We do so many jobs, it’s exhausting. When can teachers just teach?

Let’s commit to doing a few things to help our sanity. First, take a minute to catch your breath. Remember what is in your control. It’s OK to ask for help.

A distressed teacher sitting in her classroom with her face in her hands. Illustrations of overwhelming tasks floating around her head.
Teachers are juggling more than just instruction. This teacher wonders when it’s possible to just teach. (Source: Bobbieo / Getty | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

As I assemble the desks I just picked up from my district’s warehouse because I have more students this year, I wonder why no one told me that actual teaching is only a fraction of this job.

The job is both physically demanding and emotionally taxing. 

I find myself scanning over things, trying to prioritize tasks, and missing out on useful training or professional development because I don’t have the time. 

How can we give teachers the opportunity to actually teach? What do we do about extra, unpaid work? — Five Jobs in One 

[Are you a teacher? Submit your question for our advice column here.]

Dear Five Jobs in One,

You’re right, this job is both physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Let me describe my last few days to you.

As I write this, about 11 teachers are absent and the school secretary is still trying to find teachers who will cover their classes, which have 30-plus students each. About four weeks ago, when school started, I requested a sub because I’ll be leaving town next week. They still haven’t found someone to cover for me.

Yesterday, a loaded gun was found on campus in the boy’s bathroom during school hours. Teachers received an email at about 6:30 p.m. — at the same time as the general public. Mind you, this was after a day full of fights between students. 

Also yesterday, there were multiple teachers out, and we had two subs trying to cover four teachers. One substitute teacher walked out after the second class. She told another teacher she had never been so disrespected in her life. Other teachers were then asked to cover for the sub who left.

Tuesday, a student stole the wallet of the teacher whose classroom is attached to mine. Fortunately, the school was able to track the stolen wallet. 

Wednesday, the air conditioning died at our sister high school in record-breaking, 90-degree fall weather. There were three student fights, and by noon, someone set off a smoke bomb in the bathroom. 

The administration evacuated the building, but while everyone was outside, five additional fights broke out simultaneously. Teachers were injured. The school resource officers were outnumbered. Finally, someone arranged for buses and school was dismissed early.

I haven’t even mentioned the intermittent internet issues, overcrowded classrooms, COVID cases, high student absences, and learning loss where children have developed poor habits and now rebel against classroom instruction.

Five Jobs in One, I say all this because I’m exhausted, too, and there are no substitute teachers to allow us to take time off. I hear you, and many teachers across the country feel the same

Here are five things we can both commit to trying this week:

  • Take a breath — because it feels like that’s all we can do right now. Give yourself one minute to catch your breath.
  • Remember what is in our circle of control. 
  • Show up for ourselves by finding some form of exercise. The benefits of exercise are worth the effort it takes to motivate ourselves even when our days are stressful.
  • Resist the urge to veg out on the couch at the end of the day. Use evenings to participate in an activity you enjoy like a bowling league, or phone a friend to catch up.
  • Ask for help. It’s OK to reach out to a therapist. Join a larger education community like our After the Bell Facebook group.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Five Jobs in One, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org.

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