Why Other Teachers Make Me Feel So Lonely

It’s the night before the department meeting, and I can’t sleep. Something about being in a space with other teachers makes me deeply uncomfortable, a feeling I am ashamed to admit. In my fantasy life, I am a team player, well liked, maybe even admired. But in the real world, I am so angry about the educational system that it’s hard for me to connect with others who live in that same world.

The educational system wants me to rely on extrinsic motivators, to approach teaching from the standpoint of outcomes, assessments, and lesson plans. The conversations at the department meeting revolve around education as a bureaucracy, and endlessly rehash all of the minute and petty decisions involved in a bureaucracy. It’s as if there were a vast intent to keep us occupied with such concerns to prevent us from thinking.

We discuss anything and everything aside from teaching, and we never, ever touch on the real feeling of walking into a classroom, virtual or otherwise, and confronting so many individual humans, and feeling such fear and awe at the experience.

The educational system wants me to be everything: an inspiring teacher, a curriculum expert, a counselor, an expert in disabilities, an involved colleague, a willing attender of meetings, a paperwork reader, an IT expert, a cheerleader for whatever mission is the flavor of the year, a joiner of all things. It wants me to weigh in on every detail about the management of the college. The expectations make me feel small and inept, even though I know I am a good teacher, that I connect with my students and help them grow. I never feel that teaching alone is valued by the institution.

I’m aware, too, that the educational system sees me as interchangeable, a widget, in the same way that it sees students as widgets to be judged against a universal standard. The language of standardization and judgment bleeds all over every conversation in education. I’ve gotten to the point that I physically cringe every time I even hear the word “test,” “rubric,” or “grade.” I’ve been heading in that direction for ages, but I never thought I would get here so quickly, or to find the destination to be irreversible.

I feel so, so alone in teaching, and yet I love my own teachers. I love my Bikram yoga teacher, Estevan, who sees everyone in the room, who knows when you hit a pose that you couldn’t do before. I love the woman who taught me about color in painting, who read a Billy Collins poem at the beginning of each class, and who taught us how to love mixing color strings. I especially love my sewing instructor, Karen, who showed a group of ten women how to be chill while creating a perfectly bias-bound jacket, who made me actually adore attention to detail.

I love all of the teachers outside of the system, the teachers who are teaching for the love of what they know and the love of their students.

Why can’t the system accept these teachers? Why have we reduced teaching to a system of standardized curriculum, judgment, grades, and failure? Why do we never talk about the emotional work of teaching, about passion, about joy, about the pain of connecting with and losing students every semester, year after year?

Teaching for me is a spiritual practice, a practice of opening the heart, a practice of daily vulnerability, a practice of love and compassion. It’s a practice of being humble and helpful. I want to arrive in each teaching space feeling open to my students, and I want my teaching to help each student attain some self-knowledge and growth. I want each student to be more individual, not more standardized, by the end of my class.

If I said these words in the English department meeting, there would be only silence. But there would be no space for such words, in any case. So I will swallow them, and sit there with my lips compressed, and wait it through, my heart sinking.

9 thoughts on “Why Other Teachers Make Me Feel So Lonely”

  • Professor Hurley,

    I was a student of yours back in 2012/2013. I’ve grown so much since then and have been patiently WAITING to contact you to show you all the progress I’ve made, and my accomplishments that will make the world a better place. I haven’t reached out until just now, because I thought I had nothing to show you. I wanted so deeply to present you with a snapshot of the work that I’ve done, that was only possible because of YOUR SUPPORT. I still don’t have anything to present you with, but after reading this post about ” … the pain of connecting with and losing students every semester, year after year” – I need you to understand that you’re not alone.

    Speaking as one of your former students – you changed my life. Your passion for learning, teaching, and your students, permanently altered the course of my life. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for you. Please don’t ever change.

    Thank you,
    Michelle W.

    • As a teacher, I know that this is one of the most amazing gifts a student can give. Thank you for thinking of your teacher and reaching out to her.

  • Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for your post today. Your approach to teaching and grading has had a big impact on me this year. Your philosophy has helped my re-conceptualize my grading and I’m seeing students respond positively. Super exciting!

    Just wanted to tell you I appreciate your advocacy!
    All the best,

  • Oh Jen,

    My heart aches for what you must endure on a daily basis! How did our system spin so out of control? I hope that one day you will be able to teach without such constraints and so many bean counters! Hang in there with your caring methods, while you nurture your sanity with paints and fabric. Everyone needs an outlet and you have certainly found yours! Blessings, Suzanne

  • “We discuss anything and everything outside of teaching …” This posts speaks to me in so many ways! Thanks for this.

  • I wish it were easier…
    I want you to know, you helped broaden my understanding of grading and intrinsic motivation. I’m very grateful, and energized by the possibilities.
    There’s more of us out here!
    Thank you!!

  • Dear Professor Hurley,

    I found your piece online while Googling “I hate rubrics” or something to that effect. The loneliness that you describe– due to the constant talking about and implementation of standardization at my school–is also a part of my professional life. Where is the affirmation of student and teacher individuality, the freedom for creativity, the openness to risk-taking, the tolerance for self-expression? To say my thoughts about rubrics at staff meetings is to commit heresy.

    Your piece gave me the support I needed for this moment. It is good to know that I am not alone.

    It would be great to develop an online group of like-minded teachers. Feel free to email me if you wish.

    High School English teacher

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