Our series on sleep and dreams continues with a post about stress and lack of sleep in the education industry.
Who Dismisses the Teacher: On The Work that Follows You Home and Steals your Sleep
I stare up at the computer’s clock on the right hand side of the screen, the numbers blaring at me, “10:45 pm.” I’ve finished the PowerPoint presentation for one class, but have nothing prepared for my other class. Luckily for me, tomorrow I have a planning period between 2nd period and 6th period (where I teach we have 90 min block classes, 4 blocks a day), so I can use that time to put something together for the class I wasn’t able to plan for the night before. The “even days” afford me such a luxury, the “odd days” don’t. On the “odd days”, my reaction to this nightly routine is much more irate. Immediately the panic and anxiety sets in. I feel a pain in the side of my stomach, sometimes accompanied by nausea. My girlfriend asks me from the couch if I’m calling it a night, to which I respond with an annoyed, “No!” followed by grumbles about how I’m probably only going to get 3 or 4 hours of sleep that night. She understands that my tone and somber mood have nothing to do with her or her question. She immediately springs to her feet, walks over to the computer, and asks me, “Is there anything I can do?” Some nights, I can ask her to finish downloading a movie for me to show in class, or type up some notes, or impute some grades, but most of the time there’s not much she can do, and I’ll be in this shitty mood for most of the night, which often times carries over into the morning.
This nighttime scenario has become routine for me in my first two years of teaching. I have been given the opportunity to teach advanced history courses at the high-school level. But as I’ve soon learned, being offered to teach such classes can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re going to get a decent amount of students that actually want to be there and are genuinely interested in the subject; and even those that aren’t are at least grade motivated enough or extensively pressured by their parents so as to not be disruptive when they’re bored. The downside is the accelerated pace of the course which forces you to cover a large amount of material in a highly condensed schedule, the endlessly regenerating stacks of written assignments and essays you have to grade, and the end of course exams which put a tremendous amount of pressure on new teachers in the age of test-based accountability and year to year contracts. It’s become quite clear why none of the veteran teachers in my department jumped at the opportunity to teach such classes when an opening became available. While there’s certainly issues of personal capacity (though ideally there shouldn’t be and a regular U.S. History teacher should have enough mastery over the content to teach such a class), it’s the hours of grading essays, coupled with the end of the year test that most are trying to avoid.
Many people don’t understand just how demanding teaching actually is, little less teaching these advance courses at such an early point in your career. Teaching at this higher level requires that one have a good grasp of the content, and while I certainly consider myself to have an above average understanding of U.S. and World History, my desire to introduce critical perspectives of such subjects demands that I spend more time researching and planning. I’m not comfortable with just teaching a basic, textbook version of these subjects, or simply teaching to the test. As such, I’m usually spending whatever time I have after work-though perhaps it’s inaccurate to describe it as such since I’m actually working except it’s off the clock- the day before, reading and learning about the topics I will be teaching the following day. In that time, I not only have to read and write up notes, but I also have to create lesson plans and find time to grade so that I can give them back their assignments with corrective feedback in a timely manner. I have to research supplementary readings to assign them; or I have to find visuals, graphics, audio and video that I can use to create somewhat engaging PowerPoint presentations.
Like many people working under pressure, I’ve adapted, and I’ve become quite good at coming up with lessons on the fly and improvising. But this does nothing to alleviate the pressure of knowing that day in and day out I have to go and standup in front of class after class, trying to teach them about subjects and topics I care dearly about (and ones’ that I don’t but still have to cover because the test makers may decide to include them in the end of course test), and hopefully, get them interested in history so that they understand how this knowledge can help them transform their lives for the better and the lives of those around them.
You see, for me, being an educator is more than simply a way to earn a paycheck or preparing students for college or to pass a test. It’s about helping to foster the skills, intellectual curiosity, empathy and passion so that these students can learn how to think critically about the past and the present so as to imagine, and hopefully to construct, a radically different world. These desires to have education serve a more liberatory purpose, though obviously not shared amongst all in the teaching profession, is not entirely unrelated to the sense of duty or responsibility that many educators, and other involved in social or healthcare work, feel towards those they serve. School administrators and politicians know this, and they often will utilize such insights to keep teachers in check, especially when it concerns teacher’s trying to organize or improve their working conditions. Yet, most teachers go into teaching because they feel this sense of social responsibility, they want to effectuate some kind of change in society, or simply help people obtain a slightly better life (though too much is made by educators and politicians of the ability of education to improve people’s financial situation). So, as a teacher who is trying to use education for such liberatory purposes, I do feel a greater need to spend time researching and planning lessons that can meet my own understandings of a truly radical pedagogy while at the same time dealing with the institutional constraints of largely teaching to a test, and in a setting that more often than not stifles creativity and intellectual curiosity.
Yet it’s the issue of sleep, or lack thereof that makes the situation all the more grueling, and in more than one occasion potentially deadly. In a way, it’s certain personal desire that pushes me to invest so much of my free time into my job, working long hours off the clock. Yet, the institutional constraints such as inflexibility of work hours and schedules, lack of paid planning time, the focus on standardized test results, and general job insecurity play as much, if not more, of a role in why I’m often sleep deprived and stressed out. If schools districts adopted two shifts, a morning and afternoon, teachers such as myself could potentially have the option of starting work later, even if that meant getting off a bit later. The way the school day is currently set up, everyone in our district that teaches high school has to be at the job site by 7:10 AM and classes start at 7:20 AM. This schedule not only impacts many students’ ability to learn, but in my case, it affects my ability to teach because most people in the room are suffering from sleep deprivation. Since I’m sleep deprived going into work, by the time I get out of work at 2:20 (I really don’t leave the school until 2:45 because of traffic, and twice a week not until 3:30 because I tutor students to help prepare them for the exam), when I get home, I usually have to take a short nap to finish the rest of the work I need to do to prepare for the following day. Of course, having less classes to teach, and more paid planning periods would mean that we wouldn’t have to take so much work home with us, and therefore, would allow us to spend more time living our lives instead of slaving away even when we’re off the clock. The focus on standardized test results as a measure of teacher efficacy, coupled with the abolishing of longer term contracts, and moving all new employees to yearly contracts (which can be terminated at any point and for whatever reason) create an environment where most new and young teachers feel compelled to take on more task and more work just to look better in the eyes of administrators.
It’s placed me in a situation where I have to commute over 90 miles a day to and from work because I don’t want to put in a hardship transfer and potentially end up with no job, since teaching jobs are scarce right now (the fear being that there won’t be job openings elsewhere and that my current employer will not want to rehire me since I’m trying to get transferred). It’s the lack of sleep, combined with this long commute that has put me in several close calls since I’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel only to wake up just in time before hitting another car or going off the road and crashing into a ditch. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the grooves on the shoulder of the road that violently rattle your car when the rubber tires make contact with the corrugated asphalt; it’s been the only thing saving me from crashing into a guard rail or into a ditch. It’s so bad that if I’m not home by 3:30 PM, and I forget to text my girlfriend that I’m running late, she automatically calls me to make sure I’m ok and on my way home. This last aspect of sleep deprivation is by far the scariest, and yet, I don’t feel like there’s much I can do about it at the moment because my girlfriend is unemployed and we’re living with her parents in order to save up money to move closer to where I work. Though lately, after one too many close encounters, I’ve committed myself to stop working by 10:30 PM, and to be in bed by 11:30 PM, but even this is wishful thinking because my brain is usually not ready to shut off, and even less so if I had to stop before finishing planning for all classes.
Overall, this is how my life has been for the past two years. Often times, the days feel like they’re seamlessly blurring into each other. The day melts into the night, but unfortunately the night does not bring respite from the working day. At the end of every school year, I don’t know if I’ll have a job or not since the school district is having financial problems. I’m not sure exactly what classes I’m going to be teaching, which makes it quite difficult to plan for classes over the summer. They could ask me to teach an entirely new class, which would require learning a whole new curriculum. Being asked to teach another class would probably be the worst thing that could happened to me, short of not being rehired, as a new class entails more research and planning outside of work. Next year will also be a trying year if I’m told to teach a whole new class because I’m finishing up some coursework for my professional certification, and that means going to classes after work, and on the weekends. I often hear from veterans to stick with it, and that the first two years are the hardest. I’m lucky to have a supportive girlfriend and comrades, but I wonder what I would have done if I didn’t? The statistic in the U.S. is that 50 percent of new teachers quit within their first 5 years of teaching, and after only being in it for two years, I completely understand why.
This post is part of our series on work, sleep, and dreams.