Teaching Is: A Catch-22 Profession

We live in a nation that values education but disdains the educator–which has made our profession a perfect Catch-22.

This guest post appears in coordination with Teacher Appreciation Week and #TeachingIs, a social media movement seeking to elevate public perception of the teaching profession. Click here to learn how you can participate.

Normally, I’m a glass half-full kind of gal. Many Southern women are raised to be this way; in my state, optimism is the only way to survive the “dirt-eating, barefoot and pregnant, racist, illiterate, pick-up truck with a rebel flag and a shotgun” stereotypes that seem to define Mississippians to the rest of the nation.

So I was surprised by the connection I felt to Bill Ferriter’s blog post Teaching is a Grind, written to contribute to the conversation surrounding the Center for Teaching Quality’s #TeachingIs social media campaign, which is currently in full swing for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Bill writes candidly, admitting that he is “a glass half empty kind of guy” who “wants to be sure to bring a bit of pessimism to the party.” But instead of being pessimistic without a purpose, he wants to make sure that “people realize that there’s more to teaching than shiny red apples and classrooms full of smiling children.”

So, why did a glass half-empty post resonate so strongly with a glass half-full teacher? Because it was so amazingly transparent and honest. And that’s one thing teachers are rarely allowed to be, even with each other.

We live in a nation that values education but disdains the educator – which has made our profession a perfect Catch-22.

If teachers are transparent with our struggles and discouragement, we’re labeled complainers. The kind of teachers who don’t really care about our students, or people who teach because it’s easy money with a three-month summer vacation. What a joke! I spent last summer pursuing professional development, planning units for the upcoming school year, and taking graduate classes at my local university to complete my Ph.D. I spent more money developing my professional practice than I earned. (Easy money and vacation indeed!)

Sadly, these negative misperceptions exist within our ranks as well. At times, voicing discontent with the status quo invites the anger and disrespect of other educators who seemingly have it all together. Teachers who believe they have the right to judge other educators for not “doing it right” or for expressing any negative feelings about our profession.

These are teachers who have carefully hidden their struggles and angst behind closed classroom doors, mistakenly equating silence with protecting the profession. Sadly, these educators are actually contributing to the problem by insisting that we ignore the huge elephant in the room: teacher discontent.

If we follow their lead, stoic and resolute in our suffering, then we risk becoming the bitterly bummed-out, the burned out, and even the bumped out (if our scores aren’t high enough).

To be honest, sometimes it seems as though we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

So far, I’ve posted several #TeachingIs snippets and pictures to Twitter, all of them upbeat, happy, and hopefully inspiring. And they were all true. But just as true would have been an alternative #TeachingIs: embracing short-term memory loss because it means you’re able to come back to work each day, or wondering if you can sue your alma mater’s College of Education for not preparing you for the disrespect and disillusionment you face more days than not. I say these as a joke, but there is truth to them.

I’m not brave enough to post those kinds of messages, even though I’ve felt them. Do I hate my profession or my students? Not a chance. I love what I do and where I work. There are 120 reasons I show up each day. But I’m just as human, frail, and pessimistic as the next guy.

The only difference: I work really, really hard not to let it show. I don’t want to be labeled a complainer, a bad teacher, or (gasp!) unprofessional.

But Bill’s piece reminded me that it’s not unprofessional to voice discontent and discouragement. Ignoring the elephant in the room only works for so long. Ever wonder why we lose over 40% of new teachers in their first five years of teaching?

Until we face this issue head on—by making it acceptable to be transparent with one another about the problems facing our profession—nothing will change.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we do not need to deny our discontent; rather, we need to channel it through creative outlets.  If we are going to be labeled complainers, we must be constructive complainers – transparent with our struggles and creative with our solutions.

Recognizing that we ALL struggle with feeling overwhelmed, disrespected, and frustrated doesn’t make us bad teachers. It makes us human. And it gives us the freedom to collaboratively seek solutions— knowing that we’re not alone, that we don’t have to hide behind our classroom doors, that acknowledging our problems makes us stronger.

Teachers are in a profession that others may never understand, respect, or value. But we know what we’re worth, what we do, and why we do it. By focusing on our commonality, seeking answers to the difficult questions, and striving to be our best selves for our students and for each other, we can show the world what #TeachingIs.

 

Deidra Gammill, NBCT, Ph.D is a high school English and reading teacher at a rural public high school in Petal, Mississippi. She has been teaching on the K-12 and college level for sixteen years, teaching in South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. She is a member of the Teacher Leadership Initiative and a CTQ Collaboratory member. 

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