This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: This is for the teachers who are not okay. I know that we all have had enough bad news and this episode is not to dishearten the people who are making it work and staying optimistic in this confusing, frustrating time. Rather, I created this episode to make people who are not okay to feel heard and validated.
I decided to scrap the topic I had planned for this week and speak to the teachers who are not okay right now. And I wanted to put that phrase right in the title and specify who this is intended for because I know there are a lot of teachers who do seem to be okay overall. Some of them work for supervisors who are supportive or in districts that are pretty reasonable about their expectations right now, and these educators feel like they’re managing everything all right.
For those folks, it can be disheartening to be constantly bombarded with messages about how terrible everything is. And, I never want to paint education as a hopeless dystopian nightmare particularly for people who are making it work and staying pretty optimistic about the whole thing.
I also know educators are giving their all every single day, and you are all finding ways to help kids learn, and I never want that hard work to go uncredited, as if teachers have just rolled over and given up. There’s lots of good stuff happening right now, and I’ve released a number of podcast episodes since March that has highlighted the great work happening, the replicable ideas and practical suggestions, and other topics that are intended to energize you and give you hope. That’s what some folks need right now and I’ve tried to provide it.
Today, though, I want to speak to the people who are not okay, and I want to validate the experiences of those who are struggling to just make it make sense.
Podcast episode summary
- Think of the changes in education like a big ship that’s changing its direction. The process takes a long time and it can feel like the ship is not moving, but that feeling of being stuck is part of the process, too.
- You’re not alone in thinking that a lot of the expectations from teachers right now are outrageous and impractical.
- Those of us who understand pedagogical best practices and know the full scope of the responsibilities of teaching see exactly what’s happening to you, and we know it’s not okay.
- Trust your intuition and experience. Do not allow yourself to be gaslit into believing that their demands are reasonable, and you simply need to work harder.
- We are still in a pandemic. This is still crisis distance learning. This is emergency hybrid teaching. Regardless of how much districts want to pretend we can replicate normal, we cannot.
- Remember that all of this is TEMPORARY. Find that MVP — minimum viable product — and iterate from there. Keep things simple.
- Teaching is not going back to what it was before. But it will not look like THIS forever.
- Do whatever it takes to survive physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. All of these types of health are essential.
- Set limits on what you will attempt to do right now. Create boundaries on your time.
- Decide what you can reasonably accomplish right now, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not being able to do everything.
- You deserve grace and compassion. Give those things to yourself when no one is giving it to you.
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Sometimes I look around and I feel like I’m the only one who feels like we’re still in a pandemic. I see the rush to get back to replicating our old norms for productivity, and I’m just baffled by it, particularly when it comes to the expectations for teaching and learning. So if that’s how you’re feeling, keep listening — I want you to know you’re not alone in those feelings, and I think there are some ways to let them guide you toward the results you want.
Ever since the first school reopening plans were released this summer, I’ve felt like I’m living in an alternate reality. It was always my hope that COVID would be the Great Pause, the Great Awakening, in which we question the status quo, reimagine systems, and finally start doing fewer things better instead of trying to do All The Things All The Time. I do think that these past few months have pushed us socially and personally to create change at a more rapid pace and shaken things up, but COVID has been more like sand in the gears of a relentless productivity factory, rather than a burning down and rebuilding of that factory.
The gears that make our educational system turn have been moving in the same direction for a long time, and it’s like changing the direction of a large ship. You’ve seen that, right — like a cruise ship trying to turn in the ocean? You can’t reverse course instantly with a large ship, especially when it was going full steam ahead. It slows a bit first and keeps moving in the original direction, then it treads water, sort of — it stays in the same place and doesn’t move forward at all even though every engine is hard at work — until finally, it gets momentum in the new and intended direction. It is a process. And I feel like that’s what’s happening right now with schools, only there are 20 different captains each trying to steer in a different direction, and teachers are the engines which are working at top speed but going nowhere.
The good news with this analogy is that it means that the treading water and seemingly not going anywhere is part of the process. Eventually, we will get some momentum and hopefully, it will be in a better direction. But it is a lot of work in the meanwhile.
And it’s very hard to work so hard when you can’t see where we’re going — when the destination is just as unclear as the path to get there. I’ve watched these school reopening plans — these hybrid models, as well as the remote learning directives, and I’m just like — they don’t really expect this to work, right? This is terrible for teachers and kids. This can’t really be the plan.
When I first heard about this idea of having teachers just live stream classroom instruction for the kids at home — that was back in May, from a friend who works in the upper echelons of a major charter school company — I was like, “Friend. You’re kidding me. There’s no way they’ll ever do that, right? The kids will hate it, it’s terrible pedagogy, impossible to manage, and I can’t even count all the privacy violations, not to mention the pressure on teachers to have their classrooms live-streamed into homes with who knows what people picking apart their every move … that’s not actually going to happen right?”
And yet it is, not only for that charter school but all across the U.S. It is absolutely ludicrous to me — the worst of both worlds, in my opinion, yet here we are, because of politics and community pressure and the need to prove teachers are working and to give parents six hours a day of face-to-face instruction as promised, and who knows how many other reasons which have nothing to do with what is actually best for kids or sustainable for teachers.
I’m not going to spend any more time ranting about this or the 300 other models of schooling that I find appalling right now, because you are a classroom practitioner, and you already knew that none of this made sense. You already knew how incredibly hard this was going to be on teachers and how wildly ineffective it would be for many students. You already knew that there are ways to do it effectively, but not when micromanaging teachers and kids are the center of the plan.
I just wanted you to hear someone else say it. That’s my main purpose here. If you’re waking up every single day wondering how this became your life, I want you to know you are not alone. Sometimes it can feel like only people in your exact situation can understand how unsustainable and unmanageable and impractical the expectations are.
So I want to validate what you’re feeling, and tell you that those of us who understand pedagogical best practices and know the full scope of the responsibilities of teaching — the unseen labor, the behind the scenes tasks you are never paid or credited or tanked for — those of us know all of that about this profession … we see exactly what’s happening to you, and we know it’s not okay.
Right now it might feel like everyone who’s not a teacher thinks teachers should just be doing more and working harder, and I just want you to know — I see you. I see what’s being expected of you, and I think it’s just as bananas as you think it is. You are not losing it. You are absolutely correct that what you’re being asked to do is ridiculous and impossible. Honestly, I’ve had to stay offline a lot lately because I just keep closing out the social media apps in disgust, because every time I think there can’t be a new low in the ways kids and teachers are being forced to endure right now, there’s something else to be outraged about.
These expectations are being pushed out to you as if they are reasonable, and I want you to know, you’re not being defeatist, you are correct that you are being set up to fail. What you’re being asked to do is not really possible and certainly not sustainable. I read your posts, I see the news stories, I talk with teachers daily. I can see it clearly as an outside observer. Your district may not admit it, but anyone who understands children, pedagogy, and all the responsibilities of teaching sees it clearly, too.
What’s expected right now of many kids, families, and teachers is not humanly possible on a long-term basis.
So trust your intuition and experience. Do not allow yourself to be gaslit into believing what you’re being asked to do is reasonable, and you simply need to work harder.
You could work 24 hours a day and it would not make this situation okay — not for you, and not for kids.
We are still in a pandemic. This is still crisis distance learning. This is emergency hybrid teaching. Regardless of how much districts want to pretend we can replicate normal, we cannot.
I say this not to discourage you, but to validate your feelings and what you know deep down is true. I want you to avoid running yourself ragged trying to meet expectations that are not designed with you or your students’ best interests in mind.
Instead, remember that all of this is TEMPORARY. Don’t invest too much time and energy into a way of teaching that has already changed five times since last month. Find that MVP — minimum viable product — and iterate from there. Keep things as simple as possible.
Because this is temporary, there is comfort in reminding ourselves: It will not be like this forever. No, teaching is not going back to what it was before. But it will not look like THIS forever. We’re in a temporary holding pattern of sorts, and you need to do whatever is necessary to survive until the next iteration of this profession, this society, this planet.
When I say I want you to do whatever it takes to survive, I mean physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. All of these types of health are essential. I want you to come out on the other side of these challenges and say “I made it, and I am a better teacher and stronger person because of this.”
It is necessary to set limits on what you will attempt to do right now, and choose to intentionally drop the ball in areas that matter less. Create boundaries on your time.
No one else is going to do this for you. They will take as much as you are willing to give and keep asking for more. So don’t wait for other people to ease up. You set the limits on what you can and cannot do.
Don’t wait for a tragedy or breakdown of some sort before you create boundaries on how fast you can work. Decide now how quickly you can turn around assignments and respond to messages, and communicate those timelines to students and families. Let them know what to expect and model how to be a human worker instead of a machine.
So I encourage you: decide what you can reasonably accomplish right now, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for not being able to do everything. The expectations right now for people’s attention spans and mental bandwidth and energy levels and productivity are not reasonable in a pandemic.
I love the line from the Anne of Green Gables remake on Netflix, “Anne with an E”. She says, “I am a conscientious objector of the status quo.” This is what we need right now in our country and in our schools. There are a lot of folks fighting really hard to get us back to the pre-COVID status quo as if that was good enough, as if that was working just for teachers and kids. Turning that giant ship of the status quo is not an easy or fast process but so very needed. Turn it in the direction you want it to go. Be a conscious objector of the status quo.
Resist the pressure to perform at optimal levels when we are not working in optimal conditions. Pushing yourself to work harder when your body’s calling for rest will not help you get ahead.
That approach is part of the old paradigm which has to fall away and be replaced with a way of working, teaching, and learning that is humanized and centered on well-being rather than accomplishment.
You deserve grace and compassion. Give those things to yourself when no one is giving it to you. Rest tonight. Rest this weekend. Rest is necessary for your survival and you don’t need to apologize for it.