I have never been in a physically abusive relationship, but I have been in some seriously fucked up interpersonal collaborations with other people. They all eventually came to an end, so I guess I did something right eventually – or if I didn’t do something right, I still got the necessary results (in spite of myself, as I like to say.) The kind of shit I generally get into falls into a sort of weird passive kind of destruction. I suspect there are a fair number of people who would say I bring it on myself, or I create the circumstances that lead to the drama, either by my consistently poor choices in men, or my tolerance of truly shitty treatment. I like to say I am an optimist. Most of my friends would say I am in denial. Either way, the point is I have a pretty solid repertoire of experiences in which I stuck around and took a lot of costly, painful, and ultimately unnecessary shit.
Lately, I have been feeling some familiar feelings along these lines. But this makes no sense because I am in a really good place right now… my life is feeling really balanced, I am doing all the things I want to be doing, I have amazing people in my life, and great adventures awaiting me. And I am totally and completely single, so, what is this niggling feeling about? Why do I constantly feel judged, criticized, pressured, put down, and taken advantage of?
Last week as I got on the train to go to work I was thinking about this precise conundrum: Why did I feel like I was in a bad relationship?
[One week ago, on the Richmond Line]
I was grading papers – as I often do because, no time. A woman sitting next to me asked, “Are you a teacher?” I looked towards her and said, “Yes.”
“It must be a tremendous amount of work,” she continued.
“It is so wonderful what you do. So important.”
At this point I looked at her. Smartly dressed. Some sort of security badge attached to a lanyard (only mildly complicating her attire), and, most notably to me, she seemed to not be schlepping a metric shit ton of work back to the “office” with her. I considered this as I looked at my huge bag, which I have made a conscious New Year’s resolution to carry on my right shoulder from now on because at least I should have symmetrical lateral deltoid, trapezius, and middle back pain.
“I have the utmost respect for teachers. Honestly, so much respect,” she said as she made a move to get up and exit the train.
“Thanks,” I said.
I looked back at the papers in front of me. They were shit, frankly. After weeks of covering the topic of world exploration and completing an insanely complex simulation, my sophomores had been unable to take the time necessary to form complete sentences that could express their ideas and knowledge about what they had learned. And it had been so much work. It was still to be so much work.
The man sitting across from me said, “So you’re a teacher? Me too.”
I looked up at him. He looked nice, like we all try to, but he was tired. And not just like, ‘I could have used a couple more hours of sleep,’ tired, but wholly fatigued. Although his freshly pressed shirt and kind face belied it, I could see it behind his eyes as he looked at my heap of shit, and then his own.
“What do you teach?” He asked.
“Social studies,” I answered.
“English.” He replied.
“Ah.” I nodded.
He told me where he taught and asked me about my school. We traded some comparative details, and then he said, “It is really hard, isn’t it?”
“What, the work?” I asked.
“No, all of it.” He said.
“Yeah, I guess. Yes.” I said.
“You know there is a war on teachers,” he said. “We are at war. And we’re out there, on the front lines. But, no support.”
I looked at him.
“Think about it,” he said. “We’ve got to protect and grow the most important resource, the kids. And everyone agrees, they are so important. But they don’t give us any support. They lay down their strategies from far away – imagine someone doing that in a real war, not listening to the field general. Anyway, and there we are, taking all the hits. No flak jackets for us.”
“She liked us.” I joked about the woman who had exited the train.
“They all like us,” he said. “That doesn’t pay my rent.”
I got up to get off the train and said, “Yeah. It is a war.”
Another man standing next to me, who had been listening, said, “Well, you can always quit.”
I looked at him and got off the train.
I walked towards school and thought about the morning commute. I couldn’t decide what would be a better theme song, this one, or this one because these are the things I like to fill my head with when life seems too real. Of course, neither of those songs work because what teacher on the planet works from nine to five?
Are we at war I wondered? Is it bigger than my own dysfunctional relationship with work? I work in the most highly respected and singularly devalued (literally) profession in the world. And more and more it starts to feel like the proverbial oldest profession in the world. (Except then we would be getting paid better.)
But I worry that this will sound shrewish, or that people might misunderstand and think I hate my job and say things like the guy on the train: ‘If it is so bad why don’t you just quit?’ (Obviously those folks are unaware of the complexity of abusive relationships, but whatever.)
The thing is, I do not hate my job. In fact, most of the time, most days, there are things I absolutely, without qualification LOVE about my job. I am not sure I could find a day where there is not something, even if it is infinitesimally small, that made me think, ‘Yeah, okay, this is good.’
I also am pretty good at my job. Now here one runs the risk of sounding like a jackass, but I am a good teacher – not that you would know it from the evaluations I have received at my most recent school – but I choose to look at more holistic and empirical data from nearly 20 years and 2,000 students and their people. And I am a good enough teacher to know when I have done an excellent job, and when I have sucked. And both have happened, and both eventually make me better at what I do.
Am I in an abusive relationship with my job? The more I thought about that question the less sure I felt. I thought about the other teacher on the train. It is not *my* job… it’s education. I am in an abusive relationship with my profession.
That just might make it a war.
According to someone on the web who thinks they are an expert here are some signs you might be in an abusive relationship:
- A sense that you have to fit into someone else’s perception of what is right or wrong in order to be loved. √ Well, this certainly speaks to the enforcement of current education policy and of course the teacher evaluation process….
- You feel confined. √ Let’s face it, people who go into teaching are probably relatively okay with structure, but the limits placed on teachers recently regarding movement, salaries, or even day-to-day things like extra duty certainly feel confining.
- There is always something to fix in the relationship. √ Never good enough. And everyone let’s you know this. Daily. Just read the newspaper or turn on the news.
- Your needs are not met in one way or another. √ I know it sounds redundant, but how are we supposed to get by on these salaries? Or even if we get by, how can you feel good about the hours and hours you put in such a “respected” profession when you make pennies on the dollar to all the private sector professionals around you?
- You’re never going to be good enough. √ Never. “Those who can’t do, teach.” “Teachers are lazy.” “Teachers are brainwashing our kids with their liberal agenda.” (I am always curious how it can be both.) We give too much work. We don’t give enough work. We do not grade fast enough, or give enough feedback, or are too critical. *Sigh*
- You feel trapped. √ This is an issue, but not because of fear, because if you change districts or states, you lose all your retirement and years – yes, in my profession you actually can lose years of experience. That is the weirdest thing I have ever contemplated, in a professional context anyhow.
- You find other ways to satisfy yourself to keep your mind off how unhappy you are in the situation. √ Most teachers I know struggle to find the time to do anything for themselves. Until they hit the wall then it becomes necessary to ensure this reality. I am not sure this is bad… unless it is just to avoid reality. It certainly has been.
- When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad it’s horrible. √ Truer words have not been written about my profession.
According to Psychology Today these are the signs you are in a dysfunctional relationship:
- Assignment of Blame √ The problems in education are systemic – even a cursory look would tell you this. Regardless of this, all the players in the game look to point the finger. Usually at the teachers.
- Threats of exile or abandonment √ It is the pink slip way of life.
- Dominance/Submission √ The system’s way or the highway.
- Grudges √ Yep.
- Ownership √ Yep.
- Disloyalty √ Yep.
- Winner or Loser Arguments √ When people believe it is a zero sum game, this is what happens.
- Snapshots versus moving pictures √ Did I already mention the teacher evaluation process?
Well, that certainly looks dysfunctional. I recalled the train conversation again. We are at war. And it is not me against my school, or my administration or my kids or their parents. We are at war against a society that has intentionally devalued education (insert conspiracy theory of choice here). We are at war against a system that disparages anyone who wants anything for free, but expects teachers to provide their services thusly.
This is not a dysfunctional relationship because it is not a pas-de-deux. It is a war because the participants on both sides of the equation are legion. It is a war. We are at war by choice or circumstance.
We are at war. Without a defense budget, without support, and we are fighting an overwhelming and ironic adversary: ourselves.