Few things will destroy your self-worth more completely than doing something simply because someone else wants you to do it. When you convince yourself that it is okay for someone to decide who you are, what you can do or how you should proceed in your life, you open the floodgates to powerlessness and worthlessness. –Iyanla Vanzant
I wonder, as a collective group, what sense of powerlessness and worthlessness teachers and students experience in schools across the country? From as early as my first year of teaching, I have waged a war to create a creative and engaging environment for my students; from Dia De Los Muertos projects, to memoir documentaries, to podcast interviews about immigration and its personal effects on students, to art and graphic design as part of the curriculum in my English class. But I didn’t always have the courage or the language to stand up for what I believed to be true at the core of my soul. It wasn’t about losing or winning – it was about having the courage to stand up for what I believed and having dialogue in which everyone’s voice could be validated. Most of the time, I stayed silent, or worse convinced myself that compromising was part of being a team player. The problem, I was the only one compromising.
The betrayal to myself didn’t happen all at once – it occurred through the gradual erosion of my voice. I remember being told I had to require students to take Cornell-Notes, and though this process was rigid and contrived, I went along with it and convinced myself that it wasn’t so bad. In turn I tried to convince my students that Cornell-Notes were going to make them successful in school and disregarded their input and ideas of other more authentic ways of taking notes. Cornell-Notes worked for some students, not all.
I remember having to adjust my lessons to reflect the content of the standardized tests rather than the content of my students’ imagination; sitting in meetings where I was asked for my opinion on decisions that had been made long before my presence in the room. I had entered a system that attempted to standardize our children and in the process it had begun to standardize me.
I’ve recently been reflecting on the idea of powerlessness vs. self-determination. Powerlessness is at the very least a condition that the students we serve in public education are very well acquainted with. I reflected on the paradigms and perceptions that teachers have toward students who are “apathetic” or “lack responsibility” or are deemed just plain “lazy.” I hear comments like, “students these days are just entitled and want everything handed to them” or “students have no work ethic.” “What is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behavior may be a function of the fact that they have little to no say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation” (Alfie Kohn). Certainly Kohn hits at the core of what may be at the very least destroying students’ passion and fire for life. We tell students not to limit their imagination, yet we paint a pretty dim picture for them; we tell students they can be anything they want to be in life, yet we dictate what they have to learn; we tell them they must be problem solvers, yet we give them pretty scripted lessons and provide scaffolding for the scaffolding; and we tell students to take responsibility for their decisions, yet they get very little opportunity to make decisions and use critical judgment.
The irony is that students reflect the same sense of powerlessness that teachers are experiencing everyday in classrooms across the country, which also leads me to reflect on the paradigms and perceptions that administrators and policy makers have toward teachers who are “apathetic” or “ineffective” or are deemed “bad teachers.” Some of the rampant comments about teachers who aren’t viewed as effective are that “they aren’t open to change,” “they just don’t want to work that hard,” “they don’t care about students,” and “they are just here for a pay check.” However, similar to our most disengaged students, this too is a function of the fact that many teachers have little to no say about the policies that ultimately control the framework of the every day classroom. In many districts teachers are given scripted curriculum and pacing guides that ensure teachers are teaching the same novels at the same time, down to the day-to-day lessons and activities, a sort of conveyor belt delivery of information for both teachers and students. Teachers are compelled to follow policies they have no input for, teach compulsory curriculum, and constantly fulfill insurmountable expectations. It’ not difficult to see how a once passionate and zealous teacher could gradually become disengaged. Teachers are expected to inspire students, yet they are required to teach rote standards-based curriculum that at best feels irrelevant to students and their lives. Teachers are also expected to personalize instruction, and yet in middle school and high school, when students are experiencing the greatest biological, psychological, and emotional changes, class size is 36 with teachers teaching five to six periods a day. Teachers are held accountable for student learning and performance, yet they have little to no say on educational reform and policy.
Public education was founded on the idea that it would be the societal equalizer and that at its roots it would be the foundation for developing a true democratic country. One would assume that a country like the United States so committed to the idea of democracy, would invite its teachers and children to sit at the decision-making table. The irony is that students and teachers are rarely invited to become active participants in our education system; their job is to be passive and do as they are told. So their sense of powerlessness grows and grows and manifests itself in various forms of indirect resistance. For students it’s arriving late to school if they even attend at all, starting fights, exploding and cussing out the teacher, vandalizing school property, or simply not bringing their notebook and pencil. For teachers it’s complete disengagement from meetings, avoiding any involvement with school initiatives or program implementation, or simply doing the minimum of what is asked of them.
How is powerlessness the antithesis of self-determination? Anyone who does not have control over their learning, their interests, and their desires will not have any sense of purpose or determination. In fact, when people feel completely helpless and limited, they tend to fall into deep states of depression and other forms of mental distress. The following is a clip from the movie “Freedom Writers” in which a teacher’s mental distress is manifested through anger and a deep sense of inadequacy.
My intent here is not to excuse this teacher’s behavior in any way, but rather to shine light on how teachers who may have once been passionate about their craft can become so rancorous toward a system they perceive as overbearing and dictatorial. In this scene, the seasoned teacher Margaret Campbell is clearly threatened by Erin Gruwell’s (played by Hilary Swank) passion and determination to help her students succeed. I must point out that Mrs. Campbell is also dealing with a school that once served mostly white middle class students and quickly saw an influx of students from diverse backgrounds that came from violent and impoverished neighborhoods, and her prejudice and xenophobia has also rendered her inadequate to serve the students.
However, There are some dynamics I would like to explore in this scene. I sense for one, that Ms. Campbell is threatened by Mrs. Gruwell’s passion because it forces her to confront the parts of her that feel inadequate; the parts of her that wished she could have done more for her students. I suspect, somewhere along the way, like me, she lost her voice and therein her power. I’ve seen many passionate teachers who came into the teaching profession with great intentions, but worn down by an ineffective system and consumed by being the buffer between the ineffective system and the students, and ultimately drowned by feelings of inadequacy, began to project the kind of anger Mrs. Campbell projects in this scene, not just toward colleagues, but also toward students themselves.
I stand for children and their education, but somewhere along the way I lost myself in the disciplining, the classroom management, compulsory teaching and standardized tests, which to great extent caused many of the discipline problems in the classroom. I tried to let these things not suffocate me, but they were compressing walls I couldn’t stop. I began to loose my creativity and the students did too. I, however, unlike Mrs. Campbell, have chosen to step away from teaching before I allowed the sense of powerlessness and inadequacy to consume me.
For a greater part of my teaching experience, I have worked 12-14 hours a day including weekends trying to create projects that engage the students; projects relevant to their lives and the world that surrounds them, that would inspire them to want to learn more and do extraordinary things with their lives. Below is a chart created to comically illustrates how I and so many teachers who care deeply about our students spend our lives.
This chart accurately illustrates how consuming teaching can be, especially when you are as passionate as Erin Gruwell, which brings me back to teachers like Ms. Campbell. Long term, it’s an unsustainable rhythm. At some point you become worn down, not only by the amount of work a teacher has to do to be effective, but also by the constant battles one must fight outside of the classroom to defend the authentic learning of the students. At some point the battles became too many, and I began to compromise. I called it choosing my battles, but I soon realized that so much compromising had eclipsed the teacher who had once entered the doors of her classroom with the dream of transforming her students one lesson at a time.
Here I find myself letting go once again. This time I’m letting go of the only career I’ve ever known, teaching in a traditional public school classroom. It’s fucking scary, if I am honest. I receive a dependable salary and most of the time I don’t even have to worry about having enough money. I live comfortably and travel somewhere around the world once a year. I’ve taught for 13 years, have accrued a significant pension, and have very generous medical insurance. And I am walking away from it all. Three years ago I took a leave of absence and returned to the classroom after a year of sporadic substituting. I find myself once again yearning for something else. This time I know I never want to go back – not under the oppressive terms I’ve had to teach my entire career.
This brings me to the last dynamic of Mrs. Campbell. There are many teachers, I suspect, who feel the way I feel, but who may not have the courage or the resolve to let go. Maybe some feel too old to start over, maybe some have college tuition for their children to worry about, maybe some need the health insurance, maybe some aren’t willing to stop paying the mortgage on their home. For whatever reason, they feel trapped between the belief patterns of the life they have become accustomed to and a dysfunctional system for which, too often, they internalize self-loathing feelings of inadequacy and shame. I used to be the teacher who asked, “If these teachers don’t like their job, why don’t they just leave?” Through my own experience I have learned how difficult it is to walk away. Though I absolutely believe our children deserve better, they deserve love, I also understand the dynamics at play come from the root of a system that is structured to privilege a few.
Teaching was a beautiful part of my journey, but not the ultimate. There is still so much for me to live and explore. After much meditation, my heart was very clear that I needed to transition out of mainstream public education. The classroom and standards had begun to feel like a cage to me. We are all on our beautiful journeys and the most important part is to live our truth – the soul loves the truth. I learned a while ago that in order to live one’s truth, I must listen to my heart and be present with spirit. Then I have to trust, because a lot of times there is no reason or plan for what the heart asks of me. So I have learned to surrender and trust that I am being guided to what the universe will have me be and what it will have me do. It all unfolds one step at a time, as I AM ready.
This is a painful process. Just because my heart has made it clear that it’s time to let go, it does not mean that letting go is void of grief. Birth itself is the act of letting go, and though it is painful, the new life that emerges is a manifestation of new beginnings, renewal, and transformation. Pain is a reminder that a thought pattern (a belief system) that no longer serves me needs to be changed. The experiences we have in our lives are in great part the result of the thought patterns we change or continue to embrace in our lives.
I want to be able to leave while I can still say I was an effective teacher. I know that if I continued to stay, the young women and men I served would no longer get the best of me, and they deserve better. I want to think out of the box! I want to be creative! I want to find my passion – that thing that I want to live to do for the rest of my life! I tell myself not to be fearful, but I am! How can I not be? What I won’t do is allow the fear to hold me back.
I love working with adolescents, I think they work from a very raw space in their soul and it’s authentic and uninhibited. You can’t help but to be vulnerable, authentic, carefree, courageous, creative, and un-restrictively alive around them. I hope to be able to continue to work with them in some capacity of my life.
Unlike how I arrived, I left. Quietly, solemnly, and suddenly. The only trace left of me can be found in the hearts of the students whose lives I impacted. Once again I find myself moving on. Still searching, still yearning, still dreaming.