Photograph by Matthew Suárez
In order to succeed, Cindy Bledsoe said, teachers “need a good sense of who they are, how they are as a learner.” They also need to eat right, exercise, meditate.
The past six months have been a bewildering time for education. Many teachers I know have been filled with anxiety about how best to instruct our students and how to support them emotionally online, all the while juggling concerns about their own family’s health or their spouse’s employment status. The tactile stuff that went into teaching was gone — the high fives and handshakes, the physicality of pacing around the room that allows you to observe the body language of engagement and comprehension. And the spontaneity and pageantry of the classroom has been replaced by Zoom tiles and digital document dumps.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
School sites for the past few months have been ghost towns, forlorn posters put up pre-shutdown adding to the contrast: promises of a lower ticket price with an ASB card for a long-canceled dance, a limp banner in a darkened gym advertising Opening Day for a volleyball season that may or may not resume, even this school year.
With all these sites relatively unpopulated, we ask, What even is a school? In some ways, the brick-and-mortar school is like a city-state. There’s a bureaucratic jargon (ILTs and 504s, SSTs and MTSS); there’s a justice system of sorts (restorative circles, in-school suspension, lunch detentions); there are codes and mythologies, rivalries with other schools from time immemorial.
When things as we know them go away, we look to representations to remind us of how they used to be. It’s hard to capture everything that happens in a school accurately, though, which is why I suspect that there never has been a teacher movie or TV show that’s both good and realistic. Hollywood writers don’t know what to do with educators, because they have never been able to picture them as human beings.
“I think teachers get really burnt out,” Caroline Yang said. “There are so many demands on us, we wear a ton of hats, and we don’t get compensated very well for all that.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
But maybe it’s not just a problem specific to screenwriters. Dana Goldstein, author of the book The Teacher Wars: A History Of America’s Most Embattled Profession, has said that our high expectations for teachers to resolve problems outside their control, and the resulting disappointment in them, have led to teaching being labeled as one of the most controversial professions in our country.
Veteran teachers know that priorities in education change over time. What’s in vogue in one year might pop up again in another, just under a different name. The past decade has seen an increase in schools’ addressing the topic of mental health resources for students. Some schools hold mental health awareness events and adopt spaces for mindfulness with names like the Zen Den. More staff meetings now prioritize connecting personally with students, and some schools try their best to make sure there is at least one adult to whom a student can go for support.
This is all for the better. And it’s not a sign that today’s youth are more fragile. Rather, it’s a recognition that quality of life encompasses the immaterial. It’s the understanding that a necessary component of a life well lived is a sense of purpose, powered by seeing the humanity in others, and having others recognize our own humanity in return. Wellness, after all, is not the absence of illness. It is, according to the National Wellness Institute, “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.”
And yet, our teachers are unwell. In 2013, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of teachers in K-12 settings reported high levels of daily stress during the school year, a number that mirrored levels seen in nurses (46 percent) and physicians (45 percent). A wide-ranging 30,000-teacher survey published by the American Federation of Teachers in 2015 noted that 89 percent of teachers reported feeling enthusiastic about their profession at the start of their career. That number plummeted to 15 percent who felt enthusiastic about their profession when asked how they felt about it at the time of the survey. In 2017, the same survey found that 61 percent of educators reported that work was “always” or “often” stressful, double that of the general population.
These numbers shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s expected that education will be challenging. But do things have to be this way? Educators’ mental health can have a direct impact on students’ learning. A National Institute of Health report on teacher wellness in 2017 cited two studies that, respectively, drew correlations between teacher burnout and lower levels of effective learning and higher stress hormones in that of their students. Another study on work-related stress reported that only a quarter of schools offered stress-management support for educators, compared to 36 percent of all professional fields.
The author Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens about “imagined realities” that drive societies’ growth. These are not the same as lies or fictions; rather, they are necessary belief structures that groups reinforce within themselves to push towards a material goal (“The gods want us to build this ziggurat;” “These shells can be exchanged for goods and services”). There is a common belief within education that the suffering is worth it because you are dedicating your labors toward the intellectual and moral improvement of future generations. It’s an ember of warmth that every educator holds onto to get through the roughest stretches of the school year.
Still, it makes me think of the Wilfred Owen poem that ends, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country).
Caroline Yang, who taught math and science at High Tech High Chula Vista for nine years after teaching in Los Angeles, told me she had retired from teaching in 2018. She was in her mid-thirties.
“I think teachers get really burnt out,” Yang said. “There are so many demands on us, we wear a ton of hats, and we don’t get compensated very well for all that.”
Yang attended college at UNC at Chapel Hill, and during her senior year, her suitemate, who had been recruiting for Teach For America, reached out to her as a possible candidate. From there, it was interviews, a frenetic six-week orientation over the summer, and then she was in her own classroom with her own students. She had been hired on an emergency credential with a salary of $38,000 in Los Angeles.
“The kids ate me alive my first year,” Yang said. As a new hire, she was given the hardest assignments with little administrative support. A recurring prank involved all the students coordinating with each other to turn off the lights in the room and overturning tables and bookcases. It got so bad that she feared getting a substitute teacher when she needed to be out.
Still, she found colleagues who stepped up and supported her. Another science teacher gave her his curriculum and pacing guides. Fellow teachers mentored her on the finer points of classroom management. Yang thought about the cross-country drive she had made, about the grueling summer sessions, the camaraderie: “No matter how hard things were, I couldn’t quit.”
Although the LA schools were hard, High Tech High brought its own challenges. While her new school did not have the same numbers of students living in precarious economic and immigration situations, the work demanded additional creative and organizational energy beyond the classroom. The model of instruction there was Project-Based Learning, which reversed the typical curriculum taught in schools. While traditional schools taught content that would lead to some major summative assessment, Project-Based Learning’s content revolved around the kind of project that students were expected to complete, one that had some bearing on the world outside of school.
“I think High Tech High works their teachers quite a bit,” Yang said. “Projects take so much time to plan. There was a lot of pressure, that was all unspoken, to do these amazing projects, make a big impact on your community.” Yang spent more and more time trying to get guest speakers and to book venues to display her students’ work. And without a set curriculum, it was more challenging to gain traction year over year.
Not all schools actively seek to burn teachers out. The adding of priorities is more like a slow planetary accretion that happens year after year. Some new administrators add new programs while never completely getting rid of old ones. Others create various campus initiatives, but leave teachers to fill out the details on their own, a process some call “Name-it-and-forget-it.” After a while, Yang began to feel her enthusiasm for teaching dissipate. “On the outside, it probably didn’t seem that way to my colleagues,” she said. “I think I’m good while I’m on campus, putting on a front and being like, ‘Hey, this is cool! I love being here.’”
But she didn’t, not toward the end. Yang had become a mother, and she found that, having expended her patience and bandwidth at work, she had none to give to her own children when she came home. It was finally the irreconcilable conflict between being a good teacher and a good parent that led to her leaving teaching altogether.
I met Yang during my first teaching stop at John Liechty Middle School in the Pico-Union section of downtown Los Angeles in 2007. Many of us teachers who began our careers in challenging school environments view those formative years with pride, but also with a sense of wonder about how we made it out alive. Because things were deeply unhealthy and unsustainable. When fellow teachers left for easier situations, we sneered at their lack of grit. We made bets about which ones among us would turn their experience into a bullet on their law school applications. Teaching is not the Peace Corps, we groused. The Happy Hours started with once a week, then twice, maybe more on the side. I gained 40 pounds in six months. Sleep apnea and dizziness spells punctuated my nights and days. But at the end of it all, That Old Lie dug into our consciousness: It is sweet and fitting….
The idealizing and sentimentalizing of teachers finds its roots in the early period of compulsory education in American history. According to Goldstein, 90 percent of teachers were men in 1800. Today, 76 percent of teachers are women. This happened partly because, in the 1820s, as school became universal and mandatory for children, people needed to be convinced that it would be worth their tax dollars. Education reformers argued that women were more virtuous and more Christian than men. Men were abusive alcoholics who would beat kids, they said; women were more in tune with children on a biological level. Even better: they could be paid half of what men were getting. It was seen as a moral and fiscal win-win.
“Schools are microcosms for what happens in society,” Yang said. They’ve often been on the front lines of the country’s most pressing issues, whether it’s poverty (now euphemistically called “inequality”), racial inequality, or the coarsening of our political discourse. The current conversation on whether and how schools should reopen is part of a long American tradition of projecting our collective anxieties onto public institutions whose structures are incapable of satisfying everyone, yet which are too big to fail. The fact that everyone has been to school gives many the impression that they somehow have the correct opinions on schooling, when they are merely projecting their personal experiences onto something they don’t fully understand.
It is no wonder, then, that there is a national teacher shortage. In 2017, the Learning Policy Institute reported that two-thirds of teachers who left the profession did so for reasons other than retirement. From 2008-2016, there was an almost 38 percent drop in applicants to teacher prep programs. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2019 that schools were having a harder time filling teaching vacancies. Additionally, “about 30 percent of college graduates who became teachers were not in the profession five years later.”
These compounding effects lead to what the report’s authors call a perfect storm: “Lack of sufficient, qualified teachers and the staff instability that accompanies turnover threaten students’ ability to learn, and reduce teachers’ effectiveness, and high teacher turnover consumes economic resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. The teacher shortage makes it more difficult to build a solid reputation for teaching and to professionalize it, which further contributes to perpetuating the shortage.”
But the research indicates that teachers stay in their classrooms when they feel a sense of autonomy and administrative support. The Economic Policy Institute report cited testing and accountability measures and lack of administrative support as the first two reasons why teachers leave the profession. Test scores obscure important contexts: the relative ability of the cohort that year; how well its members get along; and the economic or cultural factors that contributed to the test score. Anyone who’s taken a test knows, too, that often, a test merely tells you how good a test-taker someone is, not their content knowledge or habits of mind.
Cindy Bledsoe, a teacher at Tierrasanta Elementary School, has been in education for over 30 years. She has been an administrator as well as a classroom teacher, and her observations about the teaching field reflect the same concerns as those presented in the various studies mentioned here. “When we’re at school, and our ‘armor’ is on, we’re not people,” Bledsoe said. “If you had a bad night at home, that’s too bad. That’s just the job. That’s the way you survive, too. You compartmentalize.”
She rejects the suggestion that the summers off make up for the grueling year. “It literally takes me a month to feel normal” at the end of the school year, she said. Like many other teachers, Bledsoe spends her summers taking classes and reading books that help her instruction during the school year.
A lot of mental energy goes into operating a classroom. How do we begin routines? What about transitions? How many students in the room have special accommodations? Of these accommodations, how many of them are based on processing versus social-emotional? Who is being bullied? Is the bully experiencing his own struggles at home? By the way, did you get back to that parent whose email was cordial but slightly menacing at the same time?
In her three decades as an educator, Bledsoe has gone through deaths in the family, uniquely challenging students, and health issues. She had been married for 30 years, and in the last decade of their marriage, her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and she with breast cancer. “On a scale of 1-10, I was a 12 on stress,” she said.
“Every teacher is going through a thing,” Bledsoe said. “It’s like we’re human and we’re trying not to be. We’re trying to be superheroes.” The culture of support for mental health within the educator community, though, is not always as cohesive as those on the outside would think it. “We had access to a hotline number, but the culture wasn’t there for a lot of support, I hate to say it,” she said. “Our day is so jam-packed, that for someone to reach out to that person other than their friend, it takes a lot.”
“People that tend to go into teaching are self-sacrificial,” Yang said. Bledsoe has a similar view: “Teachers are, in their heart of hearts, codependents.” That means if their school culture pushes them in unhealthy directions, most of them are obliging subjects, even if it leads to unsustainable practices.
In 2015, a study found that “educators and other school-based staff can experience the stress of compassion fatigue and/or vicarious traumatization.” This is sure to increase over time, as teachers are now expected to keep track of their students’ academic as well as mental health needs. Younger teachers, who sometimes confuse activity with accomplishment, can find themselves overly available to students who might benefit from healthy emotional boundaries.
Reading over these studies, I grew more pessimistic about the future of my profession. But the more I spoke to Bledsoe, the more I was encouraged by her example.
All of the major studies on teacher retention recommend the same things: better teacher preparation training, consistent and quality professional development that allows for horizontal advancements, greater autonomy and administrator support, higher salaries.
The way Bledsoe talked about her upcoming school year challenged the stereotype of someone who’s been in teaching for a long time. Instead of counting down the days until retirement, she often talked about coordinating with her team about how to implement new literacy programs and Zoom protocols. She told me about the speech she gives her elementary kids on the first day of school, the one about the brain and the uniqueness of each person’s learning style. She spoke glowingly about professional developments that piqued her curiosity, and we exchanged stories in which our respective students demonstrated incredible feats of grace and generosity to us when we were in bad shape.
In order to succeed, Bledsoe said, teachers “need a good sense of who they are, how they are as a learner.” They also need to eat right, exercise, and meditate. At her site, Bledsoe mentors young teachers, and yells at them if she thinks they are doing too much and burning out too soon.
Bledsoe remains optimistic about the future for educators. In the past, there were not as many ways to share and collaborate, and today, she embraces the opportunities technology has afforded her. From a public perception standpoint, too, Bledsoe has faith that people outside of education are “going to see more and more that we’re human beings,” she said. “They’re going to want us to take care of ourselves more.”
To ascertain whether someone or a group of someones is truly valued, ignore platitudes and gestures. Instead, look to actions. The story here is bigger than teaching. It’s really about the sincerity of our words, and our laziness in letting words do the work for us. Often, the more we rhetorically ennoble a group of people, the more we are willing to sacrifice them for our own ends.
My 67-year-old mother is a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, taking care of patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Our family nickname for her is based on a reckless white-bearded old general who loved to charge headlong into battle. When several people tested positive for covid-19 at her work, my sister and I pleaded with her to stay home. But she missed the residents under her care, and goaded by her restlessness under quarantine, she went back to work after a few weeks. The nursing home promised it would show proper appreciation for its workers, who were risking their lives during the pandemic. The reward was a celebratory breakfast of bagels with cream cheese and a banana, and a two-dollar raise in a city where the cost of living is 49 percent higher than the national average, and where the average home price is above $1 million.
In the early days of the pandemic, when we obsessed over Tiger King and stress-baked at home, we saw advertisements thanking essential workers who risked their health so we could go to the hospital or pick up bread from the grocery store. What we did not see was a dramatic increase in their pay, or guarantees that their medical bills would be taken care of should they catch the virus. We saluted them from afar and returned to our quarantine bubbles. Some of us yelled at them for doing their jobs by asking us to enter their places of work wearing a face covering.
Ignore the platitudes. Look to actions. If you can read this, don’t just thank a teacher. Make sure they get all they need to teach our children well, and advocate to get them paid more. It might be a while before we get many new ones.