I am a high school math teacher in Nova Scotia, a little more than a decade into my career. Teaching wasn’t my plan, but I had a few jobs as a lab or teaching assistant during my BSc to help make ends meet, and I fell in love with teaching. Or maybe I should say that I became addicted. It is a joy, it is a heady rush, it is a parasite on my time and health.
Last month, I compared my job – teaching university preparatory level mathematics in high school – to being a life guard expected to be personally responsible for multiple beaches simultaneously. No matter how hard I try, I cannot meet the expectations that are heaped onto my shoulders. I have been systematically set up to fail. But teaching is a very personal lifestyle so I cannot help but take it personally each time I fall short of what I *want* to do to safeguard and nurture the education of the young people entrusted to me.
I love to teach and I love my students. I love seeing the moment when it clicks for a kid in a course that they used to feel lost in. I love the relationships that I have built in my classroom and continue to enjoy now. I am hooked on the teachable moments that go beyond mathematics, when I share with my students portions of the big picture that I can see and help them to grow as people.
I am internally cringing at not updating my website because I know how it helps students. I dread the delays in feedback that would be caused if I only did marking between 8:30 and 3:20 and not on my break or lunch. I can’t bring myself to think of that worried student (or parent) who emails at 9 or 10pm and just needs two quick lines of what to do next or re-assurance that everything is going well but will have to wait perhaps days until I can work through the dozens of messages I get in a day in the perhaps 20min I have to do so.
But I have hit my breaking point. I am the one who is now drowning and in need of a saving. I already have to pick and choose which parts of my teaching practice I let go of in light of all the new things that have been downloaded onto classroom teachers – and there is more to come if Stephen McNeil, Karen Casey and their merry band are to be believed. Instead of tritely de-valuing the opinions of teachers at every turn, here’s what I wish they would do:
Ask me why I am so flat-out-exhausted, all the time, through the school year. Ask why so many of my colleagues are, too. Ask what we, the front-line of education, need to help us find the balance in our lives again.
Ask me how many new initiatives I have been asked to implement in my classroom over the eleven years of my career so far. Ask how these initiatives have taken my time away from face-to-face interactions with students, and how they have (or haven’t) improved the experience of students.
Ask me how often someone tells me that I am doing a good job, how often I feel valued and appreciated for all that I do. Ask me how often another new initiative makes me feel as though I am hopelessly inadequate.
Ask me about my class sizes and composition – how many students I teach who are too anxious to stay in my room, how many different mental health issues I am juggling within a single class, how many developmental disorders. Ask how many of my students are coming to school hungry or hurting, how many are not reading at grade level but expected to do word problems in Math, how many have never written a full test under “normal” circumstances but will be required to write a provincial exam with very little in the way of special supports. The list goes on.
Ask me how my school climate has changed in ten years – how the language and attitudes in the halls have changed. Ask me if I think all of my students and colleagues feel safe when they walk into our building. Ask me about the herculean task of trying to battle back against cyber-bullying and peer-pressure and hyper-sexualization, when I’m not, you know, teaching / marking / planning / contacting home.
Ask me how many students in crisis I have had this month – better still, ask me what training I have been given to help students in crisis. Ask how this affects me in my “off hours”.
Ask me how much unpaid overtime I log in a typical week as I sit at home after my daughter goes to bed and mark, plan, document, and send emails trying to deal with all the things I just couldn’t get to during the actual school day. Ask me why I choose to invest this time, as opposed to sticking to the 8:30-3:20 that I am paid for.
Ask me how the constant obsession with data and results and live updates has twisted and crippled motivation and perceptions of success and how this might actually be DECREASING achievement.
And here’s the most heart-breaking: ask me about the students who are slipping through the cracks because I simply cannot give them what they need with the time and resources and energy that I have left. Ask me how all of this impacts the average kid.
So yes, I feel like a lifeguard who has to simultaneously watch four separate beaches at once and I can’t do it all and I know that kids are drowning on my watch. I need to feel valued, and I need help to do this job.
I don’t just need a life preserver; I need the sharks in the water to stop making it worse.