Recently, in Chicagoland, a story hit the papers about a teacher committing suicide. She wrote in her suicide note that the major reason for this drastic act was work-related. According to her colleagues, this woman took her own life because of the bullying and fear she experienced at her school.
As I discussed this event with a friend who is a current CPS teacher, he mentioned that in the comments section of the article many non-educators were shocked and horrified at this tragic happening but were also quick to assume that the woman must have been "soft" or had some kind of underlying mental health problem. But, he quipped, when many CPS teachers heard about the incident, they just shook their heads and said, "Yeah, I can see that happening."
Truth is, so could I. When I think back to my measly one year of teaching at a horribly-run CPS elementary school, I can very easily imagine that scenario unfolding with a number of my colleagues and yes, even with myself.
Did you all catch that? Suicide is not considered shocking in the realm of teaching in CPS.
And I don't think the general public understands the toll that years of working in an increasinlgly horrible environment coupled with the latest wave of teacher-bashing actually takes on the people who do the hard work of education.
Let me try and paint you a picture:
Imagine you've had one of the worst weeks of your life. You haven't slept in months, you have money troubles building, your relationships are failing, you feel unheard and unappreciated at home and at work, you worry daily about your future and whether or not you will have a job next year or even next week, and the idea of getting up to go to work the next day is practically unbearable. You need a moment to catch your breath, a moment to clear the clutter of worry, failure and fear from your clouded mind. But you don't get it. There is too much to get done. And all the while, you think, if I don't get it done, I am failing these kids. I have no choice but to keep pushing.
Now add onto that a vindictive, power-hungry boss who would fire you as soon as look at you, and colleagues at work who are themselves so tired, afraid and overwhelmed that they are one bad day from breakdown.
And then there are your students. God you love them. But some of them have problems you simply do not know how to fix. Or, even with the interventions you know to do through experience and training, you also know it will take all of your mental energy to implement them. You don't have that kind of energy left. Some of your kids are currently homeless and show up to school unbathed and with dirty clothes. Others have developed significant behavior problems and despite your best efforts, they continue to fight, curse, and act out in class. Some of them are so embarrassed they can't read that they throw books off their desks and rip up their hand-outs. You know deep down that most of the difficulties your children face arebeyond your control. But still, most days you come home and cry because of the guilt and helplessness.
You also know that your job is on the line if you don't get these kids to perform on some silly test. You know the tests are a joke, that they do not capture the intelligence, wit, humor and spark that live within your students. But still they hang there, always lurking in the shadows. Time is slowly marching until the day you must administer the dreaded test and seal your fate.
Now imagine turning on your TV or flipping through the Tribune or Sun-Times to see yet another story loudly proclaiming that the problem with America's schools is, well, you. "More teachers must be fired!" they scream. "Teachers are the ones failing the kids, we need to hold them accountable!" "Teachers are lazy and need to work longer, harder, for less pay!" "Teacher pensions are destroying our economy!" (Whoa, did I miss the part where newspapers yelled at the people who caused the financial crisis that is slashing education budgets around the country? Are the mortgage brokers, big banks and financial industries getting demeaned every five seconds? How about the corporations not paying their fair share of taxes which help schools? And don't forget the politicians and their horrible education policies. Surely no one reading the news is believing this baloney, are they?) And every time you hear the insults or name-calling you think to yourself, "Well what the heck are any of you doing to help these kids..." The unfairness of it all burns.
Now stretch that one terrible week into nine months. Welcome to CPS.
Of course, the great irony is that as the powers that be complain about "quality" teachers they create teaching environments where it becomes impossible to be great. Teachers at my old school started to look liked the walking dead as the stress and fear accumulated. The increased "accountability" robbed us all of the very qualities which would make us great teachers: our passion, kindness, drive, energy, camaraderie and humor.
And then there are people, like our lovely mayor, who seem to enjoy kicking you while you're down. Rahm would have us believe that something like extending the school day is so easy. Oh, that smurk on his face as he seems to say "How dare you expect to be paid for your extra time!" And "Sure, you've been working this whole year close to breakdown, barely scraping by, without any resources and with abnormally large class sizes, but I'm sure you can come up with 90 extra minutes of activities for your kids. Oh, and if you really cared, you'd do this willingly and for free. And stop asking for paper to make copies or books for them to read, you greedy teachers. And no, we are not going to fix your school building, give you the resources you say you need, or help you in any way, shape, or form. You suck, your school sucks, and we are just biding our time until we can shut the whole thing down."
Now, maybe not every school and every teacher has as bad a time as that, but I know I did. And I know too many other teachers out there who are experiencing that same fear, intimidation, and stress. Teaching under these unacceptable conditions has become the rule, not the exception. I recently came across a blog post which described something called "compassion fatigue" which is "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress." The author goes on to say:
Like nurses, teachers confronting these pathologies [such as abuse, abandonment and alienation] are forced to perform triage. But teachers still have to somehow find the time and energy afterward to teach the subject matter they were hired to do. The debilitating effects on them are cumulative. It's little wonder, therefore, that teachers in inner-city schools have a higher rate of absenteeism and turnover than their colleagues in the suburbs. It's also not at all surprising that teachers who are faced with the challenge often find themselves drawing away from their students. The same sadness and despair that nurses report also affect teachers.
Now, if you've been paying attention to the education reform debate at all in recent years, you will know that this is the place in the story where the corporate reformers of the nation, you know, the Michelle Rhees, Bill Gates, Arne Duncans, and yes, Rahm Emanuels, would jump in and say something ridiculous like "no excuses" or "poverty is not destiny." They will fill your ear with talk of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" while completely ignoring the hard bigotry of poverty, racism and crippling income inequality. Their ignorance of the reality of life for students and teachers alike in the inner cities is frankly, criminal.
No more I say.
This post is for all my teacher colleagues out there. It's time for us to fight back. It's time to take back our profession. Teachers, use your natural inclination to educate and start teaching your friends and families about the hard realities of our profession. And don't be afraid to sing our praises. What we do is good work and it needs to be protected and cherished.
And while you're at it, don't forget to teach as many people as possible about the true nature of corporate reform and how it's left behind entire neighborhoods. Let people know about the ridiculous goals of No Child Left Beind and the evils behind high-stakes testing. Tell the truth about charters, that they are not, in fact, miracles. Speak up about the reality of Teach for America -- how placing untrained novices in classrooms with the hardest to educate students is unjust and wrong. Make people start to at least question the hype!
More than anything, make the act of teacher-bashing unacceptable. We know that when we are overwhelmed, upset, fatigued, demoralized and stressed out beyond our limits, we will be no good for our students. Remember, fighting for teachers isfighting for students.
So fight for the kinds of teaching environments which benefit kids. Fight for workplaces where teachers do not flee, breakdown, or God forbid take their own lives. Fight for a steady and strong group of committed professionals who actually stick around long enough to bring the slow change that is needed in our schools. Fight for the respect we deserve. Fight for the autonomy to make decisions on curriculum, implementation, and assessment that help the kids sitting in front of us. Fight for equity in resources so we have the tools to acutally do the difficult job of teaching. Fight for the mental health that we need to be the excellent educators kids deserve.
By fighting, we can beat back some of the hopelessness and exhaustion. We need to stop blaming ourselves, alone and guilty, and instead get angry at the forces that are hurting us and the important work we do. And all you non-educators out there need to get angry right alongside us. So sing along with me:
Katie Osgood is a special education teacher at a Psychiatric Hospital in Chicago. Before that, she taught in a Chicago Public School and in Japan.