Mary Sheehy Moe: Missing the walruses, and the bearable lightness of being

Mary Sheehy Moe

Yes, my salary took a nose-dive when I left high school teaching to teach in a two-year college in 1990.  But something else soared: “the oh-so-bearable lightness of being.”

For the first time in my teaching career, if I saw a student smoking in the parking lot, I could walk on by. If a bunch of them went out drinking last weekend, fiddle-dee-dee. If I spotted a student in the computer lab when he should have been in class, not my problem. 

Choices were students’ to make and consequences were students’ to take. I taught a subject I loved to students there to learn it, free of the responsibility to mold their characters, or notify the principal of their misbehavior, or act in any way in loco parentis. 

For the first time, the clock I was on was mine to set. Teaching still required hours in class, after class and at meetings; time spent preparing lessons, reading essays, and helping students. But if you wanted to grade papers at the No Sweat, you could. If you needed a haircut, you could schedule an appointment between classes. If you wanted to become a Rotarian, you could get away for an hour at noon.

And you could go to the bathroom whenever you needed to! Now that’s relief! In the K-12 environment, you can’t leave children unattended, so you develop a bladder the size of an elephant’s.

That first year at Helena’s vo-tech, I felt like a meadowlark that suddenly discovered she wasn’t a walrus, giddy with the freedom of life in an adult world. 

What happens to a person who lives without that freedom nine months out of every year, year after year? Three things. The first is a feeling of alone-ness that is both good and bad. It’s heady, walking into your classroom, closing the door behind you, and creating a world only you and your students inhabit. But you’re the only adult in that world, and you are solely responsible for a roomful of children. Yes, it’s fun. It’s also incredibly isolating. When class size, workload or external challenges increase, so does the isolation.

The antidote is your relationships with the other walruses. Over years of overseeing continuing education and serving on boards, I’ve watched a variety of other professionals interact as colleagues. Although nurses and journalists come close, none have the thick-as-thieves, almost “butt out” closeness that K-12 teachers have. It’s precious, but fragile. When the stress increases and time decreases, weariness, busy-ness, and resentments over real or perceived wrongs create a friction that dulls the edge of collegiality and plunges you even deeper into isolation.

And there is always, always the weight of anxiety, the dread of missing something, encountering something you’re not prepared for, messing up in a way that hurts a child, threatens your livelihood, creates a controversy. Over time, you learn to suppress it. But it’s there.

Nothing has lightened the load for K-12 teachers in the 29 years since I left that sector. In fact, with even less professional autonomy and ever-increasing expectations for noticing and reporting and responding to an ever-needier population of children, the weight of responsibility is even heavier. Just listen:

“Parents send so many children to school who aren’t ready to learn. They’re hungry, tired, angry, distracted … and the standards have been elevated to require more stamina and executive functioning than ever before. Teachers and principals are caught in the middle, trying to bridge the expanse.”

“The elementary level is highly stressful. Extra duties, less prep time, micromanagement … more and more is put on your plate with nothing ever taken off.”

“Teaching is harder every year. Always new expectations and new ideas we need to implement. More and more students are not on grade level behaviorally or academically. Lack of parental involvement plagues us. I love teaching and love seeing my students learn. It’s just very stressful.”

“We [teachers] have so little time to work with one another and truly help one another. We are all so isolated.”

Add to all these layers of pressure the post-Columbine layer. Oh, the voices you hear after a school shooting drill or an actual lockdown:

“The little ones are so scared.  ‘It’s just practice,’ I tell them. ‘It’ll be OK.’ But they search my face for the truth with those big eyes, and I don’t know the truth.”

And saddest of all: “I’m a single mom. Every time I get ‘the training,’ I also have one at home. My kids need to know what to do if someday I don’t come home.”

So much for lightness of being. Be still, my heavy heart.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.

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