Recently a young woman I mentor came to me, teary-eyed and frustrated. Just months into the school year, she was exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed at her new school setting. Placed in what had been labeled a failing school, she had repeatedly asked an administrator for guidance and support and was told “to put her big girl pants on.”
This experience is all too common for new teachers. It certainly wasn’t a new story to me. Many times I have been saddened by the account of a promising young educator, energetic, intelligent and driven, who finds him or herself jaded and hopeless after carrying the weight of a system for just a few months.
The experiences are all linked by similar plagues: large classes of students well below grade level, stressed administrators too busy to provide adequate support, and rigid teacher evaluation tools threatening teachers’ jobs. And every time, this once-promising educator does one of two things: either gives up, feeling helpless within this large, impersonal system, or battens down the hatches and resolves to do whatever it takes to inspire and support that one bright student who, without this teacher, would have no one else. It is this second type of teacher that concerns me the most.
Problems with the “teacher as martyr” narrative
I have long been unnerved by the dominant cultural narratives surrounding our profession: teacher as martyr; teacher as slacker, only in it for the free summers; and the comparatively rare but equally insidious anti-union narrative of teacher as fat cat, collecting benefits and wasting valuable resources. All of these narratives present dangerous interpretations of the educator experience in the United States and undermine the profession.
One of the most insidious narratives is that of the teacher as martyr. This narrative is all too common in movies, in celebrations of great teachers, and in the very hallways of our schools. We are told, time and time again, that to be a good teacher, to have an impact, you must sacrifice pay, weekends with your family, and a healthy sense of work/life balance. Implicit in this cultural narrative is the belief that effective teachers must serve not only as educators, but also as counselors, nutritionists, nurses, and the list goes on.
We celebrate these martyr teachers, hail them as exemplars and grant them awards. What we don’t readily talk about or acknowledge is the epilogue to these stories. These very same caring educators are often too exhausted to attend to their own needs, and too burnt out to sustain this heralded selfless care.
It is time to shift this narrative
By supporting teachers in developing a sustainable system of compassion for themselves and their students we can foster a stable and solid position from which to effect change. Martyr teachers exist because our system is broken. They are celebrated because through these selfless acts of care, they meaningfully impact the lives of our children, often helping them overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But this impact comes at a cost and it is never enough.
What if we could transform the system? What if we could create educational communities in which members felt cared for, safe, and stable? What if these communities could, from this secure place, challenge the status quo and find the energy and momentum to transform the system into one that benefits and positively impacts the lives of all of those within it? What would happen if teachers joined the ranks of the great changers of our society?
As an educator, I too have fallen trap to the hero narrative. When I was first introduced to the practice of being compassionately present to my own feelings, I was at the height of my own hero narrative. It was the beginning of a school year and I was entering my second year at a new school. My first year at this institution had been challenging, and I had ended the year feeling deflated and inadequate. As I compared myself to my colleagues who sacrificed vacations, evenings, and weekends, I was overwhelmed by self-doubt.
The following September, when the building was aflutter with the palpable anticipation of new leadership and a sense of renewed commitment, I re-committed myself to work harder, and to sacrifice more. I said, “yes” to every opportunity presented to me, eager to prove that I was as devoted and serious an educator, as the celebrated veterans in our building.
One of those opportunities led me directly to this Sustainable Compassion framework. As I explored these practices, I became increasingly aware of a constant sense of urgency, and the way in which I ignored my own needs – dismissing persistent bodily signs of stress.
Exploring these practices with my colleagues, I was surprised and comforted to know I was not alone. Many of us, in our efforts to care for our students, had accepted the dominant cultural narrative of our institution, that to be effective teachers, we could not rest or attend to our needs. The act of being present to my own feelings helped me feel connected to my colleagues in a way that my efforts at work did not.
As the year progressed, I began to see the ways in which the institution encouraged and supported a culture of martyrdom. At a retirement party of a highly respected colleague, I was struck by her admittance that she could never find balance, in fact, that she was incapable of doing this and admired those who could. This saddened and worried me. I found myself wondering about the implicit message being sent to our pre-service teachers and even our students. Pregnant with my first child, I realized this was not a narrative I was willing to accept, nor celebrate. In learning to be present to my own feelings, I learned to recognize my own need for care, and to open up to receiving that care from myself and from others, which in turn taught me how to be a stable source of care for my students.
Towards a new, sustainable system
We need to find ways to provide teachers with the tools necessary to sustainably care for their students and themselves. Educators need space and time to nurture relationships with their students and colleagues, and to develop the compassionate stance from which they can wisely act. We need stop asking our teachers to sacrifice everything in order to save one student. Instead we need to celebrate, uplift and support all of our educators, and in so doing save many.