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Your Back-To-School Messages Are Hurting Teachers

How school programming creates an environment of codependency

Too many people outside of classrooms spend too much time telling people inside them what to do. Once you leave the classroom, it’s tempting to want to share all of your advice with others. Trust me, I see the irony of me writing that.

Much like the overweight track coach sitting in a chair in the shade of blistering Texas afternoon who punctuated his yelled commands for runners with sips of an iced drink, I feel like I’ve reached a point where I have to admit that I’m not exactly part of the game I’m trying to coach.

As a grad student at Harvard, I have privilege that insulates me from the repercussions of certain opinions (and even writing like this). No district will censor me, “counsel” me, or reassign me for what I say.

This privilege means I have a responsibility to say things that others can’t. This realization came home to me as I sat across from a teacher friend at lunch recently, listening as she told me how she really wanted to quit teaching. Everything she said sounded so familiar.

The reasons for her distress are true for most everyone who teaches, centered around the difficulties with other adults, especially those in charge, and difficulties with behaviors of children who come from trauma and poverty.

But because this person is someone seen as a teacher leader, she feels increasingly isolated in her distress. Part of what fuels that, we both agreed, is the need to be a presence at conferences and on social media, where your own problems have to take a back seat to educational issues and policies.

But social media — social media is where teaching starts to feel toxic, we agreed. Particularly on Twitter where some flagship chats have all but devolved into a cult-like and clicque-y echo chamber.

“EduCelebs” who dominate the platform are part of the problem. For a place that seemed to be a way for teachers to find each other and share resources, Twitter has become clans of “positivity” grouped around people pushing books and consultancy. Their followers retweet messages that sterilize the humanity of teaching into chirpy cliches (attitude is everything!) and flat statements (teachers change lives) treated as if they are visionary.

Too often, this advice comes from people who — like me— are no longer in the classroom. These messages, intended as they are to motivate teachers, often wind up doing the opposite. Seeing hordes of retweets on these kinds of reworked Successories posters can create shame and guilt in teachers.

They skirt past the reality that we are seeing a very real and growing mental health crisis in students, which is magnified in the low-income schools where a majority of students attend.

Teach Like a Codependent

There’s tremendous pressure on teachers to be up and on, always positive, always “engaging.” When the issues students bring to school with them accumulate to a degree that they feel too heavy for many teachers, there’s not many places to turn.

This can cause what feels like a constant, low-grade emotionally abusive relationship. Too much of school, in my experience, fosters a dark co-dependency where staff are told that if they just work harder, give up more hours of their lives, tutor more, then students will “achieve.” Achievement, in this regard, of course means higher scores.

Often, these messages are delivered from a corporate or business partner who will send in a marketing person to hand out baskets full of old chocolate while using her most dramatic voice to tearfully tell teachers: “You are all candles. You consume yourself so that you can create light for others.” As my friend Justin says, that’s not only completely unsustainable as a metaphor or a policy, but it’s also a literal prescription for burnout.

During back-to-school staff development, I always wished they’d just save us all time by putting “Spoiler Alert: It’s All Your Fault!” on the first panel of their slide deck of shame. Those messages almost always came from a white man on a stage with a disappointed expression.

Mansplaining School

The teaching force is overwhelming female, but the administration of it is overwhelmingly male and white. The majority of speakers at ed conferences are male and white. As a woman, this always seemed suspicious to me.The suspicion continued back on campus as I wondered why, for example, men were promoted so rapidly. One of the boldest displays I ever saw of this was during a district professional development institute where a first-year male teacher grinned as he told us he was finishing up his coursework to be a principal.

Worse, some of those men who were promoted seemed to co-opt certain female traits. They were vulnerable — telling staff about their personal problems, sensitive in their feelings, and their door, they assured you, was always open for you to come and talk to them.

Their careful grooming and quirky wardrobe choices (shirts with tiny dragons on it! pants with tiny crab patterns! bow ties stamped with tiny toasters!) were designed for maximum approachability and minimal masculinity. These outward displays were to show you that they weren’t an “old school” type like your old high school principal. They’re a cool administrator that you can think of as family.

Many used subtle forms of shame and guilt to suggest that their female staff didn’t care enough about kids if they didn’t want to volunteer for work meant to polish the men’s images and agendas. Some convinced female staff to organize their schedules, edit and revise their emails, and act as “mean girl” enforcers of their “mission and vision” (if you didn’t play along, you’d get reported).

When I first began teaching high school, I was stunned by the petty indignities, casual sexism, and disrespect shown to my department chair —a woman with two masters degrees and decades of experience.“I can’t believe they treat you like this,” I told her one day. “It’s like you’re an abused woman.”“Am I? I’ve lost the ability to tell the difference,” she said.“Well, that’s not inspirational,” I remember thinking.

But I also knew it was real. And as I found as I continued teaching, abuse moved from concept to concrete reality when it came to certain men.These were the men who were protected when they harassed and crossed personal boundaries with female staff. One man stands out in my memory because he was so adept at the kind of tearful but manly confession on display in a recent southern megachurch, and was allowed to be suspended for his misconduct but not fired.

What Will Happen When Teachers Stop Being Afraid?

The overwhelmingly female teaching force deciding to walk out in some of the reddest states in our country is not a coincidence. Places where they’ve seen their pay slashed, their hours lengthened, their motives questioned, and their commitment to their students doubted by their white male governors are the places where women are finding their voices — and their anger.

Here’s the truth that fueled those walkouts and will act as gasoline for others: schools need teachers more than teachers need schools.

Education critics act as though there is an unending supply of people standing outside their administrative offices waiting to apply for teaching jobs. This self-serving fantasy is giving way to real numbers of teachers retiring and those who are refusing to go into teaching in the first place.Much like the #MeToo movement forced the culture to see the reality of sexual harassment, teacher walkouts and teacher attrition will finally make us all see the reality of the emotional labor and abuse we’ve heaped upon our teachers for too long.

And no amount of discount door prizes at meetings, banal speakers, or slides dripping with edu-guilt and edu-shame will make that go away.

Shanna Peeples is pursuing learning as a doctoral student @Harvard University. Shanna is an English teacher from Amarillo, Texas who was named the 2015 National Teacher of the Year in the United States..

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