But what happens when there are no more teachers left to make a game, flip the classroom, or skipper the pirate ship?
In the last decade, I have seen many excellent educators crash and burn, lose faith, meltdown, break down, and leave the profession. Why? Because of a Testing Machine that values the wrong parts, because of district level or site administration teams that were narcissistic, ignorant, apathetic or (worse) all three, and because of a woefully underfunded system that continues to heap obligations and responsibilities on the teacher and doesn't much care how that teacher makes it happen.
Sure, we can blame all of this on the abuse and mistreatment of teachers and we’d be justified because I’ve seen it with my own eyes but, in some ways, we've set ourselves up for the fall, the burnout, the meltdown. Simply by being too good. The only thing our industry knows is that, as teachers, we've set a stunning precedent--no matter what they pile on us, we make it work. Time and time again.
So they think, "Why not pile on more? Why not take even more away? They'll get it done. They always have before."
And then we take a big breath, square our shoulders, and think, “Okay. I’ll do it one last time. For the kids.”
So how do we keep our excellent teachers in the classroom so that they can employ all these wonderful approaches I mentioned in the first paragraph? Since no one else seems too terribly concerned about our psychological, emotional and, yes, even spiritual needs in the classroom, I want to yell from the cyberspace rooftops how this incredibly important job is now apparently up to us; it seems as if we are the only ones left to take care of ourselves and each other. The conversation no one is having--and the one I'd like start here--is about teacher well-being.
A few short years ago--I still remember this clearly--when our classes first started reaching the 40 student per period mark, and data-driven testing sessions interrupted curriculum every few weeks or so, and the pleadings of teachers regarding workload were falling on deaf ears, I was feeling very overwhelmed by it all. And during a heart-to-heart, our vice-principal said to me, with great compassion in her eyes, that maybe I should avail myself of our district’s "Behavioral Health Services." In short, she suggested that I needed therapy, as if it might be me, and not the entire educational system, that was broken.
I'm all for therapy. I personally believe that everyone could benefit from therapy. More than once I have referred to the therapist's office as "an emotional gym," a place where you can go to work out what's going on in your head and your heart. Have a sinus infection? Go to the M.D. and get some antibiotics. Trouble with your thoughts or feelings? Go to a therapist. There should be zero stigma. In truth, I've had more therapists in my life than girlfriends (Coincidence? I think not.). But to assume in this dysfunctional educational climate that I'm the one who needs the inner work done is at best misguided and, at worst, completely delusional. And I saw that cycle play out again and again over the years until we lost many wonderful teachers and saw a marked decrease in the number of student teachers applying to work in our classrooms. Such a tragedy.
Teacher well-being is a critical issue that is not being addressed. To the saints and martyrs out there, this might just sound like so much complaining, but that’s not how I see it. The truth is: It's hard to be in the classroom these days. It just is. There's no shame in admitting that. It's the teachers who suppress that, or try to sidestep it, or ignore it, or power through without the proper resources, they are the ones who are heading for the fall. I know because I was starting to become one of them.
That’s why I created The Zen Teacher Project. Realizing that I needed to adopt a position of self-care (since no one else seemed to be helping teachers cope with the current challenges), I saw a mindful and zen-like perspective as one possible way I could keep my sense of peace and sanity in a profession gone crazy. Judging from the response I’ve been getting, I’m not the only one who feels that way. But you don’t have to go with my approach. Find what works for you. But please realize that as a teacher, you are doing sacred work in an industry that, in my experience, is no longer much concerned if it sacrifices you in the process.
I'm not trying to offend, alarm, or take an irrevocably fatalistic stance. I just want the people I care about in the profession I care about to be taken care, not taken advantage of. That’s all.
Because the way I see it now, we need to take care of ourselves.
And we need to take care of each other.
So to start the ball rolling, my challenge to you is that you look around and see if you see a teacher close to the edge. One who looks a little dizzy, is wavering, teetering, maybe poised for fall.
And then reach out to that teacher.
And hold on to him or her.
And then both of you join the conversation about teacher well-being.
And helps us figure out what works.
Because our kids needs relaxed, fulfilled, and centered teachers.
Because we want to be makers, and gamers, and flippers, and pirates.
But mainly, because it looks like it’s going to be up to us to keep each other thriving in the classroom.
And I want to help make sure that happens. TZT