Warning: This post does reference sexual, physical, and verbal abuse.
Teaching is emotionally draining work. It is true that it is fulfilling work. I never doubted the worth of my career and what I was offering. It’s still exhausting and saps you of the mental energy necessary to have a life outside of teaching. Brains tend to remember negative experiences more often than positive experiences because of the ways that those negative experiences engage with the brain. As a special educator, there was a lot of bad, or at least my brain feels like there was. Regardless of the veracity of that perception, it’s impact is the same. My job as a teacher hurt me. I grew and I learned and I had pride in the important work I was doing, but my job hurt me quite a bit. Teaching broke me in ways that none of my other jobs had, but it also provided me perspective that my previous employment was lacking.
Students identified with special needs experience higher rates of abuse and neglect than their peers without disabilities. I distinctly remember waking up one Saturday morning after holding myself together the day before and clinging to my husband, sobbing into his shoulder. A student of mine had been assaulted by her mother in an effort to prove that her hymen was still intact and her virginity unchanged. As her first teacher of the day, I was the first adult she was able to safely tell. My day was mixed with attempts to teach while also excusing myself to answer questions, talk with a social worker from child and family services, and act like things were normal and I was ok when it wasn’t normal and I was absolutely not ok. Another student told me the truth when I noticed the discoloration and puffiness beneath his eye. His mom had punched him that morning. I was devastated when she hit him again for “snitching” and blamed him for the investigation that followed. It was brutal for me to learn that my actions as a mandatory reporter caused him further abuse. Of course, I understood that I wasn’t the adult that harmed him, but I felt guilt for his suffering. A student with a father notorious for being physically, sexually, and verbally abusive to women in front of him, threatened to trap my feet in concrete and drop me in a river. Another day, he asked me if my husband knew what to do to me when I had been bad and if he knew how to hit me where no one would see. These were just a handful of various times when a student was in danger or I was. With those scenarios being expected and part of the job, it’s really not that surprising that teachers can develop Secondary Traumatic Stress. Beyond these extreme situations and others like them, there were also the stresses of the basic day.
I kept a classroom store filled with snacks so students could buy food with pretend money they earned through classroom participation. I managed to make that classroom time fit state learning standards by incorporating their earnings into pretend bank accounts they could over spend, thus learning about positive and negative numbers. When an administrator told me they all had access to free breakfast in the morning, I just took the fact as it was and let it go. Whether the school had meant to or not, it had created a segregated school environment by sending those who ate breakfast at school to the cafeteria and those who didn’t want to eat to the gym. Students of color are typically at least two times as likely to be living in poverty as their white counterparts, and the racial makeup of the cafeteria versus the gym matched this. Many of the students I taught didn’t eat their free breakfast, because it highlighted their poverty. If they were also black or brown, it made them feel separated by their skin color in addition to letting everyone know they were poor. Reputation means everything in middle school, and I wanted to respect whatever dignity my students could hold onto. As each year progressed and school supplies became worn down or depleted, I added supplies into the school store. Once I realized that supplies were an issue all year long, I added them to the store at the beginning of the year.
Registration days were daunting, because I chose not to use these as planning days as many of my colleagues did. If I did get planning and classroom preparation done, I was grateful, but I didn’t count on it. I didn’t plan for this to be time for me after a guardian came to sign papers during one of my first registration days. She identified herself as an aunt of one of my students, but wrote “aunt ” as “ant”. I carefully and gently asked her if she would like me to answer any questions about the paperwork and she admitted with some hesitation that she didn’t understand any of it other than the parts that asked her to provide her signature. We like to believe that the US is a shining beacon in the world of education, but over ten percent of our adult population is considered functionally illiterate. In other words, about one of every ten people you encounter is able to read but is not fluent or able to comprehend what they read. These adults are still decoding words, sounding them out and trying to understand what they mean in context. They can read, but it is not natural to them and presents challenges for them daily. For any parent or guardian that wanted me to, I would explain what each section of the paperwork meant using vocabulary that was more accessible. I was teaching, but my students were adults during registration. Occasionally, fellow teachers would tell me this wasn’t necessary and not my job. Others more disgruntled and bitter would tell me I was young, naive, and wasting my time. Still others would shake their heads with looks that indicated they felt I just didn’t know better yet and I’d eventually stop doing this. Maybe it wasn’t my responsibility, but the ethics of asking people to sign things they don’t understand matters to me. Plus, how much less would families trust me to care for and educate their children if I wasn’t willing to sit with them and listen to their concerns?
The awkward position of being a special educator during IEP meetings isn’t helpful and surely doesn’t reduce the stress of the workload. Despite what school districts say, I don’t believe what children need is more important than money. Without money, we can’t really provide services in the first place. This puts districts in a very challenging place. What a student is legally required to have is not always financially feasible, so districts will rationalize placement adjustments and the like in efforts to create plans that can be afforded. It’s required that districts give parents copies of their parental rights, but there is little effort spent in explaining what those parental rights are, unless a parent knows they can ask for an explanation and won’t be penalized for doing so. It’s understood that you’ll figure that out on your own as a parent, or that you’ll speak up if it really mattered to you. Many times, I sat and listened, knowing that parents had a legal right to object to a change but didn’t know that they could. Schools have to ask whether parents received a copy of their rights. They don’t have to verify whether parents know what those rights entail and how they’re applicable. In especially unprofessional and dishonorable situations, translators are not present for families who need it. There isn’t even anyone there to tell those caregivers they have a right to a translator and that they can object to an IEP meeting continuing until an interpreter is provided by the district. If I spoke up and shared with parents they didn’t have to agree, I risked my reputation among my supervisors and within my district. If I didn’t speak up, I risked my own conscience. Needless to say, this predicament wasn’t easy for me. Though I knew that the district was trying to provide the services they could with what money they had, I didn’t appreciate the precarious position I kept being put in. If it bothered me that people didn’t understand basic yearly registration paperwork, it was all the more distressing when guardians were left confused and intimidated by the people meant to be on their side, working together to help kids have success. Those days left me feeling particularly defeated.
Finally, it’s nearly impossible to leave work at work as a teacher. Previously, when I shared concerns regarding time and teaching, I mentioned the minimum of two plus hours of work necessary after the official school day ends to successfully finish the day and prepare for the next. It’s possible to finish those two hours at the school building and bring nothing home. I’ve definitely done that, ending my day with conversations with the custodial staff. I did succeed in leaving my work mostly at work on those days, but I also got home several hours after my spouse and with nearly no time to rest and do other things necessary for life before succumbing to something called sleep. Apparently, you need it. After our baby arrived, if I chose to leave work at work, even just tangibly in the form of papers and books, I’d get home after Little Bear went to bed. Overall, I’d see my baby nursing at night and on the weekends. Emotionally, it’s terribly hard to leave work at work. I was young and I hadn’t developed good work/home boundaries yet. Even still, the best of the best have trouble separating themselves when children show up with cuts, bruises, burns, hungry… To survive as a teacher, in many ways, you have to close off parts of yourself. I can do that, and I have in the past, but I unintentionally closed myself off from things I needed to feel too, like love, joy, hope, and desire. When I teach full-time, it’s a fine line I walk between being an excellent teacher and just disappearing into my work and being absent from my life.
Please don’t think I didn’t have wonderful times as a teacher. I did, and I remember them fondly. The day a guardian came in for registration and told me that she was glad her child would have me again because she loved math for the first time—-It’s one of the best days of my life. When I was asked to speak at a conference as both a math teacher and a special education teacher because my strategies were working and kids were beginning to show better numbers on standardized tests and more confidence, I was proud of all of us for busting our butts and believing in ourselves and what we were capable of. Or the day a student asked to sit in my class after school because they knew I’d give them “still’, that was a great moment. Teaching gave me a profound understanding of my capacity to do good and be a person I wanted to be. It also gave me an awareness that work that takes significantly more from you than it gives back might not be meant to be forever. When I was honest with myself, I acknowledged that I struggled to give myself recuperation time, torn between being with my husband, juggling housework, cooking, and life events like birthdays and holidays. To numb myself enough to be able to separate work and home, I knew I’d risk numbing myself to all of my life and all of the people in it, including the baby on the way.