Teachers, You Are Enough

For years — decades, really — I’ve been wondering why teaching makes me feel exhausted and utterly depleted, even on a good day. I’ve been wondering why I feel that with every year, I’m becoming more anxious and depressed doing this work, even though I am much better at it than I used to be. As a well-seasoned (aka old) teacher, and someone who has worked hard to improve, I know how to help my students read and write effectively. I can teach them to think for themselves about a challenging question and create arguments and responses to counterarguments. Even when tired, I am able to lead my class in a lively, complicated discussion, keeping the energy high while drawing out quieter students. I can read the room on any given day and make adjustments on the fly. I know how to give feedback that is specific, helpful, and aimed towards the particular needs of the student in front of me. I know when someone could use a pep talk and when someone desperately needs a firm deadline.

I list these attributes in part because I keep trying to remind myself of them. I’m trying to remind myself of them because at the end of a day of teaching, I feel bad about myself. It’s a sinking feeling that can easily veer off into depression. No matter what I put into teaching, no matter how hard I work or how much I care, I always feel that it is not good enough.

I thought it was just me, but my dear friend, also a writing teacher, expressed this very same sentiment to me in an email. She wrote: she hoped that “what I can offer be good enough: I’m glad to see them; I’m interested in what they think and write; I’m interested in the material I’m teaching; I thoughtfully plan our class sessions; and I’m a kind person. Isn’t it incredible that at some level I don’t see these things as enough?”

Teachers who are reading this, do you feel this, too? At the beginning of the day, do you feel you have failed before you have begun? At the end of the day, do you ever wish you could erase yourself?

The culture of academia is one steeped in judgment. We teach our students how to think critically, which usually involves judging what others write and say. The educational system has little tolerance for mistakes, and it holds no space for not knowing or for wondering. In the academic sphere, we are expected to work hard and always do our best. Recently, I almost fainted from shock after hearing author Wayne Dyer, in the book Your Sacred Self, saying that we should stop worrying about doing our best. He says — I’m paraphrasing here — that it’s totally unrealistic and untenable to think that we can always do our best. I’m still shocked by this idea, but my shock is only proof of my own judgmental mind.

Many of us teachers are killing ourselves trying to bring our best self to every situation. For the first 20 years of my career, the way I “managed” teaching was to be an extreme perfectionist — to have a monster to-do list and keep an iron grip on each item. To be honest, I’m still operating this way, though I have some hope that I can release the list someday. I can see now that the list is controlling me, not the other way around. I can see that I don’t want my life to add up to “She stayed on top of her incredible daunting list of tasks.” I hope this awareness can be the first step towards change.

Teachers have internalized education’s culture of judgment, and guess what? We pass it on to our students. The system of grades and rubrics is a perfect indoctrination into a judgment-heavy environment. It teaches our students that their role in the educational environment is to be judged — to offer their work on a platter and watch while others reject and criticize it, often for petty reasons. The system forces us to judge our students with the cruelest and bluntest of tools — grades — and it’s my belief that we begin to turn this judgment against ourselves. Our minds are trained to look at the deficits and mistakes in our students’ work, so we become overly conscious of our own deficits and mistakes. Even when we try to look at the positives in our students’ work, as I know many of us do, the system of grades demands that we compare our students’ work to an idealized “A” and note where it falls short.

And then we might always be noting our own shortcomings. Today in my Zoom ESL class, I chose a song to sing with my class that was too hard. There was an awful period when I put students in groups to practice this too-hard song, and then we came back together, and I played the song and nobody sang. In a non-judgmental environment, I might have been able to brush off this mistake and even laugh about it. But in the world of College, I feel utter shame. I feel I failed my students and I failed myself. My brain is so conditioned to see the worst in what I do that I easily become undone.

And the reality is that unless we are really tough characters, teaching is an act of constant vulnerability. Day after day, we put ourselves literally in front of students — our bodies and everything! — and we offer bits of ourselves for their judgment. We talk about something we are really excited about, and it’s not unusual for someone to yawn. Students are busy checking their text messages while we stand at the board writing something down that we hope is helpful. It can simply feel too awful to put ourselves on display and receive back messages of disinterest. Some of us shut down and wear a mask while teaching to avoid feeling too much vulnerability.

Teachers, I don’t mean to depress you further with all of this. Really what I want to say is that you are enough. If you are doing this work with a spirit of awareness, conscientiousness, and care, then you are enough. Even on your most terrible days, when you spoke sharply to a student or forgot about something important, you are enough. We are human, and thus imperfect, and could it be that our imperfections are more beautiful than our striving? Could it be that we can reinvent the educational system with a vision of forgiveness and fruitful mistake-making? I used to think that ending grades was something that would be nice. Now I feel it is necessary, that we might lose our humanity if we keep swimming in this sea of judgment.

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