My teaching job is a nightmare

The atmosphere is toxic and I can't breathe

Topics: Since You Asked, Education, Stress,

My teaching job is a nightmare (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I feel ungrateful for complaining about my job while so many are desperate for work, but this is where I find myself. I am a teacher, and have been in the same school for five years. During that time, I have felt the atmosphere turn toxic. Things have spiraled out of control, and it is a top-down spiral. It is out of my hands. This toxicity has left me bitter and I dread coming to work for another day of feeling useless. I try to just focus on my students and what is happening in my classroom, but the atmosphere is smothering us all.

I am trying to find another position for next year, to try to find a place where I can breathe, but this is a tough time to try to find a job in any profession, and teaching is no exception. Almost all of my colleagues that I like working with left after last year or are trying to leave now.

Quitting is not an option for me as my husband does not make enough to support both of us. How do I survive in a toxic environment? What if I am stuck here again next year? I am worried for my health and sanity.


Trying to Breathe

Dear Trying to Breathe,

At the risk of sounding simple-minded, I would suggest that if you are trying to breathe, just breathe.

Breathe. Literally.

Take 15 minutes and sit quietly and breathe in and out, watching your breath, paying attention to the column of air that rises and falls. Do this every day in the morning and in the evening.

It is often useful in situations of great stress to take the body at its word. You say the atmosphere is smothering you. Something is going on with your breath. So breathe. Let your breath heal you.

There will be time to address the complicated matters of workplace power and change, and education policy and hierarchy and bad behavior soon enough.

But for now, just breathe.

The trauma, disruption, betrayal, confusion, uncertainty and general nastiness you refer to are being replicated in countless schools all across this great nation of ours. It is mind-boggling. Every teacher says the same thing.

But for now, just breathe.

We cannot control with our minds the chemical processes that take place in our cells. But we can, to some extent, control the psychological processes that take place when other people treat us in certain ways. So when you say the atmosphere is toxic, I think to myself, well, identify the toxins; identify our reactions to them; then eliminate the toxins or learn new responses to them.

We can choose how to respond to conditions and situations and words. It takes practice and conditioning but it can be done.

Breathing helps.

We can replace our learned reactions to people with new learned behaviors. This may involve setting aside some cherished assumptions and beliefs. For instance we may have a cherished belief that people should not be nasty, vindictive, sinister, manipulative, lying sacks of garbage. We might think that this is a given but it is only a cherished belief. In fact, one often finds in the real world that people are indeed nasty, vindictive, sinister, manipulative, lying sacks of garbage.

We must learn to accept with love all the nasty, vindictive, sinister, manipulative, lying sacks of garbage we are privileged to serve in our day-to-day lives.

This helps us in our spiritual growth.

OK, enough attempted humor.

Seriously, I asked some teachers I know about your situation. Their responses appear at the end of this letter.

My bottom line is that in human interactions we can bear almost anything. If you are not being tortured, or literally poisoned, or deprived of your liberty, then these are relationship issues that can be managed and tolerated. That’s not to say that they aren’t outrageous or that you shouldn’t be outraged. You should be outraged.

There might be things you can do to change the situation. Many Web pages like this one offer steps intended to help you do that. You may be able to find one that works for you, or a book to guide you through this. This site might also be helpful. Since it’s called the Toxic Co-Worker, I thought it might have some useful stuff in it, but you’ll have to look at it and decide for yourself, as I haven’t been able to study it in detail.

Basically, my advice is to breathe deeply and accept the fact that schools all over America are in chaos and everyone there is under great stress and so certain people at work are apt to lie, manipulate, fabricate, equivocate, undermine you, etc.

But don’t just lie down and take it. Identify areas over which you have some control. Is it possible, for instance, to create rituals in your day that give you a little inner peace? Is it possible, for instance, to meditate for 15 minutes before every class day? Is it possible to take even five minutes of relaxation time before class? Can you walk to work or work out before work so that you feel at least physically refreshed and invigorated? What areas can you still control? Who are your allies? Can you spend time with your allies in the school? If you have no allies among the teachers then perhaps you can form alliances with one or two of the parents.

The other part of it, the policy part, looks like this to me: We might argue reasonably about different approaches to teaching. But no matter whose educational philosophy is correct, if many, many teachers are desperately unhappy in their jobs, then we have a serious social problem.

If this joyful collective activity of learning and teaching has become a drudge and a nightmare, then something is wrong.

If teachers are unhappy then the transmission of knowledge, that most rare, joyful and fundamental process of society, has become diseased, and  we are doomed as a culture. We are doomed as surely as if our blood were diseased, for a body does not thrive out of duty but out of joy; a body does not aspire to obedience and regularity but to excellence and grace. Likewise the mind aspires to novelty and discovery.

If we are forcing teachers to grind their students down into mediocrity and conformity then we will inherit a generation conditioned to mediocrity and conformity.

As an aid to discussion, I asked a couple of teachers I know about this situation.

Read and discuss:

Teacher A:

I know exactly what this person is talking about. Many teachers feel this way. It makes me sick to acknowledge that we are all in the same boat.

I started teaching in 1985.  When I began, teachers were free to create a curriculum that matched their students’ needs. Teachers worked together to create projects that would reach and inspire all their students.  Now, the environment has become competitive.  Teachers worry if their scores are not as high as their colleague’s scores.  Scores differ because classes differ.

All we do is test. Math teachers at our school are being raked over the coals this week because their latest Benchmark scores were too low.  Their scores were low because the Benchmark that the district created did not match the sequence of the textbook.  It tested info that had not yet been taught.

Just this last weekend, I was with one of my fellow teachers and, of course, the conversation turned to school. I know firsthand what an excellent teacher she is. We ended up talking about how to get out of it:  the constant testing, pressure, criticism from the district.

She’s thinking about moving into administration — not because she wants to be one of them, but to get out of being one of us.

Another excellent classroom teacher moved to PE to avoid the testing nightmare.  We are all considering our options.  The problem is, we love the jobs we signed up for, not the jobs they have become.

Teacher B:

It helps to have a strong sense of self, a belief in yourself, and yes, in some cases it means moving on.

My teaching partner became my best friend and taught me so much. We worked together for 18 years. During that time, there were mean teachers, bad principals, an uprising of parents who retaliated against the district and started a charter school when our school was closed. But having a close friendship with a colleague provided support and that helped me weather the storms.

When I was asked to become a principal, my teaching partner was very upset. It was hard, and I lost that support. I don’t think I realized how important having that was, especially since she not only was a co-worker but a friend.

As a leader I tried to get my small staff to cooperate and work together. That was part of my job as a leader. Even though I  was given teachers that no one else would work with, we made it work.

The last thing I wanted was what the LW described, a toxic environment. I would have done anything to avoid it, and I did. I pitched in and taught and picked up their classes to give them time together to make them feel less stress. But I could do that. The program was small and I could get to know them individually. It wasn’t always smooth, but it was successful for everyone.

Cary, I said all this to show you that this is not easy, but things change. What this person has to figure out is, Can she get support and figure out a way to make this work, or change schools? Do something to mitigate the situation until there is a change for the better? Get union help? If there is really no way out then perhaps another district, but as you can see, it may not be any different somewhere else.

This isn’t an easy job; it drains us emotionally, physically and intellectually. No one seems to understand this; it’s unlike any other profession.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>