My teaching job is a nightmare

The atmosphere is toxic and I can't breathe

Published March 2, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(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.

By Cary Tennis

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