I felt a pressure to focus on academic success but not student wellbeing. It wasn’t that no one cared about student wellbeing; we all did. It just wasn’t represented in the curriculum documentation like academic achievement was, and was often only addressed when a student was failing academically.
I stoically kept going, creating and following my lesson plans, attending meetings and doing professional development (PD). My resilience dropped and the signs were there that I was becoming depleted. I continued to think it would pass, if I just kept working harder, I would shift, that I could handle this. Only I couldn’t.
At one point I hit rock bottom. My tanks were completely empty, I felt raw like I had been rubbed with sandpaper. Every little thing seemed painful. Yet it was only when my daughter confronted me and said I didn’t look well that I began to take stock of my situation and how I had got to this point. I had to step back for a while. How could I have let it come to this? I was deeply disappointed with myself and felt even more responsible for my situation.
And there was the first insight of my inner heart and soul to unpack – responsibility. Why was I carrying so much and was this the type of responsibility I wanted? It had definitely increased over the years and there seemed to be many hidden extras that had crept up on me. Things like risk assessments, regular testing, extra reporting, student data collection and incident reports, among others. Each one had been presented to me as something that was necessary and as a way of supporting me. But I was becoming more and more exhausted and frustrated with not having a say about what I saw as important. It seemed I was drowning in paperwork. It was time to take a deep breath and ask, why?
What do we value most?
As much as I wanted to live in the bubble of my classroom, teaching is influenced by politics and while this may not be a revelation for some, it never occurred to me how the history of this political influence in education affected us.
According to Speck (2005), we are still struggling with the separation between the church and the state that happened back in the 1800s. During this time, western countries developed a secular identity. A strong argument was put forward that secular societies could no longer trust faith, belief, and inner experiences; instead these societies should rely on external measurable evidence. This would distinguish us from the church. Unfortunately, our heart and souls are tied to our inner experiences.
The type of secularism created in the 1800s values external, measurable things like economic wealth. At the same time, it devalued spiritual things like patience, love, and kindness, simply because these are harder to measure. Now we have a modern society overburdened by materialism and many in the teaching profession yearning to be respected for the heart and soul that they bring to our children.
How does understanding this help? Well, it helped me realise that the inner conflict I felt, was inherited. Here I was doing PD after PD on methods, report writing and technique, yet, very few PDs on how to keep my heart warm and strong, how to support vulnerability in a classroom, or enliven the mystery of living and education.
On top of this, the school expected the highest possible academic achievement possible, the government wanted to pay according to results the students produced in tests, and parents expected me to nurture and love their children. Any teacher who strives to be passionate and caring is likely to feel inner conflict and injustice when the system has been hardwired to dismiss passion and care.
Valuing a warm heart and vulnerability
As adults we know that we need a warm heart and vulnerability to nurture our relationships. I know I went into education to make a difference, to help make the world a better place. I found my passion when I observed my young daughter in a classroom. I was mesmerised by the joy and fulfilment I witnessed. It filled my heart, and I was overwhelmed with love and a desire to be a part of this world of childhood learning.
While financial security is important, it is my inner feelings that keep my work alive and strengthens me against burnout. I now realise the importance of a living balance between the two. I am now an advocate for valuing the importance of a teacher’s heart and soul.
Your workload may be great but working with your heart and soul will fill your cup. If you want to find and develop greater balance in your teaching profession through enriching your heart and soul I’d encourage you to consider starting a study group in your school or online with other teachers. You could begin by exploring Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach or Brené Brown’s Rising Strong.
Speck, B. (2005). What is spirituality? New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 104, 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.207
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