“Our school system would not be sustained without the unpaid labor of teachers and other educators.”
- Selena Carrion @SelenaCarrion
“Our society too often fails to recognize that education is fundamentally a human endeavor.”
“I believe in being a teacher. I’m a teacher by heart. I shouldn’t have to walk away from my career to deserve a right to live or deserve to take care of my family the right way. It’s just hurtful. It’s very, very, very, very hurtful.”
- Tomorrah Howard, Teacher
“I left teaching to save my life.”
We’ve all had the thought: I wonder what it’s like to be a teacher. Or, If this career doesn’t pan out, I guess I could always be a teacher. With gentleness and respect: whatever you *think* it is like to be a teacher — from your most noble imaginings to your most harrowing fears — whatever you’re picturing, it’s not that.
Being a teacher is many things, many beautiful, transformative, powerful things–and it truly is all of that–but most often, among the many acts of love and instruction, these days it seems to be an act of sheer will power, an act of defiance.
“I defy you stars!” I think to myself as I lumber down Highway 100 in my used minivan. Well, I don’t actually think that, but “it would be pretty to think so.” (Two points if you can name the authors and the texts to which I just alluded.) Before I even get in the car, I begin the day by taking a deep, cleansing breath, then suiting up for battle. (Metaphor.) I grip the steering wheel, turn down MPR, listen to the crunch (onomatopoeia) of the tires across the snow (sibilance) and promise myself, “Today, you will not shame teenagers for taking selfies. Today, you will not read think pieces from teachers who left the field. Today, you will not work beyond your contractual hours. Today, you will find joy in the career you chose.” (Aside.) And I do, I do, I do. (Repetition.) I find teenagers who want to get hugs because they missed you; who want to tell you about their break-up, their weekend, their cousin who was in a car accident and is now in the hospital; who want to show you the book they found at Half-Price Books; who want to recite the spoken word poem they’re performing at church this weekend. (Parallel Structure.) But I also find defeat, disappointment, dishonor, and disillusionment. (Alliteration.)
What brings these feelings to my door? The same harbingers likely bringing sadness, fear, and pessimism to yours. (Anaphora — OK, I’ll stop.) But to put it bluntly: life can be brutal. And for some, the brutality is relentless. We live in a deeply unequal world, just take a leisurely drive from South Sheridan to North Sheridan and watch the houses morph from single lot McMansions with Teslas parked out front into dilapidated ramblers with cars that I can only refer to as: regular cars. Or take a gander at our health outcomes, our racial wealth gap; our disaggregated data–our test scores. I don’t need to tell you, this kind of side-by-side inequality is not a mark of health, and it does no one good (not even the rich) to live like this.
Tell me why you’re here today…
With every year that passes, I notice my students seem to need more. More what? Principally — more love. What else? More practice with the conventions of writing; more scaffolded lessons when confronting complex visual messaging; more time to process after shelter-in-place drills (by which I really mean, fewer drills); more opportunities to process the images that they endlessly swipe; more opportunities revising and responding to feedback; more outdoors/fresh air/movement/non-screen time; more explicit instruction in how to use coordinating conjunctions; more opportunities to notice and name the feelings they’re having — including the ones I perceive (sadness, boredom, fear); More joy, more peace. More sleep.
But every year, we seem to have less. Less time to function effectively, to dream richly, to envision our futures fully. In our public schools, we operate in this disturbing landscape of more/less. More pain, fewer resources. More trauma, fewer counselors and nurses. More media in students’ hands and view, but no Media Specialist to help them make sense of it. This world of ‘more’ co-existing with ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ — depending on the determiner — causes stress. Habitual, chronic stress. Stress for which a reprieve is ever out of reach.
Did I mention I’m an English teacher? I am. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy talking about my subject–and its many iterations. I’m the kind of person who enjoys a good talk about the multiple senses of the word “subject.” The truth is, I wish I could devote more time to teaching semantics, lexical and conceptual — students love heady ideas. I wish we could find a way to incorporate more academic learning into the school day. But that is not the present landscape of our schools. Not in urban districts, and not in rural. Whatever school was like for you, and maybe it was complicated, things are decidedly complex today.
“There’s a greater need in mental health behavior needs, especially at the younger ages. There’s more of a need today than there has been in the past, and we have seen that throughout all of our grades. Mental health and behavior supports are an ever-increasing need of our students.” — Forest Lake Area Schools Superintendent, Steve Massey.
If you went to school in the 80s, 90s or even the 00s–do you remember teachers talking about mental health? (I don’t.) Today, I don’t think an hour goes by where I or a colleague or a student or a parent/caregiver doesn’t utter these two words. While mental health is an enormous part of my world (personally and academically), I worry that I’m not perhaps the right one to administer these services. Don’t get me wrong, I try. Listening and asking how they’re doing is my main strategy. I also stay up late, co-creating lesson plans with colleagues to ensure we are not perpetuating “white supremacy wrapped in a hug” and write passes all day for students to talk to the counselors or let them “just sit in the back and listen to music until I’m chill.” Indeed, the kids are struggling, as are their teachers. As are their parents. But with school counselors taking on caseloads of three to four times the suggested ratio, and with teachers and parents maxed: Who is going to save the day?
(As this is already getting long, I’ll say that for further info, if you want insight into the current landscape, search the following terms: unfunded mandate and special education cross-subsidy, systemic racism, gun violence, corporate tax rate, student loan debt, digital tech, and mental health.)
“A day, like any other day.”
Today, in my room, we spent a lot of time just getting settled–putting our bodies into ancient desks; passing around copies of Persepolis, the pages barely clinging to their binding; closing off conversations; stowing phones (LOL). Class sizes are big. Class rooms are small. Materials like books, pencils, and notebooks are hard to come by — they cannot be purchased by the student or the school so we use class sets. I provide some by trolling the clearance end cabs at TARGET, either during the thirty minutes between school’s end and my own children’s school bell, or after the kids have gone to sleep (late night TARGET runs are almost spiritual). It’s more difficult to go right after school, as I usually use that time to sweep my room and wipe the desks (not enough custodial staff).
Each year we have about 180 days — and multiple (fairly arbitrary) state standards to hit. So here I am: looking at a room of thirty-three seventeen-year-olds with mesmerizing devices, COVID-fatigue, trauma, sarcasm, desire, anger, and hope.
Do we rhapsodize about personification in Keats? Baldwin’s narrative I? Kennings in Anglo Saxon epic poetry and the sensory imagery of Sandra Cisneros? Do we position ourselves in structured discussion circles where we practice the ancient art of disagreement? Do we record podcasts about -isms on semi-functioning devices that connect and disconnect from the tenuous WIFI? Yes, all of that. But that’s a fraction of our day.
Today I spent my prep period talking to a student about a fight her parents had the night before, how it made her feel, in her words, “kind of sick.” Today I gave a student I’ve never met a high-five. Today I let a student sit in my room because her younger sibling’s school went into lockdown and this triggered her own experience with gun violence. “In reality, teachers are forced to operate in systems that aren’t functioning properly” (Steiber, 2022). Today I met with five teachers during lunch; we discussed individual students whom we’re worried about and strategized (sic) what we might do to help, or simply understand. Today I sat with a high school student who still sounds out words and encouraged him along as we read a graphic novel. Today I responded to a parent who wanted to know why I didn’t give her daughter more time on a quiz (she’s right; it’s in her daughter’s PLP). Today I spoke with an assistant principal about why I let ‘that’ student stay in my room when she should have been at study hall. Today I talked about the pressure to conform with a group of freshmen who deeply want to blend in and spread their own unique wings, simultaneously. Today I sat with a girl in the hall who explained how her mom (her absent biological mother’s best friend) is marrying a woman with four kids, and how the house is going to get a whole lot busier. Today I helped a student with her essay to an HBCU (a student who when she was a ninth-grader screamed at me for ten minutes in the hall; fellow teachers popped out of their rooms to ask if I wanted Admin to come get her–I said “no.”) Today I lectured on rhetorical distance and visual distance — the techniques of graphic novelists like Gene Yang — and asked students to draw their own “zoom out.” Today I asked a student where he’d been, and he pointed to his AirPods, then walked away. Today a student emailed me in an overly direct fashion and I responded cordially. Today I held lunch in my classroom so the students who don’t want to sit in the lunchroom have a space to breathe. Today I was given a PRIDE flag from a student who wears their pronouns on a button–they printed the flag using a 3D printer. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. (bell hooks). Today I noticed my take-home is now less than it was pre-raise, due to health care premium increases (I’m on the high deductible plan). Today I received an email from my older child’s teacher with a compliment about how my daughter is working so hard, but still needs to finish her “Ten Facts.” Today I brought a student who thought she might be pregnant to the nurse, and linked arms with her down the hall. A teacher’s ability to empathize with students’ life experiences has been found to shape their approach and response to problem behaviors (Wink, LaRusso & Smith, 2021). Today I got a message from my younger child’s teacher about how my son was upset at the end of the day and she (his teacher) wanted to “just give him a big hug.” (I replied with our gratitude. Teachers are best when they get to be human. In a meta-analysis of these relationships, teacher empathy actually emerged as the strongest predictor of academic, affective, and behavioral outcomes for students (Cornelius-White, 2007)). Today I asked my husband if he could meet my dad at his chemo appointment, to retrieve something I left at my parents’ house. Today I learned from a student who is learning English how she grew up in a nomadic community in Somaliland. Today I filled out a lesson plan template. Today I replaced the soap in our very dirty employee bathroom with soap I bought on clearance at–yes–TARGET. Today I told a student whose girlfriend broke up with her that it’s going to be OK. Today I scheduled one of my three annual observations by the district. Today I gave a student one of the books from my personal shelf and felt a twinge of longing to keep the book before remembering the words of my high school speech teacher (“Abbi, if you see anything on there you want, take it.”) Today I watched a student walk into the room and announce “Fuck y’all… Oh, sorry, Ms. Dion, I didn’t know you were here.” Today I watered my plants with the drinking fountain water that absolutely no one will drink. Today I heard a student whisper under her breath that she hates me. Today I got an email from an instructional coordinator asking why I haven’t administered the FAST test yet. Today I talked to a kid who calls me “mom.” Today I asked my class to take a deep breath and please, please, please put away their phones. Today I sent a student to the counselor after she told me her friend attempted suicide the night of the Superbowl. Today I gave my muffin to a student named David and he thanked me over and over. Today I received an email from the Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools that said our teachers are asking for too much, are jeopardizing the futures of our students, are denying students their right to an education.
Educators are not the villains. Educators are doing not just everything they can — they are doing more than they can. And they are doing it with a constant, relentless series of voices telling them how they are doing it wrong, how they should just teach ‘this’ curriculum or ‘that’ SES lesson. It is important, however, to be weary of “quick-fix” behavioral science concepts such as the promise of “grit” or “power posing” to overcome entrenched inequalities in schools (Singal, 2021). The system has been broken and educators have been propping it up. But they are not made of steel. Just like students, teachers are people. We forget that, I think. Especially if we are on the other side of the school building. We love teachers with cards and hashtags and well-intentioned (but, and I’m sorry, hollow) phrases like “You should be paid better” but effective and real allyship requires valuing someone else’s struggle as if it were your own, even if you have not experienced it yourself (El Mallah & Pfister, 2022). We know what we want from our teachers: to be seen. How many of us have given thought to the conditions of our teachers’ lives?
I remember watching It’s a Wonderful Life and privately cheering or at least sympathizing with George as he wrestles the phone from Mary’s hand so he can give his daughter’s teacher a piece of his mind. What teacher? THE TEACHER WHO HAS CALLED HIS HOUSE TO SEE HOW HIS CHILD IS DOING AFTER SHE FELT ILL AT SCHOOL THAT DAY. George lets the teacher know just how to blame she is for his daughter’s cold, calling her names, laying into her competence. (Yeah, we are meant to cheer. Foolish teachers.) Several scenes later, when George has stopped into the watering hole, he runs into the teacher’s husband who apprises George that his remonstrations drove his wife to a fit of sobbing. The two men tussle, the teacher’s husband is bounced and told never to return. (Correct, again–what right does he have to stand up for his partner?) I’m ashamed to say, it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I noticed that a scene–which, yes, is meant to also show George’s instability and unhappiness with the way life has turned out–picks a convenient strawman: the public school teacher (and her family). We really have a problem, societally, understanding who teachers are — we fail to see them, again, and again, and again. The profession, while populated by people with graduate degrees (plural) and hundreds of hours of post-graduate study, never mind years of experience, and responsibility that eclipses some of our worst nightmares — we’ve decided this profession should be compensated at a low wage (plus low social status — two for one!); thus, drawing a dwindling pool to a profession that hemorrhages half of that pool within the first five years.
What about the children? Exactly.
“We all knew it was happening, but it felt too big to take down, too big to rescue. This pitiful existence of the education system has become normalized to the point that many teachers are broken, fighting to just survive, and working to protect children from the very system that is intended to uplift them. This situation is what we have been given, but that does not mean it is what we have to take” (Love, 2020).
If teachers speak on their experiences, their pain, their fatigue, their mental anguish (yes), their insomnia, their lack of time with their families, their pillorying from a culture that wouldn’t deign to do the work they’re more than happy to reform — if teachers raise their voice, they are put back in their place. Quick. With every logical fallacy in the book: bothsidesism (do both sides have equal agency, are they balanced in terms of claims made, work done, representation at the table), false dichotomy (e.g., if teachers strike, they don’t care about kids; if you don’t vote for Bernie Sanders, you don’t want people to have health insurance; if you live in SW Minneapolis, you’re a white supremacist; if you live in a big old house, you don’t care about climate change, poor people, or the dignity of humility) ad hominem attacks (I know this teacher, this woman, this writer, and they are problematic) and appeal to emotion (e.g., think of the children our society has treated as disposable — how could you sacrifice them?) Do we tell nurses that go on strike that they are harming children (I marched with Allina nurses in support of fair pay, hours, benefits, and duties–with one baby strapped around me, and another in my arm — and I’d do it again.)
Teachers have their own needs, children, bills, therapy appointments, trauma, secondary trauma, mortgages and rent. They have the right to say: I love my job, and I’ll lie down in traffic for my students, but I cannot keep doing it like this. I can’t, either. I support you refusing to be silent about the material and psychic conditions of our public schools. This is possibly a make or break moment for this experiment we call public education. Let’s see if we can do better. Schools exist in a web of systems, many of which are abusive, trauma-filled, sexist, racist, ableist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, as well as, economically divided — so deeply divided, in fact, that we are the most unequal economically of all the G7 nations. Is it possible for our schools to be untouched by this inequality? Of course not. But if we are to dismantle these systems, or try to educate students who are living within them — about them — we need to fund our schools. And we need to pay the people doing this work. They may seem like ministering angels, fluttering to wipe tears and snap buttons (and, yes, this part of it). But teachers are also highly educated, trained, credentialed professionals.
Perhaps if we funded our schools and educators something truly revolutionary might happen. Perhaps we might truly create the conditions in which we want to live.
“We want schools to solve the sins of our nation.” — Bettina Love
We ask a lot of schools, and that’s perhaps wise — where else do all children converge? What better place to meet them? Schools are where we teach children math facts, musical scales, the rules of hockey, the color wheel, and how to write and read (or not). Schools are also places where kids learn to be social, to work in groups, to honor differences or at least tolerate them. Schools are places where children are fed, where children are seen by the nurse, and where they can participate in activities before or after the official school day.
In school we meet children with significant needs. And we are asked to reach them, meet them, teach them — sometimes fix them. We teach students who don’t speak the native language, who may be nonverbal, who are suicidal, who have been through the kind of trauma that would fell most of us. We are asked to teach them while completing paperwork, attending meetings, responding to emails and texts and phone calls about them. But we don’t do this for ONE student or two or three, as many homeschooling parents do; we do this for anywhere between 25 very young, very needy kids up to 160 (sometimes 200 or more) tweens or teenage students. Or we try to. Often we fail. And parents are, justifiably, disappointed, hurt, enraged. (They aren’t wrong.)
We do what we can, during paid hours, and many unapaid hours. And when it’s all done, some of us go to our other jobs — then stay up until 1 AM doing the grading, planning, form filling, emailing, commenting, and ‘other duties as assigned.’
“The issue isn’t just whether or not teachers will actually quit their job, but rather that we have normalized the state of moral injury that many will continue teach under.” (Carrion, 2022)
Why are we doing this? Honestly, it’s because we believe(d) it would get better. The economy would pick up. The public would come to understand. Some kind of magical Department of Education initiative would sweep through Congress and class sizes would fall to a manageable rate, along with insurance premiums (to say nothing of deductibles or co-pays). But this was not to be.
Who does this system work for? Not educators. And not students.
How do schools make it? They aren’t making it.
We need a shift. A tidal shift.
Am I blaming administrators? Not at all. Many of them are superstars who deserve so much more. The district? Not exactly. Though I’d love to see them spend zero more dollars on another training, educational software, consultants, and/or extraneous positions that don’t benefit students or teachers. The Superintendent? Not even (though I think he is blowing it by blaming teachers — teachers are not saints, but they are not greedy, and they are not lacking in compassion or love for students).
I am blaming a system that structures its tax laws such that we, as a nation and a state, can’t afford to adequately never mind fully fund schools.
Being a teacher, an educator is a dream come true for most of us — but we can’t do it like this. This strike is a last gasp. If this job was easy or lucrative or worth it in spite of the poor pay, we’d have a teacher surplus. But we don’t.
I, Me, Mine
As a teacher in Minnesota, and as a person who once worked in a different career, I’ve written about what it’s like to be an educator in Minnesota for this site.
I am a parent of two children at Lake Harriet Community School. I’m also a Site Council member for LHCS and the chair of the Academics subcommittee at LHCS. Finally, I’m a teacher at Armstrong High School in the Robbinsdale School District. (I’ve also done curriculum writing for the online school/virtual academy, which I enjoyed but did 100% for the money.) All of that said, I’m speaking for no one but myself. (Aside: There are different schools of thought on when the writer should use the pronoun ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’ or ‘I’ or — ugh! Sorry. Back to wrapping this up.)
When I heard about the impending strike, my first thought was: yes. Not as in, “Yes!” or “This is awesome!” But, yes, as in “Of course.” The fact is, our schools are not able to properly or equitably serve students. We have not been able to do this for years. Our teachers and ESPs are not able to make it on their salaries and are forced to take part-time jobs in order to make their primary vocation work. Read that again: Teachers and ESP’s work second jobs in order to supplement and continue working their primary job. I know teachers who bag groceries, sweep yoga studios, deliver food, and work the early morning shift at UPS.
Do parents want their children’s teachers to come to school after a full shift at their other job? Do they think this is good for their child, to have an exhausted, poor, increasingly resentful and worn down shell of a human? (Trust me, we turn it up for conferences. Our normal selves are bedraggled, sleep-deprived, and often short-tempered. As many of us know, this latter self shows up in the classroom, as well.)
Teachers cannot fix what is broken across society. And we cannot be asked to do so at the level of instruction — a failing proposition — then punished when we fail to fix those many failures of our society — failures many of us truly and sincerely try to redress, despite little support from the other major sectors of society.
That said, if society wants schools to do this work — then, please, fund us commensurately. Or let one of the hallmarks of a democratic society — an equitable, functioning, funded public school system — let it go.
Abbi Mireille Dion
February 15, 2022
* Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio is 723-to-1. The recommended ratio is no more than 250 students per counselor (CASCW 2016).
Right now the educators may be in one of the greatest exoduses in history. Educators are and will continue to leave in record numbers. Teachers will either leave silently or will leave fighting. We will be thanked for our service and left to rebuild our professional lives.
Some think tanks will try to replace us with some fast tracked program like Teach For America, only to watch them leave in faster time than educators who’ve been called to this profession, who are committed to honing our craft and improving year after year.
We want policy that actually shows that our students matter. But here’s the thing: We want to be a part of all of this work. We have the expertise, the experience, the degrees, the certifications upon certifications. We know how schools work. This is how we can attract teachers and re-energize the experts that we do have.
America’s educators aren’t burned out. We are demoralized.
Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962–976.
Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.
Kim, J. (2021). The quality of social relationships in schools and adult health: Differential effects of student–student versus student–teacher relationships. School Psychology, 36(1), 6–16.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.
Singal, J. (2021). The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. Picador.
Wink, M. N., LaRusso, M. D., & Smith, R. L. (2021). Teacher empathy and students with problem behaviors: Examining teachers’ perceptions, responses, relationships, and burnout. Psychology in the Schools.