One of my favorite childhood picture books was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, as it probably is for decades of children. I'm not sure now what I loved about the book, because as an adult I hate it. Don't get me wrong, I still love Shel and his simplistic beauty, but I absolutely despise the message The Giving Tree sends its readers: love means sacrificing every part of yourself for the benefit of others, even when they don't appreciate it. Until there's nothing left.
This is problematic to me on so many levels. It's book-long endorsement of abusive relationship dynamics: the boy's careless treatment of the tree; the tree's willingness to be destroyed piece by piece in the name of love. It also rewards the martydom of the tree: unconditional love means giving everything you have without asking anything in return.
We read this in school last year as part of a homebase activity on learning life lessons from children's books, and I'm pretty sure my rant single-handedly warped my students' view on this book forever. Yes, giving is an act of love. But it is absolutely unacceptable to be so giving that you lose yourself in the process. (I think at one point in last year's discussion an 8th grader told me to calm down because it's just a children's book.)
What does this have to do with teaching? Because at some point in the last year, it's dawned on me: the teaching profession demands teachers to be Giving Trees. And if we aren't, we are somehow not good teachers.
I teach two full grades of 12-14-year-olds every day. That's currently 132 students. Every day. I teach writing, and I know that writing on a consistent basis with positive feedback is what creates better writers. So I read and comment on at least 132 different pieces of writing every single week. I don't get time during my 8am-4pm contract hours to do this reading and commenting, because during those hours, I am teaching (and holding individual writing conferences, and attending duties, and meeting with other teachers and administrators, and responding to parent emails and concerns, and planning future lessons, and trying to be patient and not cause lasting psychological damage on impressionable young minds). I also coach fall and spring sports, extending my school days during those months to 6pm for practice, and 9-10 pm on meet nights.
With 132 students, and averaging 15 minutes per paper for reading and response (fifteen minutes is a joke; a bad paper can easily take 20-25 minutes to respond to), it takes about 33 hours outside of my 40-hour (50+ hour during spring and fall) work week to do my job. That's a hell of a lot of giving.
Contrary to what this sounds like, I'm not trying to play the martyr here. I knew what I signed up for (mostly). I choose to respond to my students' writing and to have them write so often. I choose to put more on my already-full plate.
And it's not like I get nothing in return. I have hundreds of teenagers who look up to me, ask me for advice, or drop me emails to tell me that I've changed their lives in some way. No physical gift could represent what it feels like to know that you made a positive impact on the lives of teens when they needed it the most.
But last night, a harmless comment hit a raw nerve that's still kind of stinging in the back of my mind. I attended a 9th grade basketball game at the high school, which is something I never do. I attend 7th and 8th grade games all the time during winter sports (and I coach during spring and fall, remember), but I never make it out to the high school. There are various reasons and excuses: I watch the students I currently teach instead of former students, I'm really tired and in need of solitude at the end of most days, I have homework (see above workload), I don't have kids of my own so I don't have a pressing reason to go, etcetera. Last night I made an exception because Carly (my student teacher from last year) wanted to catch up and watch some of our former kids play ball. So we did. It was great. The girls were excited to see us, and we had some time to catch up while we cheered them on. And then a parent leaned over in the stands to say something to me.
First things first, this is a parent I've always gotten along with. She did not mean anything cruel and had no intention to damage. She simply said, "It's nice that you made it out here for a game for once. It's good to see you out in public supporting the kids." I laughed it off because the way she said it made me sound like an invalid. Carly even started laughing and we talked about how it made it sound like I'd been in the nursing home or hospital and was finally feeling well. It's a joke I make a lot about myself because I am kind of a hermit when it comes to small town life. And you know, I have a lot of exciting hobbies outside of my work and this school district.
The comment didn't destroy me, and I'm certainly not upset with the woman who said it. I'm sure many people in the community have thought it. And that's what hits a nerve. I spend eight hours a day, 180 days a year with their children. I spend more time coaching them outside of those hours. I spend even more time with their writing and interacting through comments and emails. I spend more time outside of school thinking and writing here about how I can support those kids even more than I already do. I'll be working a 13-hour day at school today between teaching and running the concession stand for the night. And yes, I also have summers off so I don't quit because who could possibly keep that workload going all year long and not have a complete psychological breakdown? So the idea that because I'm also not sacrificing even more time to attend more activities hit me harder the more I thought about it. When is it enough? When have teachers sacrificed enough of their time and lives for other peoples' kids? When have we given enough to deserve love? How can we attract and retain new teachers if they have to sign their lives away for nine months of the year in order to prove their worth?
I refuse to be a teacher martyr. I will sacrifice when necessary, but I will not allow my entire life to be consumed by this profession. It is unhealthy for any person to suffer so much for their job that they can't have a life, and it sets a poor example for future generations to watch their teachers accept martyrdom as a requirement for excellence.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.