Friday, October 3, 2008


A common topic of conversation at work this week has been sustainability. And I do not mean sustainability of our nation's gas-guzzling life-style, or living in a way that takes less of a toll on our earth. No, we have been talking about the sustainability of the teaching life.

The work is so hard, and so draining. We aren't sure how long we can keep doing it, or if we want to keep doing it. Some days we have a lot of joy, and other days we can't even imagine where the joy came from. Often, the moments of joy last just for a few seconds, interspersed among mundanities.

I leave work most days at 4, and I am exhausted. I don't feel like I have the energy to go running, or rock-climbing, or on a date. I vowed to make this a year when I could work, and do a good job, and still go out for drinks on a weeknight. But man, is it hard. You can be totally prepared and on top of things, and the kids will throw you for a loop. Someone will have a fit in your classroom, or a lesson will bomb, or you'll have to work, over and over again, with a student who has such special needs that you're not sure you can make it work for him. You can go to bed early and get a good night's sleep, and you'll still be ready for bed again by 4 the next afternoon.

At work this week, a colleague had to break up a fight in her classroom; another had a student pour water all over her belongings when she was out of the room for lunch; another had to teach 9-4 without a break because her assistant wasn't at work that day. There are unvacuumed rugs and no paper towels; there are kids being hit at home by their moms; there are kids who miss their dads so much it is a physical pain; there are kids living in the midst of violence and poverty. On top of this, there is the constant strain of trying to make kids stay still and focus. Of trying to have a conversation or a lesson while constantly reminding kids to stop playing with the velcro on their shoes, picking up lint off the rug, and nudging the kid next to them just to see what will happen. Of spending your day feeling sometimes like all you do is make people do things they don't want to do. Of seeing how the students love to go outside and explore and learn in a joyful, free, hands-on way, but you have to make them stay inside and control their little bodies that just want to move.

It's hard to figure out how long one person can do this job, before she decides she wants more of her own life, more time for herself. I noticed recently that I am more often sad, or lonely, or desiring of love and affection, than I was in the summer. And someone said to me, "Well, that's because in the summer your life was nurturing you. And now your life isn't anymore, and you need nurturing." It's true. You get home from teaching, and you want someone to rub your back and make you dinner and hand you a glass of wine. But, as several people have pointed out, the people who love you and who you live with can't nurture you constantly. Sometimes they will have bad days. Who wants to live with someone who has such a hard job they need to be taken care of every day?

A friend who is a social worker told me recently she works 4 days a week. Fridays she dedicates to working on her hobby / small business venture: jewelry-making. She said she needs it for her mental health. I started to fantasize about having a 4-day work-week. Never mind the complications of how to do that as a classroom teacher. I was quickly calculating 80% of my salary to see if I could still pay my mortgage (and keep buying outdoor gear, of course). Then I started thinking about which day of the week I would take off. Not Friday... how about Monday?

A similar idea comes from Google, where engineers spend 80% of their time doing their "job," and 20% of their time working on their own creative projects. This is how many of Google's innovations have come about. (The link here is to the google website. Can't quite find out how it all works, and if they really get paid the same amount if they take the 80-20 option.) But, imagine how teaching would be if it worked like that. 80% of your time teaching; 20% of your time to work on exciting, innovative curriculum projects. (I owe this idea to Kirsten -- she brought it up a few years ago.)

Because exciting ideas about curriculum energize me -- they remind me why I'm a teacher. Wednesday after work I was deflated about my job, and talking about this sustainability question with a couple colleagues. Then I had an Experiential Education planning meeting, about our partnership with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, and I got excited and energized. My exhaustion dissipated. To have time built in to your schedule for this -- to design and research and write curriculum -- would be restorative. It would absolutely help with the sustainability question.

Every year I struggle with these questions. Every year, right around November, I start to fantasize about other jobs I could have. (It came a little early this year.) The overwhelming difficulty of the daily task we face seems to make all teachers wonder about this, and many leave. I have seen dozens of teachers leave my school in the past 8 years: for family, for consulting jobs, for curriculum-writing jobs, for graduate school, for other careers, for other schools where the work is easier. The question is always there: what else could I be? What would my life be like if my job didn't consume me?

1 comment:

  1. yes. Sustainability. I have been thinking about this more than normal recently. I may have to muse on it a bit further and see if I get anywhere with it.

    Hi. ♥