Saturday, September 28, 2019

A Good Teacher Is Not Like A Candle

I just hate this kind of thing.

First of all, is there any other profession that has to put up with this. Substitute "lawyer" or "plumber" or even "doctor" for "teacher" in this meme, and it just sounds dumb. "Nurse," maybe. (Hmm. What do nursing and teaching have in common as professions. Could it be that they're not commonly associated with testosterone?) We don't expect any professionals to consume themselves in order to do their jobs.

Second of all, notice the use of "it." For the simile to really track, "it" should be "she," but as soon as we put it that way, the ickiness of the analogy becomes more obvious. Really? Do parents say, "I expect my child's teacher to consume herself in order to educate my child?"

If we walk into our child's classroom in March and find a teacher who is exhausted, worn down, barely functioning, do we think, "Excellent. This is going just as it should." Do we expect a teacher to somehow become a new, fresh candle every fall and be a burned-out stub every May, or do we expect this self-immolation to occur over the length of the teacher's career? If so, is the expectation that the burned-out husk of a self-consumed teacher should just die promptly after retirement, having been fully self-consumed?

This is a close relative of the hero teacher myth, and it shares the notion that someone becomes a teacher out of some outsized level of nobility and self-sacrifice. And there are all sorts of problems with this baloney.

One is that, of course, someone who is teaching out of noble impulses of heroic self-sacrifice couldn't possibly be worried about making a living wage or having decent benefits. It's people who buy this sort of baloney who get all pearl-clutchy over teachers who want a decent contract, as if the desire to be able to support a family is sullying their noble calling, distracting from their "personal mission." This model becomes an excuse to take and take and take from teachers-- their money, their time, because, hey, you want to give your all to the kids, right?

More importantly, this is the kind of crap that saddles young teachers with a huge pile of guilt. Six years ago I wrote a piece that is still the most-read piece I've ever written. Here's part of what I said:

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual's instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals-- wait! what?! That CAN'T be right! Plus quizzes to assess where we are in the grammar unit in order to design a new remedial unit before we craft the final test on that unit (five minutes each to grade). And that was before Ethel made that comment about Poe that offered us a perfect chance to talk about the gothic influences. And I know that if my students are really going to get good at writing, they should be composing something at least once a week. And if I am going to prepare my students for life in the real world, I need to have one of my own to be credible.

If you are going to take any control of your professional life, you have to make some hard, conscious decisions. What is it that I know I should be doing that I am not going to do?

The blazing candle of self-immolation encourages young teachers to think, "I'm so bad at this. Last night I could have stayed up till three grading papers, but I fell asleep on the couch instead. And I never should have told my husband that I'd go on a day trip with him and the kids this weekend-- that's time I could be getting planning done. Maybe if I go in Monday at 4 AM and get a head start, I can fix this..."

Teachers either grow out of this mode of thinking, or they leave teaching.

This is no way to model being a responsible adult for the children in your classroom (many of whom may know no other adults that aren't family). This is no way to do your job well. This is no way to live your life. Yes, teaching a job that requires you to employ everything you have, everything you know, every tool in your ever-expanding tool box. But it most definitely does not require you to consume yourself-- in fact, it requires you to NOT consume yourself. You exercise and work out and give your sweat and blood to get stronger, not to destroy your physical self. You study and read and discuss and ponder to become smarter and, God willing, wiser, not to break down your mental faculties.

For heaven's sake, don't be a candle. Be, I don't know, a tree. Grow stronger and taller and as you do, provide the shade that helps a garden grow by you. Or be a river that swells and flows and feeds into other waterways. Or be a bird that collects twigs and branches to build a strong, nurturing nest. Or be a sack of cement that becomes a part of a strong foundation, or become a tube of toothpaste, or a diesel engine, or a waffle.

Or you could, you know, be a human. Just a regular human being using the skills and knowledge that you have acquired (and continue to acquire) to help young humans better understand the universe around them and their own best selves and how to be fully human in the world. Do that. Do that while accepting and embracing the limits of your own humanity even as you stretch against them so that you, too, can also grow into your best self while being more fully human in the world-- the whole world and not just the world inside the walls of your classroom.

Do that. Because you are person and not a frickin' candle.


  1. I agree with most of what you say except the idea that teaching is the only profession like this. I'd argue that that is, in fact, the definition of "professional" - any job in which you work until the job is done rather than by the hour (and you usually have to pay to get educated for the privilege of being a professional to boot). "Professionals" are supposed to be somehow superior to hourly/blue-collar/paraprofessional folks and that's why they're supposed to get the esteem and (usually) the money (although, for instance, like teachers, social workers are professionals who pay for the education, put in the hours and still don't get the big bucks).

    After I burned out of social services trying to be a candle, I thought maybe I wanted to be a lawyer, so I worked a temp job as a legal secretary. That was what convinced me that being a "professional" wasn't all it was cracked up to be. How often did clients call at 4:00 p.m. and say they'd expect us to have their documents ready for review by 9:00 the next morning? How often did the litigators stay half the night for weeks at a time getting ready for a trial? The mere idea that they should be able to have a life was considered anathema. That's when I decided the "paraprofessional" life has its benefits. I may not get paid that much (although I'm getting a far sight better than I was getting as a "professional" in social services", but being able to clock in at 9:00 and leave at 5:00, or at least get paid if I chose to work beyond those hours, is well worth not making a lawyer's salary.

    Self-immolation is one of the core distinctions of being a "professional". Teachers are supposed to do it for the good of their students, doctors for the good of their patient, lawyers and businesspeople for the good of the organization.

    1. But a lawyer gets paid a helluva a lot more money than a teacher.

  2. Read this, dammit. Read this. I just did, after spending seven hours on a beautiful Saturday responding to half of the student drafts that were submitted this week. And I'm lucky; I only have 38 students.

  3. You've said it perfectly before, and now you've said it again. Somehow we have become disposable martyrs.

  4. Although it's true that teachers are not the only professionals who are expected to "burn" until the job is done (which it never is), at least doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other professionals get paid enough to buy nice houses and take restorative vacations.

  5. Pffft. Critical of a poetic, pleasant thought about what teaching can be about?? Obviously the quote doesn't have to be dissected in such a negative way. Some of us need it as an inspiration, especially right now.

    1. Except that this sort of praise buys into a story about teachers-as-heroes, that is really a way to excuse not paying them, not giving them resources, asking for them to do unrealistic things, and then blaming them for pretty much everything.

  6. I have mentored many student teachers over the years. I could very well predict the ones that wouldn't make it. Often, they were the ones who just "cared too much." The ones who cried daily over the stress and strain of this job. Good teachers have to care, but to be sustainable, you can't care too much. I love my job, and still care about the kids, but not too much.

  7. God forbid a teacher is considered a hero. Our job is to guide and inspire kids to be great. I refuse to be compared to a doctor or lawyer who gets paid a fortune to do their work. As educators, we not only teach but guide and mentor these kids every day, and yes, for little pay. Do everyone a favor and be bitter about the “professions” that show our kids it’s ok to be trashy and are idolized for it.

  8. Well put. I started teaching with hours if homework each night and then, again on the weekend “just to catch up.” I asked a colleague “his can you do this year after year.” His wise response stuck with me for the next four decades.

    “You learn to adapt. You learn what's really important.”