much time to shop for a class pet, because being a mother and a wife is an additional wheel on which I run when I’m not here at school. I hope Santa isn’t short on hamsters, because he might be my only hope! 

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