It’s Time To Face Some Difficult Truths About Teaching

Many teachers don’t have the luxury of deciding what’s sustainable for them. In these cases, they somehow ‘survive’ or they quit.

Over on our newly-launched TeachThought Learning Spaces, a teacher asked how to help children in all the ways that they need/deserve when both parents and the teachers themselves are already struggling. This was my response and while quickly written and imperfect, I wanted to share it here for readers who haven’t joined the community in hopes that there might an idea in there somewhere that could help contribute to some kind of conversation.

The response appears below.

There obviously isn’t an easy answer to this. I might start with outlining (or at least thinking about with some clarity) what ‘kind’ of teaching (in regards to scale, urgency, responsibilities, etc.) is actually sustainable for teachers.

This answer will vary from teacher to teacher, so it should be thought of in general (that is, teachers in general) and individually (a specific teacher at a specific point in their career with very specific circumstances in their personal lives, and so on).

But with some kind of idea of what’s sustainable, you’ve now identified in a practical sense what’s possible over time because if you go beyond this, it’s inherently destructive and—well, simply not sustainable.

This kind of teaching doesn’t meet the needs of every child, every day but what school or classroom does? It’s these sorts of implicit and explicit promises to local communities that have cornered schools and teachers for years. Recent events have only emphasized how impossible great teaching is over time. Well, that’s not entirely true. There are great teachers who do great work but that’s different than a sustainable approach to education that meets everyone’s needs.

Back to your question: if instead of focusing on what teachers can’t possibly sustain and instead clarify what they can, you can then work backward from that to see what kind of functions and responsibilities and so on that children need that can’t be met by teachers (or most teachers most of the time). Then, together with families and communities, support systems for those children and their families and communities can be developed and capacity can be grown over time without eating teachers alive.

There’s obviously more to it than this. Many don’t have the luxury of setting any kind of limit or describing what’s sustainable for them. In these cases, they either make it or they don’t—they somehow ‘survive’ (which they shouldn’t have to do) or they quit. And that’s a difficult place to be.

I’d hope that if these sorts of realities are communicated to the public—that children need help and teachers need help and schools need help and this isn’t working—that some kind of change would have to happen. If not, the message may need to be sent again.

The answer, as usual, should involve a healthy and interdependent community whose members know one another and care for and support one another but that would require shifts in culture, social norms, and so on—the kind of change that takes time.

For now, I’d advise, if at all possible, for a teacher to do exactly what they can and resolve in their mind that that’s exactly all anyone can do. If you’re driving a car across the desert and you need to average 35 mpg to make it without running out of gas and you drive too fast to maintain that fuel efficiency–that’s a problem. We would see cars littering the side of the road, out of fuel. The analogy breaks down when we examine who is actually controlling the speed of the car. Is it the teachers? Schools? A government agency?

Some would blame the desert and some the cars and some the driver and so on. But for each individual driver, the accountability is first to themselves as human beings and to their families, and then, intact and whole, they can venture out into the world and do their work.

Another analogy: we rarely blame police officers for increases in crime. Why? Because of how we think as a society about police officers—our beliefs and definitions expectations and so on. Let’s push that analogy a little further. Imagine if you talked to an officer who was so upset with the increase in crime that they were working (enforcing the law) at such a rate that they thought we would have to quit because it was too much. And imagine further if they blamed themselves for all the crimes they couldn’t stop. This is an imperfect comparison but hopefully, the general point is clear: while this sort of personal accountability would be noble, it’s also dangerous and (here’s that word again) unsustainable.

So, again: maybe start by describing or clarifying or otherwise communicating (first to one another as educators, then to other stakeholders) what is, in fact, sustainable.

If this doesn’t happen the results, of course, are predictable. We would be collectively carrying on with a broken and unsustainable system of education that isn’t meeting the needs of children while misusing (putting it lightly) the best hope that system ever had for success.

I’m not sure most parents have ever fully grasped all the ways we (as a society) let both children and educators down and the cost of these shortcomings.

If they have, in fact, grasped it and are indifferent, we have a problem with social norms and priorities and beliefs. If not, it’s a problem, at least in part, of communication and understanding.

And that’s why teachers have to be honest with themselves and everyone around them—not with emotion or timidity or numbness or anger but rather with reason, precision, specificity, and a clear tone that communicates the scale and urgency and importance of our collective circumstances.