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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

Neither angels nor demons: it’s time we stop treating teachers as exceptional

Teachers in our society are subject to vocational awe, put on a pedestal and told we should be grateful for the role we play. But this exceptional reputation is really just a smokescreen for devaluing our labour and refusing to address the problems with our education system.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a “normal” job. I know, I know—there’s no such thing as a normal job. The 9-to-5 staple of TV sitcoms is, depending on whom you ask, an endangered species or a myth that never existed in the first place. I get it. Similarly, I’m not trying to romanticize other jobs or insist that teachers have it worse than the rest of y’all. Certainly I’m not being called at 2 am because a server went down or harangued by a client because the pipe I supposedly fixed is leaking again. Every job has its challenges and struggles. Yet I feel that teaching and some similar professions face an interesting paradox in which our struggles are invalidated by the myth that we asked for it, that by signing on for this profession we signed up for these struggles and that makes it ok to perpetuate them.

I’m going to use teachers throughout this piece because it has a narrower specificity than “educators” and I want to speak specifically from my experience as a public (secondary) teacher. Moreover, I recognize that the word teacher holds a venerable connotation in our cultural consciousness that I want to unpack. That being said, I want to acknowledge that there are many other education professionals—such as Early Childhood Educators, Education Assistants, and Student Support Professionals—who would recognize themselves in what I’m speaking about. Similarly, I suspect (but can’t really know) that a lot of what I’m saying will resonate for some nurses, another frontline profession that has been pushed past the breaking point during the pandemic.

It’s not a coincidence that all these professions are predominantly women.

We have long venerated teachers—too much, in my opinion. We hold up teachers as paragons of knowledge and champions of learning and talk about teaching as a calling. This is dangerous, because when we fail, we fall, and we fall hard. Veneration of teachers also reinforces white supremacy—because not only are most teachers women, but we are mostly white women. It’s problematic to put us on a pedestal and build us up to into larger-than-life figures when the reality is that a lot of teachers uphold the racist structures of our education system at the expense of their racialized students. How many authorities will listen to the white teacher over the brown student (or parent) making a complaint?

In a 2018 article about librarianship, Fobazi Ettarh labels this idea vocational awe, and almost everything said in that article goes for teachers as well. The transformation of teaching into a calling suggests that teaching should be “more than a job” and actually exists as another capitalist lever to exploit labour from us. We are told, from messages in media as children all the way through to teacher’s college and beyond, that it should be our pleasure to prepare lessons, assess student work, and lead extra-curriculars on our own time. As I acknowledged at the beginning of this post, this pressure is not unique to teachers—nevertheless, I’d argue that a lot of professions that face similar pressure often include extra compensation, whether it’s overtime or more billable hours, that teachers simply do not have recourse to. The undervalued teacher is an accepted stereotype in our society, and the common response when teachers point out that we are undervalued is not “oh yeah, we should pay you more” but “then you should leave teaching and get a better-paying job.” The education system is predicated on the expectation that we will work more hours than we are compensated for.

When we try to push back against this, either through legitimate bargaining or simply in the arena of public opinion, we face a paradoxical backlash that belies the veneration I just described: we are demonized as lazy, entitled people. You’ve heard all the myths and misconceptions, I’m sure: summers off, we only work 9 to 3:30, we’re paid “too much”, our benefits are “too good”, we wouldn’t last a second in a “real job”/“I could do your job, lol.” I’m not going to waste my time refuting any of these spurious claims, for they are straw man arguments parroted by people who refuse to examine the underlying forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that are pitting us against each other when really, we’re on the same side! You tell me my benefits are so much better than yours, yet instead of turning around and demanding better benefits (which I would support you in doing), you want to tear mine down? That is a bad look.

We also face the job creep that Ettarh identifies in the librarianship sector. Even as our education system finally recognizes that many students have complex needs, the lack of proper funding from the government means school boards are more likely to download responsibilities onto teachers instead of adding positions more suitable to this support. Those other educational professionals I mentioned above, the ECEs and EAs and SSPs and more? Yeah, they aren’t “bonuses” or “nice-to-haves” in a school. They are every bit as important as teachers, because teachers cannot do what they do. Their skill sets and job descriptions are different. I am a teacher, not a teacher-librarian. I am a teacher, not a child psychologist or mental health worker. I am a teacher, not a child and youth care professional. All of those positions do something very different from what I do, and we need them. But we don’t have them, or at least not as much as we should, so instead teachers are expected to fill that void. This is harmful to our mental health and also harmful to students, because we really aren’t qualified to be doing those things.

From where do these staffing and funding shortfalls originate? Our proximal employers are school boards, and we can talk a lot about their shortcomings one day—but our ultimate employer, here in Ontario at least, is the provincial government. They are the entity with whom we bargain about the biggest elements of our working conditions, from remuneration to class caps and staffing ratios. Something that really broke me 2 years ago, before the pandemic swooped in to kick me while I was down, was the way in which our employer exacerbated our demonization in the press and on social media. I wrote about this back in November 2019, when I lamented how Premier Ford represented education workers as having “declared war” simply by holding legitimate strike votes. This is polarizing rhetoric is unbecoming of our government. We can legitimately disagree on the issues at the bargaining table—that’s what collective bargaining is all about—without being uncivil and without demonizing the workers you’re bargaining with. Yet our government never missed an opportunity to do this directly or indirectly (I’m looking at you, Toronto Sun op-eds).

Then the pandemic happened, and that paradox of veneration and demonization kicked into overdrive. Suddenly we were heroes and everyone was praising us for doing everything we could for students. Yet again, this toxic positivity became an excuse for not pushing for real improvements in learning conditions. Even as Minister of Education Stephen Lecce bragged about how quickly schools would “pivot to online learning” (I hate the word pivot now, thanks), his government denied school boards enough funding to make classrooms safe for teachers and students and mandated unrealistic virtual learning conditions while giving teachers zero time to adjust lesson plans for virtual or learn how to use unfamiliar technology. As IT personnel rushed to get devices in the hands of every family and teachers called and called and called those students who simply weren’t attending (usually for a variety of legit, heartbreaking reasons), our government took credit for every success and brushed off every failure. But those of us in the classroom who have to look our students in the eye (or the profile pic, if we rightly don’t require their cameras to be on) don’t have the luxury of ignoring the actual plight of emergency learning.

Now I head into a fresh school year, my tenth year of teaching, still burnt out and full of anxiety. Our government appears to think it can pretend the pandemic is over. Almost certainly this is another attempt to set up school boards for failure to advance towards an endgame in which the government can pull a Manitoba, dissolve boards, and further its goal of privatizing our public education system. Grand political machinations aside, however, I just can’t ignore how I feel about the job I once truly enjoyed.

There have always been compromises teachers have had to accept as part and parcel of our profession. Non-teachers might not realize or fully think about what these entail for us. Teachers are legally responsible for the students in their classrooms, for one. But no pressure! Our schedules are rigid, literally governed by Pavlovian bells, and I know many a teacher who has delayed important medical appointments because it would mean taking a sick day—and with a shortage in supply teachers or a mentality that “my students need me” that is tough to kick no matter how much therapy we do, the idea of taking a sick day for an appointment feels like a luxurious act of selfishness sometimes. Speaking of mental health, whenever we speak up about the toll of facilitating learning while also supporting our students’ emotional and social needs and experiencing the secondary trauma of students going through, say, difficult home life issues, the response is inevitably a reminder to “make full use of the mental health services through your EFAP.” As if a systemic hazard of our jobs can be compensated for through individual treatment.

Hell, it would be lovely to be able to go to the bathroom whenever I need to.

Some of these are, as I said, just the way it is. I get that—although I would challenge us all to consider how we might re-imagine and rebuild from the ground up an education system that is truly compassionate for all, students and teachers and administrators alike. I suspect most of the inevitabilities we accept as a consequence of our profession are not actually all that inevitable.

But for now, these inevitabilities exist and the current pressures of an antagonistic government and a pandemic exacerbate the stresses that they create on us teachers. So we burn out. We go on leave. We retire early, if that’s possible for us.

So when I say that I yearn for that mythical 9-to-5, it’s not because I think it’s somehow easier than my current profession. Rather, it’s an expression of desiring different pain points than the ones that have rubbed me raw over recent years. My profession has been put on a pedestal, yanked off that pedestal, called heroic, attacked as greedy and entitled, and simultaneously told we are doing our best and not doing enough.

But the idea of leaving this profession terrifies me for a host of reasons. Practicalities of how I would pay my mortgage and afford medication aside, I don’t know what else I would do, as I am one of those poor souls who has always wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a wee lass propping a chalkboard up against a window and teaching lessons to make-believe students. (Please miss me with reassurances that I would be able to get another job. The idea that I possess many other monetizable qualities is not the compliment you think it is as far as this anti-capitalist is concerned.) Moreover, leaving the profession is not a scalable solution, for then we would … you know … not have any teachers. The problems I describe here are not individual to me but are systemic and must be addressed that way.

I vacillated over writing this post for a while, partly because I’m trying not to stoke my anxieties (and others’) over our impending September and partly because I don’t think I’m saying anything that hasn’t already been said before. But I have reached a point where I can’t not say it. To keep this frustration bottled up in my body and mind or to try to vent it in a couple of tweets feels unsustainable. So here we are.

All of us, teachers and non-teachers alike, need to truly check if we are doing the work of being anti-racist and dismantling white supremacy. Because I know my liberation cannot happen simply through improving my profession alone. It will only happen when we question, combat, and replace the systems that have made my profession what it is.

If that idea scares you—if you are hesitant to embrace the abolition and rebuilding of our justice systems, our education systems, our policy systems—then consider for a moment that it’s already happening. As I alluded to earlier, conservative governments across Canada are having no compunctions about privatizing and centralizing education, healthcare, etc. So the question isn’t if we are going to tear down and rebuild, because the tearing down is already in progress all around us. The question instead is what will we allow to be built in place of what we previously had? If we let our fear paralyze us into inaction or indecision, then those who prioritize profit over people will be the ones who shape these systems.

So as much as I yearn for it, I can’t have just another day at the office now or any day in the near future. Try as I might, my “office” is a battleground over the very future of public education and, by extension, the soul of our society. As we work that out, I need you to remember that I am neither angel nor demon. I am tired of being gaslit, of my concerns and complaints about my profession being minimized and dismissed. We tell teachers they must be cut from a special cloth to endure the profession’s struggles. Maybe we should be ending those struggles instead.

Cover photo by Giuseppe Cuzzocrea on Unsplash.