[Ralph Waldo Emerson as a young man. His experience of a vocational crisis would help guide me out of mine.]
Suffering is a deeply personal thing.
You will from time to time hear a journalist or politician say that a "nation" or a "group" of people are suffering. But this is not true. A whole group of people, made up of individuals - each with their own way of looking at the world - will not suffer as a whole, and some of these individuals may even be oblivious to what they are allegedly suffering from.
I saw and experienced this as a high school teacher.
What would make one person describe their situation as sheer hell, would have another say they are as happy as a pig in mud. This realisation dawned on me for the first time when talking to a veteran teacher. I was in my third year of teaching and she in her 30th. She saw the school, despite its big problems, as a challenge and something that she could make better. I, very much her opposite, both in temperament and disposition, had come to feel like I was in a perpetual nightmare. The school was in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhood in the region and had just lost its "authoritarian" vice-principal - the vice-principal who "ran the school with an iron hand" and had kept the school together for over 25 years. Things were falling apart fast. The school was undergoing rapid change, along with the burning down of a building here and there. (The building I taught in was burnt down, allegedly by some chemistry students who clearly knew what they were doing, and my department would go through four supervisors in my first year, with teacher after teacher leaving due to stress- or work-related conditions.)
This veteran teacher, who was about to leave the school and take up a position in another similar environment, advised me to "hang on in there" and "it will get better." She said, "This happens in schools. There are some really good years and some really hard years. You'll learn to ride the wave." But, as with some of my other colleagues, I wasn't sure I had anything left to give. The more I tried to push forward, or ride the waves, the more stripped I felt.
It is hard to find the words to describe those dark days. I felt like I was lost in a dark sea of chaos. I couldn't see clearly in front of me and I barely could keep my face above water. The mentors I had looked up to were gone and every which way I looked appeared just as terrible. What hastened my descent was my staffroom. Teacher's, who should have known better, would not talk to each other. They hated each other and would do anything in their power to ignore or belittle the other side. It was here that I realised how stress can bring out the worst in human beings.
Another colleague, who was also a veteran, advised me to get out while I'm "young enough." I was just on 30, he was in his late 50s. He shared his experiences, and although highly skilled at his job, he believed the profession was "going to the dogs." He said it was too late for him and he had already had enough savings to hack it out for a few more years (which he did) and then travel the world. There were many teachers repeating the folklore that teachers often "drop dead" once they retire. Dropping dead at the end of hacking it out was not appealing but it certainly felt like a possibility.
I asked this same colleague did teachers ever just quit the profession and he said "No." He hadn't seen it. (Damn, I thought, I'm going to be the first one.) He said that teachers either transferred to another school, got pregnant or went on stress leave. I had witnessed four heads of department and three teachers in my first year of teaching leave for each of those reasons, with two leaving because of "mental health issues." None of those options appealed to me and I was afraid that if I stayed, I would end up going out on a stretcher. Suffering a "mental collapse," what my mother would call it, was an ugly option. Not because the teacher had succumbed to despair but because what would happen to them afterwards. I saw what was left of these teachers when they eventually came back to the classroom - they barely recovered. They no longer had their energy and decisiveness. In fact, in some cases, they had become completely indecisive, cautiously seeking advice and approval from all sides. Or worse, they were incredibly bitter.
Very, very slowly.
In my third year of teaching, I was offered a casual position with the local university - the university I had graduated from.* It was as Curriculum Advisor for Pre-Service English teachers. I enjoyed working collaboratively with these new teachers and began to envision myself working as a professor in Education or Linguistics. Things were looking up, I thought. But, just as I entered the university sector, the Humanities were on the decline. It wouldn't matter how good I was or how much I wanted a position, I was told in no uncertain terms, the jobs simply no longer existed, and if they did, I would be in a casual role for many, many years waiting doggedly for a lecturer to retire. Here again I entered a world of pain. Professors or Adjunct-Professors would share how terrible their experience was and how they were taking early retirement to leave an institution that no longer valued their work. Their work load was increasing and course offerings were declining. Many were on anti-depressants and withdrew completely. Some advised me to stay in high school teaching - at least I would have job security. Individuals, who I once admired and wanted to be like, became a shadow of their former selves. It was like the whole edifice of higher learning, at least in the Humanities, was falling to the ground.
This, of course, was not the experience of every single person in the Humanities and definitely not in other faculties. The Marine and Medical Sciences were burgeoning with grants every which way they would look. To say that the university was suffering as a whole was not true. It was individuals within who were suffering and each in their own way.
But despite my turmoil, I felt an extraordinary pull towards writers and teachers to help guide me out. The educators who were writing to share what they have learned and to help me find my way. It felt like these writers were talking directly to me.
An example of one of these educators is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century lecturer - an independent scholar and curator of ideas. He had made very similar observations as I when teaching. He too had witnessed what happens to teachers when we become a part of a system and how we risk losing our "love of learning."
The teacher, says Emerson, has his day commanded by the clock. "[T]wenty classes are to be dealt with before the day is done. ... [You get] lost in the routine of grammars and books of elements." Hence, Emerson continues in his essay on Education, "you must work for large classes instead of individuals; you must lower your flag and reef your sails to wait for the dull sailors; you grow departmental, routinary, military almost with your discipline and college police."
Emerson's account of the 19th century schooling system, despite minor differences (20 classes) was very, very close to my own. He could see what happens to teachers after only a few years inside an institution. They would end up assuming a character and role that was in stark contrast to who they are and what they set out to do. But what was most profound, was how Emerson would struggle to find a way to educate outside of these traditional systems (i.e. schools and universities).
In his mid-twenties, Emerson went through a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He knew he could not stay in his current ministerial role - nor in his previous role as a teacher of girls - but he had no clear or obvious direction. Just like had happened to me, he would look around for role models and find none. He knew he could not continue but he felt sick, scared and worried about his future. With no clear pathway to follow, and constant reminders from his Aunt Mary that his ancestors had been clergy men for four generations, he sunk into turmoil.
Familial reminders of obligations are tough. I would get the same types of reminders from friends and family. It felt like I was turning my back on a profession that I once believed in fervently. I couldn't move forward because I had "invested so much time and effort."
I think it is this heavy weight of the past that causes the most suffering. We can't let go of who we thought we are meant to be, or what others think we are meant to be. Especially, when we are faced with constant reminders by our nearest and dearest. You can share what you are going through with others but you will most likely face indifference or objection. I would try to explain what I was going through to friends and family but would find myself quickly digging a hole. I would alternate between denouncing my profession and railing against it, to complete and utter silence.
The most difficult thing about suffering is how terribly isolating it can be. You may be amongst others who are suffering but more often than not, individuals who are in pain are reluctant to let go of what is causing their pain. This was a harsh realisation. Teachers would often decry the injustice of the administration or the way their colleagues have treated them but they would not, under any circumstances, do something to change what was happening. I would suggest, often naively, that they had options and that they could make things better. But what I would find, more often than not, was that these individuals would be convinced that they were powerless and that they just had to put up and shut up. They were often great teachers but their experiences had rendered them impotent and afraid.
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." Ralph Waldo Emerson
*As a student with the university, I had created Junior and Senior English unit plans that had become models for other students to use. It was the creation of these types of resources that led to the university contacting me for work as an English Curriculum Advisor for Third and Fourth Year Education Students.
Emerson, R. W. (1837). “The American Scholar,” Digital Emerson: A Collective Archive. Retrieved from http://digitalemerson.wsulibs.wsu.edu/exhibits/show/text/the-american-scholar
Emerson, R. W. (1841). “Self-Reliance,” Mathematics at Dartmouth. Retrieved from https://math.dartmouth.edu/~doyle/docs/self/self.pdf
Emerson, R. W. (n.a.). “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Lectures, Emerson on
Education,” American Transcendentalism Web. Retrieved from http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/education.html
Harper, D. (2008). "Mary Rotch, Quaker turned Unitarian." Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, vol.1. Retrieved from https://www.danielharper.org/blog/?p=1843
Richardson, R. D. Jr. (1995). Emerson: Mind on Fire. London: University of California Press.
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