By Julie Holderbaum, Minerva EA/OEA
Henry Darby, a principal in South Carolina, recently made headlines for working an overnight job at Walmart so he would have extra money to help the students in his community. Why? According to Darby, “You just…do what you need to do.”1
I think I’m supposed to have warm, gooey feelings when I hear about stories like his, so why did it depress me so much?
Maybe because this year, I have had little energy to do much beyond show up to work on time and put forth a solid effort during the day. I leave as soon as I am contractually allowed to leave, and outside of a few weekend afternoons grading at home, I’ve not spent time doing school work after 2:30 PM each weekday.
It didn’t used to be this way. Like Mr. Darby, I would do whatever it took to get the job done and done well, even if that meant grading or planning in my home office instead of spending time with family, or spending my own money on supplies for my students. Even when not in school, it was not unusual for my brain to be constantly whirring with thoughts of lesson plans or students or activities or curriculum pacing or technology or state tests or any of the countless number of aspects to a teacher’s job.
But this year, I’ve started to wonder if I have the energy to make it to retirement in a teaching career. National news stories heralding extraordinary educators like Mr. Darby only make me question myself even more. A few times, I’ve caught myself wondering if it’s time to consider getting out.
I’ve come to realize, though, that in spite of the stress of teaching through COVID, I still have what’s most essential to being a good teacher: I still care about the kids.
Of course I get frustrated with my high school students at times. But the fact remains, I want them to become flourishing adults who contribute meaningfully to their communities. I want them to be able to think and read critically, to fight with passion for their beliefs and to listen with compassion to those who hold opposing points of view. I want them to recognize the importance of finding the balance between living every day as if it’s their last and as if they will live forever. I want them to learn to approach each day with intention, putting forth an effort they can be proud of, even if the day consists of the mundane routine of going to school and home again.
Those desires fuel every lesson I plan, even this year, when literally surviving is my main goal.
When the pandemic hit almost a year ago and we had to start teaching from home, I learned very quickly that I was going to have to work to keep my anxiety at bay. I exercised daily. I read for enjoyment. I did yoga. My family and I worked puzzles. I watched the news only once per day and limited my time on social media.
When school started this fall, my district decided to go back face-to-face, five days a week. I’ve had to keep up the practices I started last spring in order to take care of my mental well-being. Consequently, I’ve had no extra time to put into my job, and frankly, the stress of being in school saps my energy for even thinking about school when I’m not there.
One of the newscasters telling Mr. Darby’s story wondered when he had time to sleep. It’s a good question; what he is doing is most likely not sustainable for a long period of time, no matter the depths of his love for his students. We need to realize that teaching is an exhausting job whether we are experiencing a pandemic or not, and whatever we do to get the job done needs to be something we can continue to do for the long haul.
I am not questioning Mr. Darby for working that second job, nor am I criticizing teachers who grade papers on the weekends or stay late after school or provide supplies for their students. We need people like that. But maybe we need to take turns being people like that. And we need to recognize that it’s okay not to be people like that.
Maybe we need to question why teachers feel pressured to sacrifice whole chunks of their lives to their job outside of regular work hours.
Maybe we need to question why teachers who take care of their own mental health aren’t as highly glorified in the media as teachers who run themselves ragged trying to make up for the shortcomings of our society. Where are the stories about teachers who figure out how to leave school at school, who work like dogs during the day so they can come home at night and hit the mat for some downward dogs?
Maybe we need to question why, in 2021, in any state in this country, funding for public schools is so egregiously inadequate that a principal would even consider getting a second job to make more money to provide for his students. We certainly need to question why here in Ohio, our legislators just can’t ever quite get around to fixing our state’s unconstitutional school funding system. What are our legislators prioritizing over our kids? And why?
Society has always faced more questions than answers when it comes to dealing with public education, but this year, the question that has haunted me is whether or not it’s time to leave education. To answer that question, I had to ask another: do I want to continue to be an educator? The answer is a resounding yes, so I must do whatever it takes to allow myself to keep showing up for those teenagers who I still care about so much.
COVID has changed the way every American is able to perform their job, whether that job is in a hospital or a grocery store or an office or a classroom. We are all facing situations for which we have not been trained or adequately prepared. Teachers certainly aren’t the only ones dealing with higher levels of stress than usual. But society has always asked teachers to live up to extraordinary expectations, and we aren’t all Louanne Johnson or Erin Gruwell; being a good teacher, even an exceptional teacher, doesn’t always mean accomplishing feats that are big-screen worthy.
For many years of my career, “you do what you gotta do,” meant doing whatever it took to get my job done. Now, it means doing whatever I have to do to take care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and not letting my job or the stress that comes with it overtake the rest of my life.
During a pandemic or during a “normal” year, if you’re doing your job as well as you can within school hours and then letting it go, it’s okay. We can’t possibly hope to produce flourishing students if we aren’t even attempting to flourish ourselves. Sometimes you don’t do what you gotta do to get the job done; you do what you gotta do so that you can keep doing the job.
— Julie Holderbaum is an English Instructor and an Academic Challenge Advisor at Minerva High School, Minerva, Ohio.
High school principal works overnight at Walmart to … – Yahoo News.” 29 Jan. 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/high-school-principal-works-overnight-153343899.html. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021