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How to Fight Teachers’ 'Near Enemies'

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The marvelous Inspector Gamache, contemplative hero of the mystery series by Louise Penny, discusses the concept of “near enemies” with his friend Myra in the third novel:

"Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other is sick. Attachment masquerades as love, pity as compassion, and indifference as equanimity. Pity looks like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. We fool ourselves into believing we’re feeling one, when we’re actually feeling the other."

This concept got me thinking about the “near enemies” we confront as teachers.

Autonomy vs. Isolation

I used to admire veteran teachers who would say, “I just shut the door and do right by my students.”

We all shield our students from periodic bouts of lunacy exhibited by administrators and lawmakers who seem never to have met an actual child. But the “shut my door” mentality has all kinds of problems.

First, the teacher who shuts her door is depriving her colleagues of a chance to learn from her. She isn’t learning from her colleagues either. And while she may be doing right by those 25 kids in her own classroom, she isn’t advocating for better policies for the hundreds of other students in the school.

We need professional autonomy in order to act in the best interests of our students. But we also need collaboration. We need an open system where we observe other teachers and invite them in to watch us teach.

The question about any group, from a school faculty to The Avengers, is whether they’re smarter as a collective than the sum of their individual knowledge and talents. Are they greater than the sum of their parts?

Becoming that kind of group means sharing knowledge across classrooms, grade levels, and schools. You can’t do that with your door shut.

Reflection vs. Self-Flagellation

I will never be as good a teacher as I want to become. Ten years ago, I thought I was better than I think I am now. That’s not because I’ve gotten worse at teaching. It’s because I keep learning from amazing teachers who inspire me to incorporate more creativity, critical thinking, and mind-blowing technology into my classroom.

I get better each year, but my goals for my teaching get more ambitious. My reach exceeds my grasp.

The great teachers I know don’t put much stock in external evaluations, and they’re not competing with other teachers. They’re competing against themselves—against their evolving notion of the kind of teacher they could someday become.

That drive to be better can cross the line, though, into relentless self-criticism. We run the risk of driving ourselves into despair, and taking our students down with us.

We have to diagnose health, not just illness. We have to celebrate small steps and gradual growth, not only in our students’ abilities and small triumphs, but our own.

We also have to trust that when we botch a lesson or lose our temper during a bad moment in a hard week, our students will still sense the purity of our intentions. They will come away from their year in our care with the sense that we cared deeply about them and tried to be the teacher they deserved, even in the sloppy moments when we failed and had to try again the next day.

Meeting Students’ Needs vs. Ignoring Our Own

The worst line I have heard at a back-to-school event, meant to be a compliment, was this sentiment: “Teachers are like candles. They consume themselves to give light to others.”

What troubles me about that metaphor is that candles can’t renew themselves. Once they have melted into a distorted mass of waxy goop, they stay that way.

Given the astonishing attrition rates among teachers, particularly those who teach at high-poverty schools, the speaker was more right than she knew.

We have to find a way to meet our students’ many needs while also meeting our own. We have to give light without burning out.

I’m proud to be part of a profession with so many members who will do whatever it takes to make sure children can pursue their dreams. I work with teachers who have bought pajamas for kids who didn’t have any to wear on Pajama Day, helped families avoid eviction, and even legally adopted children who otherwise would have gone into the foster system.

But I’m troubled by the exhaustion I see in the faces of my colleagues. I know teachers who routinely stay at school until 8:00 at night, or come in every weekend to work for hours in their classrooms.

Those hours take their toll. A meme making the rounds on Facebook this year features an elderly white-haired granny grinning and declaring, “Who says teaching is stressful? I’m 39 and I feel great!”

Many of the factors that lead to exhaustion and early exits from the profession are outside our control. But there are things we can do to ensure that meeting our students’ needs doesn’t come at the expense of our own.

Seek out collaboration. Teaching is hard work under any circumstances. But the camaraderie of colleagues and the guidance of mentors can make the difference between the fulfilled weariness of a job done well and the depleted exhaustion of a downward spiral.

When my wife and I were taking childbirth classes, the instructor explained that two variables have a tremendous impact on the perception of pain: isolation and lack of control. If we can share the planning, reflection, and workload with colleagues we respect, the job becomes a lot less lonely.

Create boundaries to separate work from home. My friend Steve Evangelista, principal at Harlem Link Charter School, once described work as a gas that will expand to fill whatever space he allows it to occupy. Setting aside blocks of time for those things that help us to shake off the fatigue and worries of work—a hard run in the rain, an hour curled up with a blanket and a good book, a giggle-filled wrestling match with our children—can do a lot to replenish our spirits. We can also take small actions like removing school email from our iPhones, so the mental preoccupations of work don’t taint Saturday mornings or bedtime rituals with our own children.

Preserve summer. Summer break can be a time of renewal with our friends and families instead of a slot to fill with summer school and week-long workshops. Sometimes the hours we spend digging our fingers into the soil of our garden, starting a water balloon fight with our sons and daughters, or watching all 13 new episodes of “Orange is the New Black” during a well-spent week on the couch, are exactly what we need. These hours of delight meet our own needs, of course, but they also benefit next year’s students, because they ensure we will be truly rested by the time we meet them in August.

I worked hard this year. I can’t recall a single day when I didn’t devote significant time and thought to meeting my 2nd graders’ various needs. But summer is almost here. By this time next week, I plan to worry more about whether Jon Snow will defeat Ramsay Bolton in the North on “Game of Thrones” than whether Javier made his growth goal on the MAP Reading test.

We spend 180 days helping children become great thinkers, writers, readers, artists, scientists, and mathematicians, not to mention kind and capable human beings. Then the school year ends, we get a new class of students with a bewildering array of personalities, gifts, and needs, and we start back at the very beginning.

Summer is coming. Make sure you give yourself the time you need to do it all again come August.

Photo taken by author.

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