The Pressure We Feel

A few weeks ago, Adam was making fun of the super-hero comic book way that I approach teaching. It’s not that I think I am really strong or I have mutant abilities. It's also not that I ever end up saving the day or working classroom miracles. In fact, I tend more toward a bumbling and nerdy version of Clark Kent (he has gotten way too cool in recent iterations) than the red cape and chiseled muscles of Superman. He told me that I am the kind of teacher that, out of some misplaced pride, will die in the classroom before I give up.

“They’ll have to pry your cold, chalk-dusted body from your room.”

Adam has a way of blending compliments and biting critique. He was basically telling me that I was committed, but that I was going to turn into the teaching version of Brett Favre. I’ll keep powering through to my spot in the classroom even if it is not working anymore. There may be a time for all of us when our effort and intentions are blocked by our dwindling ability. There will be a time in my career when my replacement will be a huge upgrade, and I’ll probably still be out there throwing interceptions and trying to jump over desks.

I’ve only been doing this for nine years, and I think I am still trending upwards. I’m still learning more and finding ways to be a little better for the students in my class. But my stubborn will to be in the classroom every day probably gets in the way when I am coughing through a terrible cold, or pushing through a near mental breakdown just to be there.

It’s like I’m saying, “I got this coach. I can tough it out for the team.” I’m not great at recognizing when the coach would probably say you should sit this one out because you are killing yourself and getting in the way.

I have a pride that I dress in false humility and self-deprecation, that pushes me to be close to perfect every day. As though this whole thing is dependent on me. It’s worth noting that, while I know these feelings are irrational, I also know that there are many teachers who have a similar feeling about their classroom.

It is hard for us to believe that the next person up is going to be as prepared and passionate as we are. 

I thought of this recently when I was talking to my sister. She is a far better teacher than I am. I imagine that she is a bit more like superman (or woman) than Clark Kent. Her room looks like it went on some teacher version of “Pimp My Ride,” complete with handmade tables, fancy lighting, beanbags, and all the little things that make for memorable classrooms. But she is not just a decorator, she is the perfect mix between smart, caring, and hardworking. If I am one of those teachers who goes the extra mile, she is one of those teachers that walks barefoot across an entire extra state… in the snow. She spends all day working, pushing, learning, motivating, and, unfortunately, worrying. And she does all of this in Oklahoma. A state that seems determined to ruin their education system and their teachers with low pay and lower resources.

The problem is, that kind of work and passion starts to wear on any of us. Stress starts to take a toll on most good teachers. In my sister’s case, she woke up on Thursday morning thinking that she was having a heart attack. She said that the pain was unbearable, and the nurses and doctors couldn’t even get it under control with drugs.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a heart attack. It turned out that there was some ruptured discs in her upper back and she will probably need surgery to avoid long-term nerve damage and chronic pain. As she went to the ER, heard rumors of heart problems, went to physical therapy, and had an MRI, she could only think about missing a day in her classroom. In fact, when she was describing the chance of surgery, she broke down on the phone. She started crying saying there is no way that she can miss a month or more in her classroom. She told me she might have to push through until winter break so that her students didn’t have to deal with the disruption of missing their teacher mid-year.

I told her that was crazy. She was suggesting that she should risk permanent nerve damage and endure narcotic levels of pain so that she could get through November in her classroom.

And then I remembered Adam’s image of prying my dead body from my teacher desk. My hypocritical claim about her craziness was based more in a moment of clarity and a deep concern for the health of my sister. She isn’t crazy at all. Rather, she is a teacher who believes that her presence is the best scenario for her students. Like so many of us, she feels kind of guilty when she can’t, because of terrible pain or life-altering circumstances, be in her classroom. It’s like we have signed some kind of blood oath to drag ourselves into the classroom and to push through whatever to do so. The only difference is that her sense of self-worth is less inflated than mine. Honestly, she should be teacher of the year.

In Pittsburgh, when I miss a day or a month or a year, my students will definitely slip. But I can trust that I will be replaced by a certified and competent professional. In rural Oklahoma, there is no money or resources to bring in another qualified teacher. There might not even be another qualified teacher if there was the money to hire them. So my sister, while she sits in toe-curling pain, has to think about her class of over 50% special education students being taught by an aid. In her case, she has an excellent aid. But that person is overworked and underpaid just like my sister. And there is no union, so she has to worry about the safety of her job and the realities of life that catch up to all of us.

I've unprofessionally attributed her ruptured discs to the extraordinary amount of tension that she, and many other classroom teachers, feels in her shoulders. So now, as she tries to heal, she is still feeing that tension as she worries about what is happening in her absence. 

It’s not that my sister is crazy, it’s that we have built a system that applies far too much pressure on individuals. Our whole model relies heavily on the superwoman in the classroom, and we find ourselves without much of a backup plan.

Our good teachers feel that pressure. Subconsciously, we think we are the closest thing to a superhero that our students will get. The system sees our work ethic, and whether it is intentional or not, they put more and more pressure on the superheroes.

Until they break.

With ruptured discs, broken minds, other jobs, or too many glasses of wine. There have been too many times that doctors have told my colleagues that they had to take some time off to save their lives. Once, I went to the doctor during a particularly rough time at school and my blood pressure was 170/100.

My sister, and the thousands of teachers like her, will always find a way to be great for her students, but she’ll do this at her own expense if that is what it takes. Teachers like her deserve to have a much needed surgery and trust that her students are under the care of a system that cares for them. She shouldn’t have to feel the need to risk her own health and her family for her classroom.

And niether should you.