A few years ago I flew Korean Air on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok with a group of teachers from all over the country. To date, Korean Air has been hands-down my best flight experience, but that’s neither here nor there. What was most memorable about this flight is how it compared to a subsequent flight that I took coming home.
On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came on over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of educators who have devoted their lives to teaching young people. Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.” This announcement was a welcome surprise, as I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do for a living from strangers.
While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty. Literally. Children threw flowers down at our feet and hung leis about our necks as we entered schools. People greeted us with smiles and even small gifts in boardrooms, meeting halls, and auditoriums. We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions. In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population.
It was an interesting experience to be treated with such respect, especially because upon return to my classroom at my old school, I was called a “motherf-ing b*tch” by a student on my first day back. But before that even, on our American Airlines flight home, sitting amidst soldiers returning from deployment, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of brave soldiers. Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.” An odd coincidence, but true nonetheless.
I don’t begrudge those soldiers their applause. And I clapped with everyone else, as I have time and time again on flights, in assemblies, and the line at the post office. But these moments have led me to note that who we applaud represents what we value as a society.
Fast forward three years later to a copy room in a great school with highly qualified educators running classrooms of intelligent, hard-working kids. A few days ago at this school, I had a conversation with two strong teachers about what type of antidepressants they were currently or had been on in the past. I realized that I had had this conversation in the good schools and the bad ones, with the kids who wanted to learn and had every resource to do so, and with the kids who hated learning because they had never been given resources or opportunities to love it. And everywhere you look, in “good” schools and “bad”, teachers are being prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety or self-medicating in surprising numbers.
I think if the general public knew how much being a teacher takes from a person who works as a teacher, it might stop advocating taking so much and give a little more applause. I’ve known teachers who drink six to seven beers or half to full bottles of wine each night, and teachers who’ve had to take leave of absences in order to check into rehab. I’ve sat among teachers as we each discuss all the types of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we’ve gone through in order to find one that works, so that we don’t feel like screaming at the end of the day. I’ve been on the verge of those screams myself and found myself wondering if something from a bottle were the best answer for me too.
I’m not saying that teachers are addicts. I have found myself in each of the aforementioned situations and have fortunately never struggled with addiction in my life. But what I am implying is that a lack of respect for teachers embedded in our culture pushes good educators to doubt themselves. And this self-doubt promotes overwork in order to achieve approval and “success” in all its forms, and the overwork leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and any number of stresses that can cause a person to break down emotionally.
My previous school had a 90% free and reduced lunch population, was audited for many years by the state, experienced excessive teacher turnover, and was eventually closed down. I worked with many talented educators while I was there (many of whom I consider war buddies to this day), and I felt my heart go out to hundreds of students. But I also worked with some people who couldn’t take it because of some (and eventually most) of the students who ran completely wild with no consequences to any actions. One of those colleagues found herself in the news and facing a suspension for throwing a chair at a student. To be fair, I will admit that the teacher did have some questionable mental faculties at the time, but I found myself feeling sorry for her knowing full well the abuse she endured for months from that student before the incident. But when she finally lost her cool, she was the enemy. And everyone in town, even fellow teachers, were ready to burn her at the stake for it. I’m not excusing her actions, but I am suggesting that the more we hear and talk about these “horrible” teachers, the more we create them.
A friend of mine just began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at a pretty needy school. My advice to her before her first day, and to all new teachers I meet, is to find something far from the realm of teaching to help you get through it. My first year of teaching I started a jewelry business and sold jewelry at craft fairs. At the time, it just felt like a hobby–a way to sit in front of the television at night (after not getting home until 8pm and then eating microwave popcorn for dinner) and let my thoughts go while twisting wire with tiny pliers. But in hindsight, I see that it was much more than that. It was an escape, a release, a way to be normal in a day filled with unbelievable abnormalities–a much healthier antidepressant. And the funny thing is that I got more validation from making jewelry–customers complimenting the earrings at a show, coworkers sending emails with orders–than I ever did from teaching that year.
The value our culture places on educators does not compare to the value educators place on their own role. Teachers feel the world atop their shoulders, and the world refuses to admit the support it receives there. This dynamic leads to teachers who work hard for validation that rarely comes, like the kid who works hard for a B only to be questioned by a parent as to why it wasn’t an A. I’m not advocating for flowers thrown at our feet on our way to work, but until our society changes the way it views teachers, we will continue to have teachers who suffer in secret until they make the news for finally losing their cool.
Image taken from Google Images.