December 16, 2005

Veteran desensitization?

Teachers with even a few years in the classroom can easily begin to feel desensitized to the pain and suffering of their young students. Teachers often joke together in the staff lounge about what an “idiot” so and so is, or what a “rotten” family little Johnny must come from. But that’s just a sad attempt to relieve the tension that builds up day after day, year after year from the struggle of fighting knee deep in the muck of the classroom battle.

It’s almost like post-traumatic stress. I don’t go in the staff lounge anymore. In fact I am rarely seen in the office at all. It’s not that I am anti-social, or that I don’t value the company of my colleagues. No, I stay away because too often when I am in the presence of other teachers, especially ones I share students with, I am shocked, disappointed, and sometimes dismayed at they way other teachers, good teachers, experienced and successful teachers talk about their students. Rarely do I hear shared stories of hope and proud moments of success. I know these people care about the students because I know their hearts. I know why they got into teaching. I have seen the fruits of their labors in the students they sometimes insult. So why do teachers bash the very souls they are committed to saving?

One of my mentors, and very close friends, use to refer to the school we worked at as “The Factory.” The students lined up in front of his classroom before he allowed them to enter (this was middle school.) The desks were lined up in even rows with students seated alphabetically. He had a refined system of grading and never took work home because he was able to fit it in during the class day. He was an accomplished and decorated teacher who taught me as a youth and had a major impact on my life. He was one of the reasons I chose to teach. I even took over his assignment when I was hired for my first job. I knew his heart. I could see it when at 12 years old I sat in his classroom and learned from his lessons. I was inspired then. How could this be the same man who now equated his workday with automobile assembly? Had he changed from the man I admired, and the teacher I respected? After many years in the classroom, after the exhausting repetition of a six-period day, bell schedule, and seemingly revolving door or pain-stricken, hate-mongering, resentment-filled, loud and sometimes obnoxious pupils, well, he built up tolerance.

A teacher who tries to “handle” their students will quickly fail. It’s not our jobs. Yes they are in pain, and yes we want to take the pain away, but we cannot, and should not. Pain is a natural part of life and an important part of growth. If it doesn’t hurt, I don’t change it. This is the hardest part of teaching for me; watching people I care about hurt. Sometimes the pain is purposeful and leads to a positive conclusion, like childbirth. Other times the pain seems to go on and on without direction as the student makes one poor decision after another. Despite our best efforts, from the general talk-around-the-issue-soap-box-moments in the classroom, to those private, frank and very direct chats outside the classroom door, teachers give all that we have to our students to try and support them through their “education.”

Perhaps the largest misstep in education today is the over-emphasis on test scores and the seemingly complete disregard for character education. But that’s a different topic all together.

So after years of giving 100% to our students, seeing one class end and another class begin, we grow tired of suffering with our kids. At the end of the school year the students move on with their lives while we stay in the same place, the same classroom, at the same school, teaching the same subject to a brand new set of student the following fall. We know the cycle repeats, and yet we get frustrated when the new students don’t start where we know we finished with the former group. All of that time and energy invested, and then we have to begin it all over again. It’s easy to get discouraged, easy to become frustrated, easy to burn out.

After the 28th “Jenny” to receive a progress report because she missed 30 of 45 class days in the quarter comes in to ask if she can make up work before school and promises to come in early never shows up the teacher tends to anticipate the possibility that “Jenny” is not going to pass, no matter what the teacher does to help. I’m not as shocked as I once was when a student fails my class, but with every “F” I bubble I wonder what else I could have done? With every student who falls behind, never to catch up on their make-up work, I wonder how I could have accommodated them better. Failing a student for any reason is always painful for the teacher, no matter how long they have taught.

Our sensitivity to the student’s condition must never fade, never fail. If a teacher loses his or her compassion for the people within their realm of influence, then all is lost. It isn’t easy when teachers are so disrespected. One of my colleagues was “shushed” by a 9th grade student in his own classroom this week. Shushed! Because 21st century society does not celebrate teachers or public education many kids do not see the value of their so-called educational experience. What they don’t value they don’t appreciate. Well-intended good-spirited teachers often receive the blunt force trauma of the wild emotions of out-of-control youth who lash out of their emotional desperation without concern for who they injure. Over time teachers learn to protect themselves from the pain and suffering they share through empathy with their students, but they never lose sensitivity.

Please post your comments below.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    I am an anomoly among teachers in my school. Teaching is a mid-life career change for me and one I continue (after 4 years) to have some ambivalence about.

    What I was utterly unprepared for is the crushing isolation as well as the cynicism of my fellow staff. I learned very early that staff room chatter could be toxic and resolved to avoid that particular turf at all cost.

    The ambivalence I speak of arises more from swimming in the murky soup of negativity that surrounds me here than from my day to day life with my students. Fortunately, I am supported by an utterly amazing administration - people who (gasp!) appear to actually like kids. This keeps me afloat, but I wonder what will happen with a new regime change down the line.

    The other thing I was unprepared for in all of this is the attitudes of others (teachers and others) who learn of my career change. I worked in a vacuous world of theatre and film design and decided that despite the financial rewards and opportunity to work in a creative environment, I was making little by way of contribution in this world. Now, when I try to convey this to others, I can count on a heaping serving of condescension - as if I am too stupid to recognize blind idealism for what it is.

    I just wanted to say that I found your comments here providing me with some perspective and a ray of hope at a much needed time.


  2. Thanks Karen. Did you read this one: Why teach? We may have some common pre-teaching experiences. Stay positive and know that what you do for those kids in that classroom has long-lasting and far-reaching significance (unlike spending your life selling soap!)