After 10 years of teaching Biology in the public school system, I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. To say that the last two years (2020-2022) have been challenging would be an understatement, and I finally succumbed to the burnout.
I will also add that I started therapy 18 months ago (I am an HSP with anxious attachment style, a wounded daughter working towards becoming a healed mother (#motherhoodraisedme), and I am only beginning to reckon with my collapse awareness and learn to regulate my nervous system.)
Since leaving teaching, I have been (un)/learning a lot: Embodied Social Justice and the Framework for Liberation (rev. angel Kyodo Williams), trauma responses and neurobiology, attachment/polyvagal theory and somatics, reconnecting with my ancestral roots and Collapse Awareness (Carmen Spagnola), and Rewilding. I enjoy the person that I am becoming, and I have no idea what that person’s next vocational venture will be (or, as People’s Oracle says “How I will be selling my time and labor in exchange for currency”!)
Stepping away from the profession is such a hard hit to my identity and perceived purpose in life. I used to wear the title of “public school teacher” like a badge of honor, where everyone who knew me would think “oh look at her, she is a good person! She is a teacher!” And personally, so much of my life’s mission statement and purpose was found in being a teacher, “pursuing social justice by increasing equity in education.” I still believe in it.
During the summer of 2021, I was excited at the opportunity to harness the upheaval of the pandemic and make some of the changes that I saw necessary to truly “nurture and enhance the spirit of our communities” and live up to our newly adopted mission statement. I realized that I needed to drastically change how I teach! But more than anything, I realized that I had a lot of un-learning to do before I could put myself back into a teaching role. It is a paradox. In my passionate unlearning to become a better teacher, I found myself no longer passionate about teaching.
I have no interest in teaching Biology as it is dictated by the standardsHow might we be less likely to exploit, extract, pollute, and destroy natural resources if we also viewed them as living?
I love Biology, science is amazing! But it has its limitations. I don’t want to be a biology teacher right now. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass” was still resonating as I was preparing my “Characteristics of Living Things” lesson for fall 2021. For 10+ years, I have never flinched teaching the “requirements for life” (cell-based, requires energy, etc). But learning that many traditional indigenous cultures think of water and rocks as alive, it made me question how that definition frames our perception of and relationship to the earth. How might we be less likely to exploit, extract, pollute, and destroy natural resources if we also viewed them as living? Put another way… I started really unpacking a lot of assumptions I made through my scientific upbringing that perpetuated the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (thanks for the terminology, bell hooks!). And, if “the role of the colonizer is ‘I have everything to teach and nothing to learn,’” it is time I roll up my sleeves and challenge my colonial mind by unlearning a lot of what I thought I knew!
I have a lot of *internal* work I need to do before I can return to the classroomEducation has been training us for hyper individualized capitalism and I am done with it.
Sadly, old habits die hard…and as much as I wanted to disrupt the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” within my classroom, I recognized just how deeply engrained many of my thoughts and behaviors really were, and much of the wounding underneath. For example: I graduated top of my class in high school, but I (like many of our “high achieving” students) was successful because I learned how to exploit myself at the expense of my wellness, sacrificing the well-being of myself as an individual in relationship to the collective for my individual academic output. As a teacher, I would see how my idea of “success” had often been “blowing that trauma” (Resmaa Menakem) through to my students and exploiting them in turn (Because “Hey, I had to ____ so they need to also!!”). “Students aren’t learning if they aren’t producing, right?? And they must prove their learning on their own!!” Education has been training us for hyper individualized capitalism and I am done with it.
The Rubber Meets the Road; How The Gradebook Gave me Anxiety Attacks
So I focused on Restorative Circles and classroom community building (that I realize I never utilized before the pandemic made me teach via Zoom and then I vowed to myself I would never go a day of teaching where I didn’t invite every student’s voice to be heard upon our “Arrival” time at the beginning of class). I yearned to move away from the “transactional” approach in my classroom (“redo ___ and then turn in ___ and then you will get a ___%”) to “relational” teaching and learning (who are you/we? What matters to you/us? What are you/we learning, why does it matter, what questions do we have now? Etc). But the gradebook is inherently transactional, and ultimately was my downfall. I would get such anxiety putting grades in (it was almost the end of Q1 before I put anything in!). I literally would freeze when I would try to assess my students “objectively” because they are all so different, with different skills, desires, interests, privileges, challenges, etc.
I yearn to embody *relational* instead of *transactional* in a classroom setting
I asked my students to grade themselves: create their own rubrics and goals, and I realized how any attempt I tried at dismantling the status quo in my classroom was met with lots of skepticism in my students. The engrained “transaction” of school was already alive and well in my juniors, many who still couldn’t trust that I wasn’t just pulling out hoops for them to jump through. It felt like so many of my students had such a deeply dysfunctional relationship to school, and how can I support them in the unlearning of that dysfunction if I haven’t unlearned it in myself first? I was still carrying the trauma I carried in being a straight A high school student. (Transacting “if I just get through the — unit by —-, then I will be a good teacher!” vs, the relational “If I can just hold a space for us to cultivate compassion, curiosity, and creativity then I am in right relationship with my students”).
The trap of contagious negativity
It is hard to turn over a new leaf on old stomping grounds. Old patterns and behaviors die hard. In my 11 years at my district, I had experienced the leadership of 3 superintendents and 5 principals. I had been a building union rep on and off.
I have also been a magnet for negativity, because:
– it is addicting (doom scrolling, anyone!?),
-binaries feel coherent (good vs bad, us vs them, etc),
-and I believe that I created and fueled negativity in order to seek belonging.
Wanting to start fresh and transmute that constrictive negativity into expansive possibility is *really* hard when I have cultivated a culture around me that really held space for negativity and negating. I perfected the “yeah…but….” (“yeah we need equity, BUT THE STANDARDS!” “Yeah ___ had a good point in the meeting/email, BUT THEIR TONE!!,” etc) that I had been dealing out “yeah buts” as tokens to help foster a sense of belonging. I am throwing myself under the bus in order to share that under my negativity was rage and beneath the rage was and is grief. Both grief and rage need containment and release, and I resisted both. My negativity spilled out into every conversation and yet I never *actually* allowed the release of the underlying emotions.
I cry more now so I can rage less
Not a week goes by now that I don’t cry, and I attend a monthly grief vigil to weep in community. It has been very healing, because the negativity stops looping once it is released from the body (stress hormone cortisol exits the body through tears, y’all!). I have a lifetime of grief I am beginning to metabolize now, and I believe it is the work I have to do before I can gain any clarity or confidence around what comes next for me. But I am sorry for the ways that I did not make the space for possibility and positivity, for paradox and multiple truths, and for how I blew my trauma onto my beloved students and coworkers.
To my students…
I love and miss you dearly. I think of you often. I want to say “sorry, I wish I could have done more for you.” I wish I had been more healed, more whole for you. There was so much community I wanted to build, trust I wanted to cultivate, imagination I wanted to facilitate, and purpose I wanted to watch you ignite in yourselves and each other.
I wanted my classroom to be a space where we could focus on collective healing from and critical interrogation of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy “status quo” while dreaming up a different way of being by embodying it together.
I wish I could have taught you about traditional ecological knowledge, but I was never taught that, and still have so much to learn before I can facilitate learning in a way that is in alignment with my values.
I wish I could have engaged in a conversation with you about the nuances of cannabis use (it is a plant medicine, after all!) and not felt too scared about the repercussions. I wish I could be comfortable being 8 weeks “behind” the other classes, because I would want to stop class to discuss the biology of reproductive health and abortion, wanting you to know that there are simple and safe medical ways to end a pregnancy.
I wish I could have facilitated a collapse-aware classroom, teaching, noticing, and modeling nervous system regulation to better survive the long descent of human civilization as we know it (*lets out a moan, looks left and right, brings on arms and legs*). I was proud of the work we were doing every day, arriving together, often in circle so we could come together as a class. In 7 classes a day (of 45-50 minutes) 5 times a week during a/several pandemic(s) was simply too much for me too quickly. I burned myself out. My inner critic (“yeah, it would be cool to hold space for your students in this way…BUT THE GRADEBOOK!”) fried my nervous system to the point where anxiety attacks were a frequent occurrence. I hope that you will be able to make the same choice if you ever must choose between your wellness and your perceived obligations. It is my prayer that the privilege of choice, and of rest, will become more and more widely available as we fight against capitalism, and control by an elite minority that benefits from our dis-ease. It gives me hope that so many of you had wised up to the b******t indoctrination of “education,” you taught me so much by all that you did NOT have to unlearn, and I thank you.
I don’t yet have the stamina to be the teacher I want to be. That you deserve. That I want my own children to have. I honestly am not even sure that there is a school that will want me if I ever even come close to “arriving” to the elder that I want to become before I can be in the classroom again. But I hope we never stop (un/)learning.
Thank you for sharing your story and your heart . I see you and support you in your un/learning journey.
Thanks for seeing me and supporting me, Shawnell! <3
Thank you for sharing so authentically. I admire the hell out of you for being so open and vulnerable. It is incredible for me to witness your continued growth. I’m excited to see how this next chapter in your life unfolds!
Thanks, Ryan! I don’t think I would be where I am in my healing journey had you not paved the way. <3
Yes to this a hundred times over. Reflecting with you on what it means to be white women in education was and continues to be very powerful for me. I thank you for dedicating the space and time to verbalize your reflection. It’s inspiring.
Thanks, Bekah! So much of my reflection is a result of you holding compassionate and vulnerable space with me. I am so grateful for you and our work together!
holy crap… it’s like reading my own heart. thank you thank you thank you for wrestling down these words – I know how hard it is to put this stuff into language, and this is salve to so many wounds.
Thanks for sharing, Katy! I am glad it is “salve” for you, it was very cathartic to write as well. I am happy to hear that it is resonating 🙂