This is a reframing speech I gave for my public speaking class this morning. I wanted to share it because it frustrates me when teachers get labeled as “bad” teachers.
I was a good teacher.
I was even voted “best teacher” by my student body one year.
But this past June, after 7 years of teaching in public high schools, I chose to walk away from the classroom forever.
Think back for a moment to a teacher you had that you loved. This teacher was probably engaging and energetic. Learning may have felt effortless and exciting. Now, think about a teacher you had that was the opposite. They likely were called boring, maybe giving out lots worksheets or lecturing. Students may have frequently fallen asleep in class or passed notes or text messages. People may have claimed this teacher just didn’t care because they weren’t putting in as much effort.
These two teachers are at two opposing ends of a spectrum, and as a society, we often place labels on each end: good and bad. These labels make instantaneous judgments based entirely from one perspective of a complex situation. But the truth is that, while there may be some truly bad teachers out there, I would argue that many of us just had tired teachers.
If you haven’t been a teacher or if you haven’t lived with a teacher, you may be wondering why teachers get tired. They have summers and weekends off. They play games with kids all day, right? The truth is that the teacher you thought about a few minutes ago… the one who was engaging and energetic … likely spent hours upon hours outside of the school day preparing and working, including putting in time over the summer.
I know I did.
The average American school day is 6.7 hours, but most teachers work an additional three to five hours every day. But the truth is I didn’t mind working 12 hour days. The incessant work was hard, but I knew I was helping students.
But sometimes that’s not enough. Sadly, these days teachers are under a growing and unfair amount of pressure from students, parents, and administrators. 46% of teachers report high daily stress, and teacher burnout is a very real, very serious problem here in the US. Between 30 and 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years, and turnover in teaching is about four percent higher than comparable professions. While we leave teaching for many reasons both personal and professional, one of the most common reasons cited is a general lack of respect for the profession.
To illustrate this, I’d like to tell you a personal story that took place several years ago, at parent-teacher conference night. It was set up like a job fair, with all the teachers in the gym at tables, so that parents could easily move from teacher to teacher, all in the same room. Two hours in, I smiled as another set of parents approached my table. I began to greet them, extending my hand to introduce myself, when the father interrupted me, demanding to know why their daughter had received a low grade on a project. I started to explain, but he interrupted me, unwilling to listen. They shoved copies of her junior high transcripts at me, but when I still refused to change her grade, they thrust a final stack of papers towards me and stormed off. These were articles from the internet, detailing the traits of a good teacher, and the parents had taken the liberty of highlighting various passages for me. As a wave of realization washed over me, I burst into tears right there at the table, in front of everyone. The very next day, my principal called me into his office, where he defended the parents and pressured me to change the grade.
This story is not easy to hear or to tell. But what happened to me is not unique. Similar things happen to colleagues all the time, and when you combine that lack of professionalism and respect with a never-ending to-do list, teachers get worn out. We get tired and, for our own mental health, we either leave the profession or develop coping mechanisms, like giving less of ourselves. Many of those teachers giving out worksheets are people who decided to stay but couldn’t continue the unsustainable workload to be considered a “good” teacher. And the thing is that these exhausted teachers need help, not a label. When someone shows decreased job performance, they don’t need judgment or people working to get them fired. They need empathy and support. Society is quick to crucify these struggling, overworked teachers, but in the end, we are really just tired of being tired.