Always On

Photo by Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz Rozells

Recently a friend and I were going back and forth about the demands of teaching. While my friend acknowledged that he could never be a teacher, he didn’t agree with me that teachers needed to ease up, slow down, even let a few balls drop in order to perform at high levels. It wasn’t as if my friend was clueless as to what teaching entails. Over the years he has spoken with many educators so he has heard about what it is like to be a teacher.

But he’s never been a teacher.

He has never had to teach a room full of four-year olds how to use scissors. And worry that one of them was going to cut their classmate’s hair. Which would then mean having to call that child’s parent and explain to them why their daughter was missing a three-inch chunk of hair that she just had braided the day before.

He has never had to chaperone a group of middle school students on an overnight field trip. And worry that one of them was going to sneak alcohol into their duffel bag and share it with friends. Which would mean having to call children’s parents and most likely the superintendent and explain how this took place under his watch.

He has never had to prepare students for the Calculus AP Exam. And worry that students who have never gotten anything less than an A, ever, did not earn a 4 or 5 on the exam. Which would mean having to explain to students’ parents that their children would not be receiving college credits for they were expecting them to have..

While the scenarios above may seem extreme, I believe they still don’t capture what makes the job of being a classroom teacher so difficult. As my friend and I continued our discussion I realized that I had yet to really identify the most difficult aspect of teaching.

And then it hit me.

Teachers … are … always … on.

Yes, teachers are given time each school day to plan and eat lunch. But every other minute of the day requires them to be hyper-aware of everything and everyone in their presence. And now with the threat of school shootings, teachers’ responsibility has been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels.

The physical and mental exhaustion of being on for so many hours each week is indescribable. Being an assistant principal is difficult and with the role, comes many challenges that I am having to face for the first time. But I can step away. Just for a few minutes, to re-center. I can walk around the school visiting classrooms and not really have any true responsibility. Obviously, I am interacting with students and staff and I am checking to make sure things are going well and everyone is on task.

That’s different than being on.

When teachers are on, they can not relax for a second. They must always be doing something. Whether it be helping a student who just had a meltdown or encouraging a student who they know needs a confident boost. They have to multitask even though the research has shown us time and again that multitasking is impossible.

But what if class is running smoothly, students are working cooperatively and everything seems to be perfect? Teachers can then kick back and relax right? Maybe read an article from the latest ed journal to get ideas for the next day’s lesson or glance online to look for professional development opportunities.

No.

A classroom with 20-30 dynamic and constantly moving parts (students) doesn’t just stay that way on its own. And not matter how cooperative the students are and no matter how skilled the teacher is, stuff happens and when it does, teachers must be ready. To pivot, shift, adjust, console, cajole or at times, command.

The need for constant vigilance, wares … teachers … down. There is no pause button and there are no escape hatches. Teachers are there for the duration. They know this is what signed on for. They are not complaining.

So, when they say that they are physically and mentally exhausted. Believe them. This isn’t your normal 40,50,60-hour work week tired. This isn’t your been up all night working on a project tired. And this isn’t your just worked 7 days in a row tired. No, unless you’ve been a teacher this is probably a tired that you can’t comprehend. And at first it may appear exaggerated.

Trust me, it’s not.

It’s just what happens to a mind and a body when it is on for so many days and so many hours each week.

I wasn’t able to change my friend’s mind that night. But the next day. After he had some time to reflect on our conversation. After he had fully digested what I shared with him. After he thought about how much time each day he is truly on, he told he me got it.

Teaching is a rewarding profession that it is physically and mentally demanding. And it requires breaks and backing off and easing up at times. I wanted my friend to know that. Not because I needed to be right. But because I wanted him to know what you do.

 

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5 Comments »

  1. It’s so true – there’s no finish line in this profession, and there’s always SOMETHING we could have done better, some initiative we could have tried but didn’t. Part of being an educator, being a human, is learning to embrace the grace, reflect, and REST. It’s essential.

    Thanks for having our backs, Jon.

    – Tim

  2. Dear Jon:
    I should be retired at 54 (this is my 32nd year teaching! plus 4 ys in a bank) but I’ m still teaching not only because I have to do it until I reach the legal age to retire but also because I love it. ( I could have gone back to my job at the bank for a MUCH better salary). Reading your article reminded me of what my friend/colleague used to tell me: I feel like a police officer/ or like a soldier waiting for the enemy to come ( difficult to translate from argentinian spanish sargento de caballerìa). Because we felt we needed to be on call and observing, watching everything that happened in the clasd. I tell my students I’m everywhere like the Holy Spirit ( poker faces😂)…that I can hear and see everything like Lord V…as in Harry Potter, and that’ s when they understand😉.
    It’ s so easy to deny our super-natural effort, mental and physical exhaustion, or any way you may want to call it!: “The physical and mental exhaustion of being on for so many hours each week is indescribable.” : you couldn’ t have said better!! Let me challenge your friend to stay with his/her children if he/she has any, just for 8 or 10 unstoppable hours the 7 days of the week: even with only one child any human being will feel exhausted. And much more with 20, 25 or more if they are not yours!!. I teach 8th graders who behave as if they were 2 or 3 years old: they cannot stop!😱. So, like I said before it’ s so easy to give an opinion without being in the other person’ s shoes. Thanks for sharing as always and forgive my latin/italian/argentinian long conversation☺

    • Thanks for all that have done and will do. While my job as an admin is difficult, I believe it is not as difficult as teaching. The “being on” is so tiring. I remember getting home and just vegging out the rest of the night because my brain felt fried. Hopefully admin and others will help teachers get more rest and find time for them to recover

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