The following is a piece I authored in the Fall of 2015 that was published in TC Public Space as part of their Hidden Curriculum issue.
Teaching is a second career for me. I came to the field after an unfulfilling run in journalism and marketing, holding a belief that the lessons and insights of an adverse childhood made me a logical fit for bolstering youth. But after a serious bout of burnout within my first five years of teaching, I made the decision to continue my education at Teachers College, if only to gain some footing on the foundation that had quickly slipped from underneath me. The system was far bigger and more complex than I had anticipated, and my place in it — nominal in scale. I had been eaten alive.
Having had a personal meditation and yoga practice for nearly twenty years, I found it peculiar that such a thing could happen. I sought out my own support through a series of self-funded and grant-provided trainings on mindfulness and yoga for stress and trauma. I became familiar with a variety of spiritual modalities that had been transposed into practical skills and techniques for use by both teachers and students. I sought out the research of those within the sciences and social sciences. I further investigated ancient and ethereal texts and began to apply them to my classroom practice. Over the past few years, I have found myself in opportune circumstances, which have allowed me to facilitate mindfulness workshops and contemplative teaching practices for teachers.
But my story is rare.
I have gained enough leverage to lend a hand to others around me, but the stories of burnout are copious, and they singe the skin upon hearing. During the summer, a fellow researcher and I presented on mindfulness as part of teacher self-care at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) TEACH15 conference in Washington, D.C. When we saw the room filled to capacity with educators, we realized how their attendance marked an enormous need and an unspoken consent to be acknowledged as part of a collective voice searching for transformation, the chance to survive and potentially thrive in the field.
My academic work at TC has prompted me to make swift connections between theory and daily life lived. I have embraced a renewed logic that acknowledges educational institutions as places of conflict and inequity. When we talk about the “hidden curriculum,” we often focus the conversation on the unspoken or informal values and lessons transferred to students, often times reifying a social status of oppression. My work with mindfulness in schools has redirected that lens toward looking at the way the current culture of teachers is constituted. I find myself stepping back to consider how the cultural institution of education acts upon the teacher. I scrutinize the way in which the scarred performance of struggling teachers diminishes teacher agency, and how our current system seems dependent upon teacher burnout.
Unfortunately, the majority of current research on teacher emotions and burnout relies on the logic of a problematized teacher, and even more so, teachers’ problematic feelings. These “hot topic” conversations distract from the critique of the broken system that puts teachers at risk. The system asks teachers to overcome their instincts — instincts that signal to them that they are tired, sick, or angry due to overwork or complexities out of their control. Instead, a self-improving, or self-perfecting condition, which seeks to construct a better teacher, is put in the spotlight. The message becomes, “Fix the teacher.” And school institutions have become the outlet for this campaign.
The smoke is thick, and the conflicts remain consistent. Today, the lives of teachers and students are running in tandem even more than we may assume, both situated as problematic by those in power, and in need of being acted upon to correct alleged failures. In this dilemma, several stereotypes become apparent: the teacher hero, the burnt out teacher, the bad teacher. While the culture of teachers transfers the expectations to be selfless, resilient, growth-minded, and unshakable in the face of day-to-day challenges and complexities, the social and political structures in schools reproduce the symptoms of struggle. Operating in a continuous loop of limited agency creates a smoldering condition of desensitization to one’s ability to confront the problems at hand. It becomes difficult to process a fair analysis of the social, emotional, or political demands one might face, or to provide opportunities for a solution generated from the center of teachers’ experiences. Yet, the policymakers, rather than the teachers, choose the plan of action, and the stereotypes are reinforced, making teacher tiering and management seem necessary. More importantly, the strategies and interventions for teacher self-care and performance in curricula of professional development are consumed with little critique. Teachers are in such need to find a way that the formal and informal lessons of living up to the “good teacher” image often arrive in moments of the most vulnerability.
Such theoretical concerns are brought to life when encountering the inflammatory atmosphere of faculty break rooms, or felt fully when policies are set, which squelch professionalism through breaches of ethics or mechanized expectations. Relationships become stretched; our perceptions shift and bend; layer upon layer of initiatives are introduced like juggling balls in a circus act. Our pedagogical roots are tested over and over again. Our exertion of voice, often regulated and limited, is habitually met by incongruous solutions. As teachers, we feel fixed in our position with little leverage or opportunity to exert change or leadership, while the symptoms of weariness reinforce our perceived immobility. As the smoke rises, the powers that be remain stable while hundreds of thousands “drop out” of the profession annually. The unspoken lessons of teacher failure are taught year after year backed by the endorsement of its numerous “graduates.” Consequently, the fires of teacher burnout blaze on.