Sunday, June 20, 2021

It's a Living

I used to love it.

When I first started teaching, my hand shook as I wrote on the chalkboard. I used to write out everything I was going to say in class beforehand, and then I practiced saying it in front of the mirror. 

I was still in my twenties back then. I taught my first class when I was a student in the master's program. I paid my graduate school tuition by working as a teaching assistant in the M.A. program through the Ph.D.; I taught almost every semester in exchange for a tuition waiver and a small monthly stipend. The stipend was not enough to live on, which is why I took on extra jobs by teaching part-time at other colleges and also by resisting the urge to bitch-slap rude customers who threw tantrums about expired coupons at my retail jobs (I wish those rude customers a lifetime of being stuck in long lines behind customers who acted exactly like they did).

"You'll never make it as a teacher," my mother told me. "You don't have the personality for it. All your students will dislike you." She pressured me to pursue a career in the lucrative field that the majority of my relatives worked in. She was furious when I defied her and majored in English instead of the major she tried to force me into. It was the first real decision I ever made, and to this day, she loves to emphasize how much my sibling earns in that lucrative field. When I answered her inquiry about how much I earn as a teacher, she said, "That's it? That's not enough. I told you so. You chose this career, and look how you ended up."

I wanted to prove her wrong, which is one of the reasons I worked so hard in graduate school. My former therapist told me that the children of abusive parents often become overachievers with Type A personalities. They want their parents' approval, which is constantly withheld from them because their parents make them feel bad about themselves instead. "She'll never approve of what you do," my therapist said. "Then she would have to admit that she was wrong about you." 

I didn't want the career my parents wanted for me. I remember seeing a professor at my college who always had an extra bounce in his step when he walked to class. He was cheerful when he taught because he truly enjoyed his job. He wasn't like so many other workers I'd observed at the internships I did before I committed to graduate school, the ones who dreaded Mondays and were only in a good mood on Fridays.

When I first started teaching, I thought it would be like an inspirational teacher movie, where the students are disrespectful at first, but eventually they warm up to the teacher because of the latter's inspirational teaching methods. In the movie Dead Poets Society, the students jump up on their desks and recite poetry as their teacher walks out of the classroom for the last time. In the movie Stand and Deliver, the students go from struggling in school to receiving high scores on their AP calculus test, including one student who didn't even know what calculus was before taking the teacher's class. 

I thought that I could be like the English teachers who inspired me, the ones who encouraged my love of reading and writing and introduced me to new authors. I actually only ever took one class on college teaching before I started teaching because college teachers do not have the same intensive training for teaching as high school and grade school teachers do. The focus is supposed to be on their research, not their teaching, which is why there are many college professors who are brilliant scholars but terrible teachers. 

I wanted to be the exception. I wanted to be like the college professors I'd had who were both good scholars AND good teachers. And for a long time, I was truly passionate about teaching. Many of my students wrote in their evaluations, "She's really enthusiastic. She seems really happy when she's teaching." And I was. I always felt a rush when I stood at the front of the classroom or even when I walked into class each day. I refused to give up on my graduate studies, despite all the problems I had with my dissertation and my advisor, partly because I didn't want to give up teaching, the job that I loved. 

But over the years, I started to love it less and less. It didn't happen overnight. It was gradual, the accumulation of many things that kept happening over the years.

There was the student who refused to sit down during their appointment and literally loomed over me and screamed in my face for several minutes because they earned a B. 

There was the student who berated me for telling another student not to nap in my class. "You're hurting his self-esteem," the student said. 

There was the student who argued about every single grade she received in my class, and she insisted, "You're wrong! I should have gotten an A." When I finally told her that I wasn't going to debate her grades with her anymore and that she couldn't talk to me like that, she literally threw a tantrum in my office, stomping her feet, and screaming and crying in front of my colleagues I shared an office with and their students. I managed to calm the student down, but inside I was seething. She was allowed to explode, but as the teacher I never could because I had to be the mature adult. 

There was the student who stopped showing up to class for more than two months, ignored my emails, and then when they received an F, sent me one of the nastiest emails I'd ever received, full of insults and obscenities.

There were the students who sat in the back every day, didn't look up from their cell phones during the entire class session, would simply say, "I don't know. I didn't do the reading," when I asked them a question, and then go back to turning themselves into cats on Snapchat or whatever the hell they did on those phones. These were the same students who often skipped class and showed up late, turned in their work late or not at all, and then blamed ME when they didn't get the good grades they thought they deserved. "If I get a bad grade, it's YOUR fault because you're a bad teacher," more than one of them told me to my face.

I didn't tolerate that crap, though. I told the students to put their phones away and docked them class participation points if they kept taking their phones out. I sternly and firmly told the students who accused me of being a bad teacher that their mistakes and poor work ethic caused them to earn low grades, and that I would not tolerate such blatant disrespect from them ever again. Every semester, I grew tougher and less tolerant of b.s. because there was always at least one or two disrespectful students like that. 

"All it takes is one nasty student," one of my colleagues told me. "The rest of the class can be good, hard-working students, but that one nasty student is often enough to poison your memory of the class."

I didn't even entirely blame the students for their bad behavior. I blamed the parents who raised them, the ones who used to slam into each other in mosh pits at concerts thirty years ago and became helicopter or snowplow parents who sent me angry emails, insulting or guilting me when I dared to penalize their precious children for breaking my rules. One mother sent me an email that stated, "It's not my son's fault that he kept showing up late. It's my fault because I didn't wake him up in time." The class was at noon. The student was nineteen. 

I blamed some of the other teachers and administrators who enabled them, like one of my former bosses, who would not let me defend myself to the student who sent me that nasty email. Instead, my boss told me to apologize to the student for upsetting them, but at least I didn't have to change the student's grade. 

Not all the students were like this, thank God. Some students came into my office with detailed notes or outlines of the papers they were working on because they were willing to work hard and wanted to learn. Other students excitedly told me about how they started reading other books by the authors I'd introduced them to in my literature classes, and they said that they didn't even like to read before they took my class. Several students shyly confided in me during my office hours about their hopes for the future, such as the student who wanted to become a filmmaker and showed me her YouTube channel but was being pressured by her mother to become an accountant. The students like them motivated me to keep teaching.

But in recent years, I find myself dreading Mondays. Burnout is common among teachers. I read somewhere that a significant percentage of teachers don't even last five years. Many teachers suffer from mental health problems, and the low pay obviously doesn't make up for it. 

I've been teaching for more than a dozen years. I didn't quit. But there have been times where I've wanted to. It's gotten to the point where sometimes I just want to throw down the chalk and scream, "JUST FIGURE IT OUT!" when students ask me the same questions again and again because they weren't listening the first time I told them.

One of my students told me at the end of this past semester that I was her favorite teacher and that she liked that I was different from the other teachers. What she said made my day, and it helped soften the blow inflicted by another student, who wrote in his evaluation, "We all make fun of her in the group chat." I couldn't help feeling awful about that because I'd worked so hard to make the online classes good for the students during the pandemic, and that student's vicious insult made me feel like I'd done everything wrong. My colleagues assured me that most likely only a few of the students made fun of me, and that that particular student was probably retaliating because he was getting a low grade in my class. 

I don't regret not pursuing the career my parents wanted for me. But sometimes, I can't help thinking what my life would have been like if I had chosen something other than teaching. Over the years, I lost my passion for teaching.

I went from being an enthusiastic, naive young teacher in my twenties who wanted to inspire students to love writing and literature to a burned out, disillusioned teacher in my forties who just wants to inspire students to put down their freaking cell phones during class. I no longer love my job. I haven't loved it in years. But I haven't quit, partly because I don't know what else to do, and partly because I especially need the health insurance now that I have a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. Also, I obviously still need to get paid, so that I'll have money for the necessities, like food, rent, and Taylor Swift albums. 

The comedian Drew Carey once said, "Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say that? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar."

In the 90s movie Office Space, the main character, played by Ron Livingston, also hates his job. His love interest, played by Jennifer Aniston, tells him at the end of the movie that a lot of people don't like their jobs, but that it was okay, as long as they found other ways to be happy.

I think she was right. I believed that I could only have a good life if I truly loved my job. But now I know that it's okay if I don't because there is more to life than work (and as a workaholic, it took me a long time to realize that). As long as I don't take out my frustrations with the job on my students, and as long as I continue to do a good job, I can keep teaching, at least for now. And I do have other things in my life that make me happy, like good books, writing, and the hope that some day, those entitled students who disrespected me will one day have children who will be exactly like they were at that age because then they'll get a taste of their own medicine. I know that's petty of me, but blame it on the hundreds of students who were like that and who overshadowed the students who weren't. But what gives me satisfaction is that despite those students' horrible treatment of me, I didn't let it stop me. I kept teaching, and I actually became a better teacher as a result. And that's something, even if my students aren't jumping up on their desks to recite poetry for me.

What about you? Have you ever felt burned out at your job? 


  1. Oh this was such a sad read - I thought you were going another way with it and planning to resign.

    I've never disliked a job. I've only had 2, really. In my previous one, I'd definitely have a feeling of 'Oh, we're doing this again' every Monday. So I retrained. Now my job is like my hobby - working in a gym, helping people to be their best. I know I'm very lucky - I know most people don't like their jobs, but it still makes me sad for them.

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      I have thought about quitting and leaving the field of education. But the problem is that my PhD makes me overqualified and under-qualified for most jobs outside of academia. It would not be impossible for me to find a nonacademic job, but it would be an uphill battle, especially since I'm now 40 and would be competing against people much younger. Also, it's more difficult to leave now due to my health and the fact that I need the health insurance that my job provides.
      You're lucky that you like your job, and that's cool that you found one that you liked after leaving one you didn't like. There are still good moments in my job, but unfortunately the bad moments occur much more often. There are some days where I hate teaching, honestly. But we all have to work, and so it's what I have to do. I just have to focus on other sources of happiness instead in order to make it bearable.

  2. Ooh, I hadn't heard that Drew Carey line before, it's a good one! I think...what I've tried to do a lot over the years is carve out as much of my own time and way of doing things inside my jobs as I can, to make the more difficult bits easier to take! But I always admire teachers. I could never get up in front of a group and talk, and I certainly wouldn't have the patience for that career!

    1. Hi Deniz,
      I used to hate public speaking, but when I was in college I worked as a campus tour guide. It was easy because I had a prepared speech for every group, and I knew the answers to most of their questions. It helped me feel more comfortable about speaking in public.
      I think a major problem I had was that I devoted almost all of my time over the years to my work, and only a tiny percentage of time to everything else. That is definitely something that will change this year.