Liz is about to cry.
Our eyes meet above the fray of passing middle school students pushing their way toward their next class. Under the unforgiving glare of the fluorescent lights, I see the tell-tale signs of a teacher in distress: Her fists clenching, her shoulders hanging heavy, her eyes, equal parts vacant and panicked.
I recognize these signs because, last week, I was the one crying in the hallway of the middle school where we both work. And if you asked either of us what had happened, where would we even begin?
The pandemic has sapped so much from teachers. Masks and distancing protocols left us unable to be our authentic selves for our students. Remote learning reduced our creativity to a sad trail of Canvas assignments that we tried to liven up with colorful fonts and GIFs. Endless hot takes from politicians and parents trampled our dignity.
But one thing that all of the soundbites and school board commentaries miss is this: Schools are relying on the mental well-being of teachers, and there’s not enough to go around. These days, we have to take turns crying in the hallway.
Twelve years ago, though, if you had asked me what part of having my own middle school classroom excited me the most, I would have clapped my hands with the enthusiasm only afforded to a first-year teacher and declared, “Everything!” Back then, everything enchanted me: crafting exciting lesson plans, making locker signs, and decorating my first bulletin board. I lined up my colorful teacher pens next to my cheery teacher planner. I unfolded the pristine blanket of my mental well-being, intact and ready to tackle whatever this noble career would throw my way.
There was no way to have known that “everything” would become a constantly moving target. The pressure to join unpaid committees. The not-so-subtle messaging that it’s our responsibility to get 100% of parents in the door for conferences. The drive to update my classroom library, my lesson plans, and my teaching style in real-time to meet the needs of my students.
When the pandemic hit, things felt even more harried, haphazard, and traumatic. It reminded me of a Shel Silverstein poem that begins like this:
I asked for a hot dog
With everything on it,
And that was my big mistake,
‘Cause it came with a parrot,
A bee in a bonnet,
A wristwatch, a wrench, and a rake.
Even before COVID, teachers faced unrealistic expectations of being everything to everyone. Back then, I’d cry maybe once a year in the parking lot from the weight of it all.
But when we returned to in-person learning, I found myself crumbling regularly, unable to regulate my emotions as more things were added to my already heaving stack. I hoped that, when the fabric of my well-being finally, inevitably gave way, someone else would step in with support. And indeed, my colleagues have come through.
To teach is to martyr, a truth that the past two years have made uncomfortably obvious to me. I cover classes when no substitutes can be found. I write lesson plans for a colleague across the hall who is out unexpectedly when her kid tests positive. I answer emails late into the night from frantic students who don’t understand the assignments after missing weeks of school. I don’t even think about it anymore. I do it because that’s what teachers do: We care, even at our own expense.
When we returned to in-person learning, I found myself crumbling regularly, unable to regulate my emotions as more things were added to my heaving stack.
Pre-pandemic, I thought that I sacrificed solely for my students. “It’s for the kids,” I’d mutter to myself as I finished writing yet another crowdfunding request for books for my classroom. But the past two years have made something abundantly clear to me: I don’t just hold it together for the kids. I hold it together for other teachers. Because there is no love like that of a teacher for a fellow teacher who is crying in the hallway.
Back in the now-empty hallway, I stand next to Liz as she takes deep breaths, gulping in air to slow her snowballing emotions. She begins to speak about all of it: the sadness, the stress, the feelings of inadequacy. I listen. I hold space for her. I give her the comfort she has given me many times before. As she talks, I examine the tattered fabric of the remaining shred of sturdiness that I hold in my hands. At that moment, I know what I have to do. I take what little stability I have left (that all of us collectively have left) and turn it into a blanket to drape around Liz’s shoulders.
The passing period is over. The bell rings. Liz wipes her eyes and gives me a half-smile that says thank you without saying it. She walks into her classroom. As I close my own door, I can already hear her cracking jokes with her students. All is well for now. I wonder, for the thousandth time, how much longer the fabric will hold.
Katie Kraushaar is a middle school English teacher in St. Louis. She would be absolutely useless without the love and support of her fellow teachers.