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Teaching Is: A Catch-22 Profession

This guest post appears in coordination with Teacher Appreciation Week and #TeachingIs, a social media movement seeking to elevate public perception of the teaching profession. Click here to learn how you can participate.

Normally, I'm a glass half-full kind of gal. Many Southern women are raised to be this way; in my state, optimism is the only way to survive the "dirt-eating, barefoot and pregnant, racist, illiterate, pick-up truck with a rebel flag and a shotgun" stereotypes that seem to define Mississippians to the rest of the nation.

So I was surprised by the connection I felt to Bill Ferriter’s blog post Teaching is a Grind, written to contribute to the conversation surrounding the Center for Teaching Quality’s #TeachingIs social media campaign, which is currently in full swing for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Bill writes candidly, admitting that he is “a glass half empty kind of guy” who “wants to be sure to bring a bit of pessimism to the party.” But instead of being pessimistic without a purpose, he wants to make sure that “people realize that there’s more to teaching than shiny red apples and classrooms full of smiling children.”

So, why did a glass half-empty post resonate so strongly with a glass half-full teacher? Because it was so amazingly transparent and honest. And that's one thing teachers are rarely allowed to be, even with each other.

We live in a nation that values education but disdains the educator - which has made our profession a perfect Catch-22.

If teachers are transparent with our struggles and discouragement, we’re labeled complainers. The kind of teachers who don’t really care about our students, or people who teach because it’s easy money with a three-month summer vacation. What a joke! I spent last summer pursuing professional development, planning units for the upcoming school year, and taking graduate classes at my local university to complete my Ph.D. I spent more money developing my professional practice than I earned. (Easy money and vacation indeed!)

Sadly, these negative misperceptions exist within our ranks as well. At times, voicing discontent with the status quo invites the anger and disrespect of other educators who seemingly have it all together. Teachers who believe they have the right to judge other educators for not “doing it right” or for expressing any negative feelings about our profession.

These are teachers who have carefully hidden their struggles and angst behind closed classroom doors, mistakenly equating silence with protecting the profession. Sadly, these educators are actually contributing to the problem by insisting that we ignore the huge elephant in the room: teacher discontent.

If we follow their lead, stoic and resolute in our suffering, then we risk becoming the bitterly bummed-out, the burned out, and even the bumped out (if our scores aren’t high enough).

To be honest, sometimes it seems as though we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

So far, I've posted several #TeachingIs snippets and pictures to Twitter, all of them upbeat, happy, and hopefully inspiring. And they were all true. But just as true would have been an alternative #TeachingIs: embracing short-term memory loss because it means you’re able to come back to work each day, or wondering if you can sue your alma mater's College of Education for not preparing you for the disrespect and disillusionment you face more days than not. I say these as a joke, but there is truth to them.

I'm not brave enough to post those kinds of messages, even though I've felt them. Do I hate my profession or my students? Not a chance. I love what I do and where I work. There are 120 reasons I show up each day. But I’m just as human, frail, and pessimistic as the next guy.

The only difference: I work really, really hard not to let it show. I don’t want to be labeled a complainer, a bad teacher, or (gasp!) unprofessional.

But Bill’s piece reminded me that it’s not unprofessional to voice discontent and discouragement. Ignoring the elephant in the room only works for so long. Ever wonder why we lose over 40% of new teachers in their first five years of teaching?

Until we face this issue head on—by making it acceptable to be transparent with one another about the problems facing our profession—nothing will change.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we do not need to deny our discontent; rather, we need to channel it through creative outlets.  If we are going to be labeled complainers, we must be constructive complainers – transparent with our struggles and creative with our solutions.

Recognizing that we ALL struggle with feeling overwhelmed, disrespected, and frustrated doesn’t make us bad teachers. It makes us human. And it gives us the freedom to collaboratively seek solutions— knowing that we’re not alone, that we don’t have to hide behind our classroom doors, that acknowledging our problems makes us stronger.

Teachers are in a profession that others may never understand, respect, or value. But we know what we’re worth, what we do, and why we do it. By focusing on our commonality, seeking answers to the difficult questions, and striving to be our best selves for our students and for each other, we can show the world what #TeachingIs.

 

Deidra Gammill, NBCT, Ph.D is a high school English and reading teacher at a rural public high school in Petal, Mississippi. She has been teaching on the K-12 and college level for sixteen years, teaching in South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. She is a member of the Teacher Leadership Initiative and a CTQ Collaboratory member. 

6 Comments

Wendi Pillars commented on May 5, 2014 at 9:29pm:

So well-said

Deidra, how wonderful of you to address this "elephant in the room". Discontent is indeed part of being human, but how much of it should we bear, hide, and mask in order to avoid being considered "unprofessional"? It's a great question, and makes me continually question how to message our profession to the world. To pre-teachers, we want to be honest and transparent, yet to the public we need to herald the goodness. To our students we need to project optimism, patience, and knowledge...So many faces.

It can be exhausting. But, as you stated the crucial piece is learning to acknowledge the tough times and challenges, and yes--discontent--in constructive ways, channeling that energy productively. 

Thanks for the thinking boost. :) So glad to be in this together with minds like yours.

Dave Orphal commented on May 6, 2014 at 12:39pm:

Perfect!

Diedra,

So much of what you say resonates for me.  For nearly a decade and a half, I tried to project that image of the perfect-super teacher.  Nothing wrong with me.  No frailty, no vulnerability, no problems.

I wanted you, my students, and the community to believe that I had a bottomless bucket of energy, resources, love, patience, and right-answers to give.  

today, I finally realize the reason for my facade.  I was scared to death that, if I were not perfect, that you wouldn't like me anymore.  Because, deep down, I didn't like myself.  I was afraid that you wouldn't accept me.  Because, deep down, I didn't accept myself.  

Wrapped in a wet-blanket of fear and self-loathing, I turned to food to numb the uncomfortable feelings.  Attached is a photo of me in Japan in 1997 - at over 400 pounds and nearing "rock bottom" in my life-long struggle.

What I know today, thanks to three years in a 12-Step program and surrendering my life to a Higher Power, is that no one in my life wanted my "perfection."  They wanted me... all of me...  flaws and all.

And I think that's the point of this comment.  You are so right, that our jobs are to tough, so complex, so rewarding... there is no way we can do this alone.

So, I'ld like to borrow from the OA Promise and share with you the invitation, I shared with Bill on the same #teachingis a grind post that inspired this post:

I put my hand in yours, and together we can do what we could never do alone. No longer is there a sense of hopelessness, no longer must we each depend upon our own unsteady willpower. We are all together now, reaching out our hands for power and strength greater than ours, and as we join hands, we find love and understanding beyond our wildest dreams.

Deidra Gammill Deidra Gammill commented on May 6, 2014 at 11:25pm:

Such a gift!

Dave,

Your comment is such a gift; thank you for being willing to be transparent and vulnerable - for being real - with your struggles, fears, triumphs and victories. Can you imagine what our profession would look like if we were all so brave? I suspect we'd be light years ahead of our current state.

Like you, I spent years trying to "prove" I was a good teacher yet never feeling validated. No matter how many parents thanked me, how many students hugged me and wrote me sweet notes, or how many good evaluations I got from administrators, there was always this little voice telling me I wasn't good enough or smart enough, and someday people were going to recognize me as an imposter.

Those I desired validation from the most - members of my own department - were the ones with whom I felt the most competition. I couldn't let them know how I struggled, how I worried - they might use my vulnerability as a weapon against me. Now, I can't know that any colleague ever felt that way, but it's how I felt. And in our profession (as with all relationships), if you can't be real, you can never really grow.

My moment of truth came in July 2012 on a mission trip to Kenya. I spent almost a month there, working with children and teachers at an orphanage. As I watched, listened, and absorbed the culture and community that these teachers and their pupils created, I came to realize how many things I valued were actually trivial, and how many things I'd been afraid to advocate for were really what mattered most.

I came home deeply moved and changed in fundamental ways. My practice became more student-centered and relationship-based; those elements had always existed in my classroom but I'd never focused on deliberately cultivating them. It wasn't that I came home with an "in your face" attitude toward accountability and evaluation. Rather, I found myself teaching without fear. Being real with my students, my colleagues, and my administrators became more important than maintaining a facade and living with my "imposter syndrome."

To my surprise, my relationships improved. My teaching improved. My students' behavior (and scores) improved. I was comfortable in my own skin, able to laugh at myself, able to be transparent with my struggles and desire to do better. In being myself, I gave those around me the freedom to be themselves as well.

Does this mean I never worry? That I never feel stupid? That some colleagues don't look down their noses at me? Are you kidding? Of course - I'm very human and still very insecure in many areas. But in the bigger picture, I'm so much better with others than I ever was by myself.

Dave, you're an awesome human being. I was a little intimidated by you and Wendi in the early days of the TLI (not because of anything either of you did, simply because that "imposter" voice tends to pip up at inopportune moments). You both come across so confident, so smart, so sure of our profession. That confidence (and humor) translated into a safe spot for Cohort 1 - we can ask questions, take risks, and test our fledgling leadership wings without fear.

Thank you for being you! :)

David Cohen commented on May 7, 2014 at 1:56am:

Overwhelming

I usually have trouble jumping into huge subjects like "teaching is" - but like Wendi and Dave, I found this post resonated with me. I'm a pretty even-keeled kind of guy, kind of taking everything in stride. But the truth is, while I'm not prone to strong reactions, I still find teaching overwhelming. There's simply too much to do. And I teach part-time. I don't know if I can ever go back to full-time, if full-time means five sections of English classes. The grading, planning, communications, professional learning and collaboration, engagement in the life of the school and students, outreach and advocacy - I can never get it all right. If it's balanced, it all feels superficial, and when I dive deep into some areas, the others suffer. So... what to give up...

Scott Diamond commented on May 7, 2014 at 10:26am:

Teachers are human

David, you feel overwhelmed because you are trying to be perfect at every possible aspect of being a good teacher. You can't be perfect. Neither can I.

That said, we can each can be very good at many aspects of teaching, and extrordinary in one or a few. That's my goal.

We as a society no longer acknowledge our own and each others' humanity. Teachers, as human beings, with failings and strengths, have the right to be treated with human dignity.

We can start by treating each other and ourselves with that human dignity.

I value you for teaching and for writing here.

Scott

Deidra Gammill Deidra Gammill commented on May 7, 2014 at 7:48pm:

David, you're in good company

David, you're in good company. Even educators without any family or civic responsibilities outside the classroom struggle with the overwhelming flood of all that teaching entails. Add a family or "a life" outside the classroom and the flood becomes a tsunami. I agree with Scott - you can't do it all (or at least not do it all well). I know I struggle with the age old "mile wide, inch deep" or "inch wide, mile deep" approach to my instruction. To cover all the standards, I feel pushed to cover a mile. But I know that real learning is deep and takes time. Which one wins? Unfortunately, that depends on which day you ask. ;)

 

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