It's #TeacherAppreciationWeek! So, Why Don't I Feel Appreciated?
Imagine being in a relationship with a partner who constantly tells you they love you. But when you have a bad day, they don’t listen. They don’t help out with house work. And overall you just feel unsupported and alone. Sooner or later the words start to feel empty. #TeacherAppreciationWeek has started to take on a similar feeling for me.
I hate to do this, but this #TeacherAppreciationWeek I’m adding to the canon of “burnt-out teacher essays.” To be clear this is not a “Woe is me, I’m so underpaid and undervalued, and it’s all Bill Gates’ fault” essay. I mean, not completely.
In my circle of friends and family, I feel my work is consistently appreciated and valued. And as a unionized teacher in New York City, I feel well paid in comparison to teachers in many states, or early childhood educators anywhere. And still, I feel like I’m in that relationship where society says the words, “We appreciate you,” but doesn’t make me feel appreciated in practice. And it’s not just the disaster distance learning talking.
To be honest, for three years I’ve been struggling to decide whether I need to leave my school or the classroom together. This feeling of exhaustion and disillusionment came from two places. One was feeling the weight and callousness of white supremacy and other forms of systemic oppression more and more acutely. The other was feeling that in spite of my intentions and efforts, I was supporting these systems of oppression through my work as a classroom teacher.
What am I trying to say here? To put it bluntly, I’m tired of feeling like a prison guard. Prisons are sold to the public on the grounds of rehabilitation or public safety. They fail miserably at both. Schools are sold to the public as a way to prepare future workers, citizens, or lifelong learners. Putting the important debate about the purpose of schooling aside for a moment, I will say schools are failing at all of these missions, particularly in the case of Black and brown children.
My experience, especially the last four years in Central Harlem, has made me see schools not as institutions that build futures, but as tools of social control. Covid-19 has exacerbating this feeling. I don’t agree with the “teachers treated as babysitters” argument. I think it’s demeaning to babysitters and care work generally. But, I do think that teachers in many school systems right now are being expected to keep kids busy.
This became abundantly clear when New York decided to cancel Spring Break. The rationale was that without remote learning, kids would be running around wild, spreading the virus.
But even without the pandemic, I have often felt that my job was not about nurturing and supporting the intellectual growth of my students. Otherwise I would get to teach a curriculum that was tailored to my students’ interests, their cultures and histories. I would get to teach a curriculum that wasn’t “teacher proofed” and often blatantly racist.
The impact of this type of teaching became especially clear at my current school where I have experienced an ongoing problem of kids running out of the classroom. And it isn’t just my classroom. Last year on any given day we would have kids running out of half the classrooms in our school. Kids don’t run out of places where they want to be. And the day my principal suggested we suggested we “station an adult at the door” to keep kids from running out, the prison guard analogy stopped feeling like an analogy.
I should point out a handful of Black teachers at our school did not have this problem. This is not coincidental. They may have still been using the same problematic curriculum as the rest of us, but they were able to infuse a certain level of cultural responsiveness and care that made their classrooms feel different.
To try to summarize, I’m burnt-out because schools don’t let kids be kids. There is virtually no space for imagination or play provided. We force them through hours of academic time, but we don’t use this time to teach them content that is relevant. In schools that serve poor Black and brown children we subject them to days and weeks of test prep in place of meaningful instruction. Generally we don’t give them the love, care, or support they need.
Talking to friends who work in private schools I’ve learned that most of these traits are true across schools. But I feel these abuses are especially true in schools like mine, the ones serving poor and Black and brown kids. This is partly because of implicit bias in teachers and administrators. But it’s also worsened by systemic racism and capitalism.
Racism and capitalism and patriarchy deprive the families I serve of food security, housing security, and healthcare. The families and children I serve are traumatized. This changes the job I have to do. But I don’t feel like I have the tools or support I need to do this job. This doesn’t feel like appreciation.
So, why don’t I just quit? Or teach the way I believe I should? I’m a grown up white man. I’ve got options.
Truthfully, I don’t know. This year I came as close to quitting since my first year. I know teachers who resist. I know teachers who have quit their jobs or been forced out. I know part of the reason I don’t is fear. I’m hard-wired to crave praise. Sometimes this means I still want to do my job “well” even if it doesn’t fit with what feels right.
And I do try to sabotage the system as much as possible from within. I talk about race and racism, including naming my own whiteness, which is small, but not trivial. I am proud of the times where I was able to fully integrate my values with my teaching. One of these was a unit on race and racism that culminated in my fifth graders presenting their research at a conference to an audience of their families and educators. Another time my third graders wrote letters to Scholastic demanding more racially diverse book catalogs. This helped launch a nationwide #StepUpScholastic campaign.
But these wins are memories. For a number of reasons, some personal and many systemic, I don’t feel able to teach in this way consistently. And ultimately, just like a prison guard, it feels morally impossible to change this inhumane system from within.
While Covid-19 has brought #TeacherAppreciationWeek new relevance, I want it to bring about a total transformation of our systems. My friend Django recently tweeted that the 7 pm applause for front line workers is the new version of “Support Our Troops.” It’s ultimately a superficial act, that doesn’t require meaningful change or sacrifice from anyone. #TeacherAppreciationWeek is the annual version of the 7 pm clap for teachers. And I’m done with it.
I don’t want a DonorsChoose gift card. Flowers or a handwritten card would feel nice. But what I truly want is an end to a system that devalues the life of Black children, Indigenous children, and other children of color. I want an end to a system devalues my life as a white person through forced participation in this dehumanization.
What I want for #TeacherAppreciationWeek is prison abolition. I want universal healthcare. I want a living wage for everyone. I want a system that supports healthy communities and healthy families, so I can teach healthy children.
When the children and community I serve are truly valued, then I’ll feel appreciated.