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Down Shifting: Resisting Over-Productivity and the "Teacher as Martyr" Syndrome in the Pandemic

Down Shifting: Resisting Over-Productivity and the "Teacher as Martyr" Syndrome in the Pandemic

This teacher-scholar is TIRED. The kind of tired that I can feel behind my eyeballs; the kind that no amount of uninterrupted sleep, vigorous exercise, or walking breaks will banish. 

This teacher was tired long before the pandemic crept in while we were sleeping and, seemingly overnight, sent us all into our various homes and shut down Life As We Knew It, emptying parks, coffee shops, restaurants, places of worship. We are bombarded and inundated with the constant stream of COVID-19 updates on our various online feeds, TV channels, and conversations, completely overwhelmed by the unspeakable sadness and human suffering. The changes have come so quickly, at least for me, that a sense of whiplash is accompanying the latest guidelines and adjustments. In a searingly powerful article for the Harvard Business Review, Scott Berinato accurately and heartbreakingly describes this massive collective discomfort as grief. 

Before the pandemic, I (and I'm also assuming many of you) have been exhausted for quite some time. Teaching in "normal" times is a particularly grueling exercise that keeps me awake many nights. Before any of this began, I was already helping my students to deal with food insecurity, family issues, cultural and linguistic difficulties, chronic illness, college bureaucracy as a first-generation college student, mental health crises, abusive partnerships, etc., on top of hopefully trying to teach them something about writing and research in our exceedingly anti-knowledge, anti-education climate in a sea of digital and societal distractions. Now, I'm still trying to do these things while also navigating the completely uncharted pandemic and attempt to help students who are just plain scared of everything: scared that they or someone they love will get the disease, that they will lose their jobs, that they cannot find another job, that they will not be able to complete online classes due to spotty Internet, that they will not learn well enough from their online classes to succeed in their educational goals. Hence, TIRED. 

I don't know about you, but I have always LOATHED teacher movies.  Without fail, these movies present a teacher or group of teachers as super-human and super-hero. These mythical figures make enormous sacrifices, often at great personal costs, to ensure their students' learning. Take Freedom Writers, for example. Everyone loves the story of how Hillary Swank's character makes reading and literature real and engaging for a group of students battling issues most of us couldn't even imagine. However, look at the personal cost. To purchase books and provide engaging guest speakers, Mrs. Gruwell (Hillary Swank) works three jobs, battles almost cardboard-stereotypical educational bureaucrats (hello, Dolores Umbridge!), and loses her marriage. In Stand and Deliver, Edward James Olmos's Jaime Escalante, also working multiple jobs, drives himself into a heart attack trying to help his students overcome numerous educational and personal difficulties to pass AP Calculus while battling the same nay-saying bureaucrats as in Freedom Writers. Cue inspirational music, grab your tissues.

Um, sorry, but this is BULLSHIT. It is encouraging the "teacher-as-martyr" narrative that insidiously encourages us to "just give a little more" because "it's for the students." In addition to providing an education, we are tasked with our students' mental, emotional, and physical well-being. What these movies and teacher martyr narratives show is that teachers who sacrifice until they have nothing left to give are the heroic standard to which we should all measure ourselves. We had to perform the Herculean pedagogical task of switching our instruction to online, often with little to no institutional support or guidance. Yes, our students need us right now, but why are teachers simply expected to "grin and bear it? at the expense of our own health and sanity? In order to show that we care for and support our students, why are teachers expected to sacrifice all of our personal needs and well-being?  How many examples of this have we seen during the pandemic? One of my colleagues posted about how she felt compelled to continue responding to her students' constant texts and inquiries - the kicker was that she could not get a moment's break even on EASTER SUNDAY (and she works at a Catholic university!). Our shining stars and cultural examples are certified workaholics who literally sacrificed their own bodies, families, relationships, etc., to pour out themselves entirely into students who are chronically underserved by a society wracked by generational poverty, institutionalized racism, family difficulties, lack of support for education, etc. In addition to our "normal" workload, we are helping our students navigate this unprecedented catastrophe while somehow also figuring it out for ourselves. As an educator at both the secondary and post-secondary level for 14 years now, I almost feel guilty even just writing this. Teachers who point out their own poor work conditions, pay, mental/physical health, etc. are labeled as "complainers" and told we should be doing these things "for the kids." Any mention of our own difficulties is met with quips like "at least you have the summers off" and "you knew what you were getting into." And in this pandemic, all of these issues have been exacerbated. 

So what am I getting at here? I am not going to blithely sing the praises of "self-care," which itself has become a neo-corporatized banality that gleefully ignores real systemic issues. Besides, no amount of yoga, HIIT, hot baths, or dark chocolate is going to fix the issues both caused and revealed by this global pandemic in education or any other institution. I'm also not going to say that we should stop caring for our students and start adopting a "sink or swim" mentality. What I AM saying is that maybe, just for once, we can start to push back against that teacher-martyr narrative. Maybe we can be OK with not having the most amazing lessons that incorporate all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, engage multiple learning styles, etc. Take a bit longer to return a student email; it's not the end of the world. If you are tired, frustrated, or you need help, SAY SOMETHING instead of continuing to stuff it down and soldier on like we are expected to. Resist the urge to put all of your energy into your teaching and your students and save some for yourself. If someone complains to you about having to help their children with online schooling, gently point out that this is extremely difficult for the teachers as well. We are tired, overworked, overwhelmed. We need to say to others (and more importantly, to ourselves) the following: 1) We are not superhumans. 2) We have "off" days all the time, and this should be OK. 3) There are systemic issues affecting us every day. When we mention them, we are not complaining, just pointing out the conditions that affect us and our students. 4) Telling us to suck it up "for the students" is manipulative and asks us to accept increasingly difficult conditions at the expense of our own health and wellbeing, without which we cannot teach effectively.

tl;dr It's OK for teachers to be a hot mess right now - let's not let society guilt us into thinking otherwise!


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