November 1, 2010

What Pushes Us to the End?

**I didn't mean to post such a long post for my first NaBloPoMo, but this is an important entry about what might drive a teacher to take his own life, a question that will be on the minds of teachers in my city this week.**

An off-handed comment from my administrator is on my mind tonight. I don't even remember how we got there, but I suppose we were talking about how some of our students are in serious crisis these days and how that affects their performance in school. Same old story, but in the last few years, it's been a more critical story.

Without revealing any details whatsoever, my principal revealed to me that there were several teachers also in crisis on our campus. I wasn't at all surprised.

The Vegas Art Guy
has posted about a teacher who committed suicide on campus today. I'm instantly sick--heart-broken and near tears--at the thought, but in so many ways, I'm not surprised. I could see the same thing happening at my own school, and I don't even know why the teacher at his school might have been distraught enough to take his own life.

It's not that I could point fingers at certain teachers and say, "Watch out for that one!" I'm not really even saying that anyone would commit suicide at my school. It's just that I can see that there are too many stressors in teachers' lives right now.

Times are tough in Las Vegas. The economy is tight, and people have lost homes and jobs. I can think of a few teachers who have lost homes in the past few years. I can't imagine what that might be like to lose a simple security like a roof over one's head. I have two close friends who are over $100,000 upside-down in their homes and have sought help with no results. It's likely they will let their homes go, going bankrupt in the process. One is near retirement, so her security is no longer solid. I can think of a handful of teachers whose husbands have lost their jobs, too. Construction and tourist-related jobs have been plentiful in the past decade, but now there's nothing. Being in "the union," is pretty meaningless as there are simply no jobs.

It's not just Las Vegas. Our whole state is in financial crisis, and that directly affects the funding in our schools. In the last two years, we teachers have been living in fear of budget cuts. We've been threatened with pay cuts and furlough days. Staffing has been cut, but for the most part, we haven't lost too many teachers thanks to attrition, but we have certainly lost positions and programs. At my school, our use of materials has been seriously scrutinized. There's this constant feeling of being choked. That's what it feel like to me, anyway.

Essentially, we are constantly being asked to do more with less, and like puppets, we dance on command.

Our principal told us today that we should expect next year to be even worse. She's said that the last two years, and she has lied neither time.

With NCLB and The Race to the Top--and whatever other catch phrase out there--we are certainly being pushed to do whatever it takes to make our students perform. Interventions, differentiation, focus on bubble kids. Make. It. Happen.

The pressure is high, and administrations from the school level up to district levels scrutinize our scores. If you are a poor math teacher, good luck with those requirements to...well...I don't know what they have to do, but there's more paper work and mandatory teaching procedures that have to be documented. (I hear about it from the math teachers around me, but I don't want their extra work load to rub off on me, so I try to stay clear.) Math scores are low everywhere, and the public knows it since district quarter assessment scores are published in the newspaper. Published in the newspaper, from pre-algebra on up. I remember the first time that happened. It was not pretty. It caused a lot of panic, and it made it look like a lot of hard-working teachers weren't doing their jobs. It's so demoralizing.

The job alone is stressful with the performance emphasis, which is fine. We all want our students to do well. I mean it, too. Even the grumpiest teachers want their students to be successful. When it comes to performance, what we teachers are finding, and I know this is a prevailing issue everywhere, is that students do not necessarily want to achieve as badly as we want them to. Some of them are downright stubborn in resisting our the quest to get some damned knowledge in their gullets. Oh, boy, does it seem like force-feeding some days.

I've been one of those teachers who has been at her wit's end in dealing with students, and I know I have some colleagues who also have their issues. I deal mostly with apathy, but some of my colleagues have serious behavior problems (much like the one from my night school), and multiples of those problems in a class. A colleague whom I consider a friend has had to completely redesign her curriculum because her students simply cannot handle any kind of interactive work. It's a shame that her students will not get the quality education she was prepared to give them if they'd just let her.

Our 8th grade class is particularly difficult this year. Usually we just have to stand out in the halls, and our presence keeps things flowing, but this year, we have to actually get into the mix to move things along. Our students have been some fights, but not really in our hallway (unless you count the one that happened in a classroom while there was a substitute in the classroom next to mine), and I think our constant vigilance can be thanked for that. Our students are lose cannons this year. They are immature. They are mostly too goofy with no common sense, with a few violent ones mixed in. There are some days, and some mixes of kids in classrooms that prevent teachers from doing their jobs well. Or doing the job at all. It's easy for us to blame the kids--especially when they deserve it--but you know, our administrators still put the responsibility back on us when we are ill-prepared to do crowd control in riot conditions. They don't teach us that in college.

Dear readers, I know everyone has his/her stories of unmanageable students who make our jobs a living hell. I've been there. Some of my dear colleagues have to go there each and everyday.

On top of all the financial and professional woes, I know we also have staff members who have gravely ill family members. One of my colleagues has a teenage son who has been battling cancer for two years. Through multiple surgeries and treatments, she's tried to stay strong. We've had a handful of our staff members lose family members, some lost parents to old age, and while other lost siblings to suicide and illness.

Sick family members don't hold a candle to the health problems some of our teachers have had. One of my friends was months worrying about the lumps in her breast, while several of my female friends have had a myriad of female problems, one of which required 8 weeks of recovery. I know we also have people with heart conditions, and diabetes plagues a few other teachers. A little over a year ago, we lost one of our own teachers to a cancerous brain tumor, a battle he bravely fought in front of our very eyes.

So, when my principal dropped the bomb that some of our teachers are just as much in crisis as some of our students, I didn't even bat an eye. Some of my dear colleagues are dealing with multiple personal and professional issues. Life can be hard sometimes, and this job can be hard.

I am deeply saddened that one of our own district teachers took his own life. He could have very easily have been dealing with some of the issues that teachers in my own school have been dealing with in the past few years. It's too bad that he ended his life so violently.

We always focus on how our students are doing, but I wonder if anybody really cares how the teachers are doing. Many of us teachers are bad at even paying attention to our own physical and mental health stressors. We give, give, give. Others take, take, take. But we also feel pain and frustration. Some of us get the end of our ropes with no safety net underneath.

It all makes us human. How do we cope with our lives? We don't need to be tragic heroes. We just need to be okay.

Dear friends, please take care of yourself first. Reach out to friends and family when things get tough.

And watch out for each other. That teacher at his/her rope might climb up the next day, but does it hurt to take a moment to listen? Perhaps an intervention or advice is needed, or perhaps just another sane human being to vent to can help.

Some of my mantras might help you or your colleagues who get stressed out:

1. That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Embrace the strife of life. It makes us interesting.

2. Things can't get any worse, right?

3. It's just a job.


The Vegas Art Guy said...

Your 8th grade class sounds like last year's 9th graders. That's not good news. Hopefully they will start to turn it around.

Yesterday sucked but today was better because we were doing something besides sitting there thinking about what happened.

Hopefully things will start to approach normal within a week or two.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

What a stunningly insightful and beautiful post. You are so on target.