A Lament for Educators
When I was very young I knew that I would become a teacher. I was drawn to the idea of helping people, and I loved to read and write. For the past six years, I have instructed writing for hundreds of students at universities and community colleges, first in Colorado and now in California. I would say I first experienced the concept of “burn-out” at year two in Colorado. I was teaching three to four courses a term and working a part-time job for thirty hours a week.
I decided to move to California with the intention of dropping part-time gigs and earning a living as a full-time lecturer. I will go ahead and let those in the academic field finishing laughing before I continue…. I began instructing six to seven courses in the fall, three to five in the spring, and one to two during the summer term. This has been my life for the past four years. The “free-way flyer” or “adjunct hustle” between two to three institutions has turned out to be just as exhausting as splitting my labor between different job types.
Like every human that lives paycheck to paycheck in 2020, ideas like emotional labor, allostatic load, and the vaso-motoric cycle are becoming foundational terms that help me understand my job. If this pandemic has provided insight into anything it is a clear understanding of the sacrifices I make for my profession. If pre-pandemic was an economy of quantity, where the average American worker held two jobs — the post-pandemic economy is one of quality, a return to the values and ethics that shape the labor we apply in this world.
I hold teaching to be a form of social praxis. In United States teaching is an extremely fragmented concept. It is a term and profession that is defined and valued in a million ways, and subsequently implemented uniquely within each of the fifty states. This fragmentation feeds the exasperation that has been compounded by the nature of this past year of academic instruction. The relentless feeling of isolation as you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders is a fundamental form of social alienation to any educator. In fact, this is what we mean when we say we are under-funded, under-resourced, and under-developed — we are isolated as a profession and super-structure from the capital and resources to make the impact we know that we NEED to make.
We see, time and time again, the neglect that is extended to our students. We have always been helpless, but with remote instruction we are now in their homes, their cars, and their lives. Now we not only carry the weight of our own isolation, but we carry the weight of our students. Their family deaths are now ours, their personal loss is now ours, their habitual engagement with socioeconomic inequity, violence, barriers to access to technology, nutrition, sleep, safety are all now ours. And yet, the drummer continues to drum — we must show up to the front of the classroom and lead — even during a global pandemic.
This drumbeat is both the poison and the antidote. First, that like the human body, our educational institutions and administrative structures are sick, diseased, and dying — this was a painful truth long before COVID-19 first interfered with any lesson plan. Our neglect of public education has turned a basic human virtue into another pursuit of capital — it has taken a public service, and transformed it into another product whose optimal package is only available to those with money.
Second, there is providence in this social cacophony. The idea that we continue to show up and sacrifice. This is the fundamental truth that prevails through the existence of humanity — the idea of the immortal relationship of the educator and learner. To teach is an act of love towards another human. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the reality of being human.