By Angie Miller
A friend of mine shared a cartoon with me recently where a teacher has locked herself in the bathroom, wailing, “No! I don’t wanna go back to school!” while her husband consoles her from the other side of the door, saying, “But you have to…you’re the teacher!”
It is August, the Sunday of summer, and teachers everywhere are battling their back-to-school demons, trying to balance precious time with their families while also reflecting on how to improve their practices and preparing for (more) rolled-out districtwide initiatives. I don’t know a teacher right now who isn’t riddled with the anxiety created by a career in which this delicate balance always feels impossible. We have all locked ourselves in a proverbial bathroom.
But it’s not because we don’t want to go to school. It’s not because our summers were spent lounging around, being lazy. It was just that during the summer we were able to read professional books and really think about them, take grad classes, rewrite curriculum, think about why we do what we do. We had the space to gather our teaching selves back up. We were able to get enough sleep and exercise and eat dinners with our families. In a nutshell, we were able to find ourselves again—and that’s hard to let go of every fall.
I have never met a teacher who hasn’t struggled with the personal life/school life balance. Teachers make critical sacrifices that impact their families and health. And many leave the profession because after so long, one can only continue to perform under unreasonable circumstances and constraints before losing our very minds. Or our very selves.
But this August, we should approach the new school year in a different way. David Whyte writes in his book “Consolations”:
“Work, among all its abstracts, is actually intimacy, the place where the self meets the world…[it] is the inside made into the outside…we stay alive and our work stays alive.”
I love this. Teaching is an intimate profession—it is where our beliefs in the world manifest themselves. We are in this career, not because we believe in testing scores or standards or the other things that make up meeting agendas and political conversations, but because we believe in the potential of humanity. We show up at school every morning because we believe in our students. We believe that there is goodness bubbling at every surface, and it is our hope that we can help our students grasp onto that goodness as they step out into the world. We believe in failure and vulnerability. We believe that even after terrible days filled with rejection, the rewards derived from hard work are possible. And when we are alive, our practice is alive.
Teaching is where and how we meet the world.
And so instead of burning out because we are losing our very selves, we need to remember that teaching is our very selves. Don’t mistake this as a justification to forego our families and our health, or to succumb to the notion that we must work 10-12 hour days every day. We still need to continue to push administrations to lighten our loads—we still need to be given the time and space to collaborate and reflect, and we still need to look for efficiency in our routines. Those struggles will always make our jobs hard and they are very real.
But we also need to remember the importance of how and what we do. As I sit and look at my list of tasks, rather than feeling resentful or overwhelmed, I need to remember that this list is here because it is who I am. We need to take joy in the simple acts of teaching and let them feed our souls, because our souls are meant to be immersed in the blood, sweat, and tears of education.
If we remember that our work is the intimate intersection of our beliefs and our worlds, we may not feel like we’re losing ourselves to this profession, but rather that it is a way to find ourselves every day.