the shock and the sacred


All over the country right now, teachers are being asked to work double and triple-hard. In response to widespread shuttering of schools — for weeks, maybe longer — thousands of districts are asking their staffs to create, sometimes out of nothing, credible and productive work that can be done by students from their homes or shelters. They are being asked to learn new technologies, sometimes with little sense of whether or not the students they will seek to reach with those technologies will be equipped to meet them. They are running so hot. And no one has any idea whether it will work. No one has been here before.

Don’t forget that the district that sends out the we-all-have-to-pull-together-in-this-crisis emails is the same district that will turn its back on you the second you run out of sick time.

Don’t work for free.
Don’t spend your own money.
Follow your contract.

That was a social media post I saw yesterday, from a friend who is a career teacher and union rep in a large American city. The image above is another expression of a similar sentiment that is is going around.

It seems some who are not teachers are meeting this sort of wary response from those who are with alarm. Why are some of the teachers “so bitter”, they wonder? Why are they so guarded? It’s an emergency, after all! Everyone needs to pitch in!

I think the answer is that teachers are cagey right now because their experience has taught them to be. And, down deep,  such responses reveal what I think is an irreducible contradiction inside many teachers’ hearts:

The quality that is most sacred about a great teacher — which compels them to do their work well — also makes them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation.

Let me try to explain.

Anyone who pays even casual attention to the plight of the public school teacher will discern a long arc of those who control their professional lives seeking ways to ask them to do more with less. This is reflected in teaching’s efforts to professionalize itself, following the template that the medical profession did a hundred years ago. As well as in the groundswell of public agitation over the last years that seeks to keep the reality of the teaching life on everyone’s minds. The low pay*, of course — but also the loss of autonomy, and especially the funding disparities that ensure schools without many resources seem to stay that way, to the detriment of their students’ learning.

Public education also has a long history of acute crises deployed as leverage to effect dramatic change — often with concomitant negative impacts on teachers’ lives and their capacity to do their work. From Sputnik to Obama’s Race to the Top initiative: educators have learned to look askance at a sense of urgency thrust upon them, because it usually results in their world being upended and something new being taken out of their collective hides. (Put another way: teachers are frequently asked to do something new. They rarely have existing duties taken from them.)

This phenomenon can be understood as an expression of what Naomi Klein famously termed the “shock doctrine”:

the exploitation of national crises (disasters or upheavals) to establish controversial and questionable policies, while citizens are excessively distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response, and resist effectively.

This is the contemporary story — but it is not a new one. The very existence of public school, from its earliest beginnings under Horace Mann in Massachusetts, was predicated on the notion that teachers — especially female teachers — would do the work for less than its value, because the opportunity to care for what Lisa Delpit much later called “other peoples’ children” offered them a unique path to their own self-fulfillment. As Dana Goldstein writes in her terrifically readable history of the profession, The Teacher Wars:

…The home and the school (were) intertwined, two naturally feminine realms in which women could nurture the next generation. “Woman, whatever are her relations in life, is necessarily the guardian of the nursery, the companion of childhood, and the constant model of imitation,” (Catherine Beecher) wrote in her “Essay on the Education of Female Teachers.” “It is her hand that first stamps impressions on the immortal spirit, that must remain forever.” Historian Redding Sugg dubbed this the “motherteacher” ideal — the notion that teaching and mothering were much the same job, done in different settings (p. 18).

Goldstein goes on to explain that, with so few other opportunities available outside the home for (white, educated) women to pursue, Mann and the Massachusetts legislature sold the idea of the “motherteacher” to the public as a welcome alternative to the itinerant, abusive, and alcoholic male teachers (think Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) who dominated the period — men who, presaging the still-heard and hurtful saw about “those who can’t do, teach,” actually taught because they could not do.

So any time the conversation turns to teachers and compensation — in my state, and everywhere in this country — we must not be surprised when we encounter an underpinning of “why should we pay them more?” Because the very existence of the profession in this country is predicated upon the notion that a great teacher would actually do it for free — because teaching completes them and elevates them.

True story: last year I heard an otherwise-progressive member of my state legislature affirm that the best way for a North Carolina teacher to thrive is to marry a man with money.  Shocking — and not. (As is the fact that firing teachers upon marriage — or, god forbid, pregnancy — was widely practiced well into the 70s. Once you are married, why do you need to teach? You have your own kids now.)

This is the deep history of systemic exploitation that underpins any effort to ask teachers to do more, to hustle, to run hot.

But many do it anyway. Work beyond their contract. Pay for supplies out of their own pocket. Take “their” children into their own homes, and otherwise go way beyond their professional mandate, asked or not, in the service of the perceived need of the students and often to great personal detriment.


I am deeply impressed by the literature and research that seeks to understand the observable qualities — and the inner life — of those who have long and fruitful teaching careers. Especially those who do not merely survive the work, but thrive in it: that thrive because of it. There’s a perpetual-motion-machine aspect to considering these peoples’ practice. The impossible machine that engineers have sought for generations: one that runs without friction.

How is it that the precise elements of the work that “burn out” so many teachers actually sustain others?

We know about the “burn out” part; the rule of thumb is that half the teachers entering the field will no longer be teaching in five years (though those numbers are a little soft, it is still a hell of an attrition rate).

A few folks have offered really compelling explanations of what compels good teaching — and why those who do it well are vulnerable to exploitation.

David Hansen finds a “sense of vocation” that motivates many thriving teachers. Vocation is “a form of public service that yields enduring personal fulfillment to those who provide it” (preface). He figures that the place where one’s own desire to be of use in the world meets the world’s great need is the place where such folks thrive.** This is why when young people come to the College of Education with no sense of why they want to do this work other than a vague desire to “love those kids up, because they don’t get it at home,” I persevere — despite such unexamined beliefs being saturated with deficit stories about people and homes they imagine so different than their own. At the core of even such a statement is the beginning of a desire to be of use to those who need you, and that is sacred.

I have learned to use “sacred” the plainspoken way Parker Palmer does: “something worthy of respect.” In “The Grace of Great Things,” he invites educators to get in touch with their own deep sense of the sacred, and see the way it turns into being of use to others — not in a paternal or better-than way, but because to live in respectful relation with the world and those who inhabit it rhymes with deeper patterns of thriving.

It’s Wendell Berry who first (to me) explained those patterns — in the formidable little essay “Solving for Pattern” (from 1980, before sustainability was even a thing!). It is a piece about farming more than anything else, but he finds the lessons taught by the intractable realities of that work illuminating of so much more (“It is only when it is understood that our agricultural dilemma is characteristic not of our agriculture but of our time that we can begin to understand why these surprises happen, and to work out standards of judgment that may prevent them”).

Briefly put: for Berry, the only solution that truly solves a presenting problem is the one that ramifies into more solutions. Too many solutions are short-term, heedless of the long term expense of “running hot” (an engine, a field, a teacher) because they are focused only on short-term gains. The choice that enriches the soil and ensures long productivity is often the one that means fewer yields in the short term. Likewise is a life turned to service to others, while less remunerative or prestigious than other lines of work, often in keeping with the deep need of each of us to be embedded in the lives of others. The need so many of us feel to meet our own brokenness through encounter and work to heal the brokenness of another.

And here I arrive at the very core of this line of reasoning: the notion that we are all broken, incomplete, and can only find our wholeness in our identification with those who surround us, and our application of ourselves to the needs of others. This is the Saint Francis Prayer, of course, as well as a core precept of other faith traditions. In my own (Christianity) I found it well-explained in the thinking of theologian Henri Nouwen, who describes its mechanisms in terms of hospitality. Here’s a lovely passage that limns the experience of losing oneself in teaching another — and the truth in the teacher cliche about “learning as much from my students as they learn from me”:

Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host…When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity…Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.

But if this is in fact what most deeply motivates a life in service to other peoples’ children — and the needs of other peoples’ children are, in fact, an inexhaustible resource — then what could possibly prevent teachers with a sense of vocation from thriving? After all, they are doing the work they must to find their own peace and sense of fulfillment. What else do they need?

Well, they need the ability to do it and be adequately compensated for it, so that they can have lives of dignity. And they need to know that they have reliable access to the sense that their work is of worth: that they are having impact and making a difference.

Doris Santoro, though, explains how almost every top-down reform inflicted upon teachers complicates or ends the possibility of access to the sense that one’s work is of worth. She terms such outcomes the “moral rewards” of teaching — but notes that, as teaching becomes more a task whose value is assessed by the performance of students on high-stakes standardized measures, the less opportunity a teacher has to access those “moral rewards.”

Because such labor is by necessity atomized, piecework. “Standardization,” by definition, requires the reduction of the infinitely complex and situation-bound reality of teaching to specific tasks performed up to or not meeting expectations, followed by the enactment of a feedback loop to remediate and get a better outcome next time. In this way of thinking about the work, the teacher is merely a functionary of another’s intentions — an object, not a subject. And a student is just a set of outputs that are either acceptable or need more work.

So Santoro pointedly shuns the term “burnout,” because it places the cause of the failure to thrive on the individual teacher — on some inchoate personal or moral lack that makes this teacher unable to “make it” where another might. Instead, she insists on using the term “demoralization”: the institutionalized loss of access to the life-giving moral components of our work. Failures which are systemic — designed in — and not individual.

So in closing, this is all in play when a teacher is asked to run hot; to take one for the team; to dig deep and just get it done, just this once.

  • You have asked me to do that before.
  • A part of me wants to — because I am made whole by being of service.
  • That’s sacred, and I want to honor it.
  • But when I have honored it in the past, you have exploited it.
  • And so I won’t do that again.
  • But a part of me wants to.
  • But I just can’t anymore.

Round and round, And that’s why teachers are both working themselves to death this week, and why they are torn up about it. Why those who lead and advocate for them wish to serve the kids, and at the same time wish to save the profession from its own best — and worst — impulses.

The profession is doomed to be exploited. It was set up that way.

*A starting teacher in my state will earn $35K/year this year, with a $1K raise each year over the first fifteen years, until they top out at $50K for essentially the rest of their careers (up to $52K at 25 years of service). There are are of course local salary supplements that are paid by specific districts and areas, related almost wholly to that area’s tax base and ability to pay them — which leads to the perverse incentive for the most competitive teachers to seek jobs in the best-off districts and, sometimes but not always, not in the Title I schools that most need their skills. And you can earn a 12% bump by becoming National Board Certified after your third year. But that’s about it, in my state, where salary increases for graduate study was 86’d several years ago.

**Here he paraphrases, knowingly I think, theologian Frederic Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

One response to “the shock and the sacred”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: