My Dysfunctional Relationship with Teaching

Note: I think this post will address the “length since last musing” question without any further explanation.

Shawn Sheehan, who was the 2016 State Teacher of the Year in Oklahoma, has often been quoted recently as saying that “Teaching in Oklahoma can feel like being in a dysfunctional relationship” (Source). I have been thinking about this a lot recently in terms of my own relationship to my chosen profession, but something happened last week that has intensified my thinking.

Last Thursday morning, I woke up with the left side of my face completely numb. Even though I’m only in my late thirties, my immediate thought was, “Did I have a stroke?!?” Because I know I tend to overreact, rather than rushing immediately off to the nearest Emergency Room, I tracked down my poor husband (on his day off, no less) and asked him to take me to the chiropractor to check for a possible pinched nerve. After all, I reasoned, I’ve had numb fingers caused by a pinched nerve in my shoulder, so it would stand to reason that a numb face could be caused by a pinched nerve in my neck. I’m not old enough to have a stroke.

Here’s where it starts to get dysfunctional, though: I knew the chiropractor’s office doesn’t open until later in the morning (so they can stay open later for the nine-to-fivers), so I reasoned that I might as well go teach my class while I wait for their office to open.

Let me say that again: At least, I’d pinched a nerve and lost all feeling in half my face. At worst, I’d had a stroke. And yet, my first priority is to make sure my students get the lesson I’d planned.

To attempt to make a long story short, we did end up in the ER, and the MRI found no signs of stroke (yay!). However, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy (more information), which means that I should expect a full recovery, but it may take awhile – my face could be numb anywhere from three weeks to six months (boo!). And yes, stress is a factor in developing it. It’s been quite annoying (short list of things I can’t do at the moment: drive safely, eat normally, talk normally, whistle, pronounce frictive phonemes, sleep without having to tape my left eye shut), and there has been more than a bit of pain (I’ve had a headache for literally the last eight days – it finally started going away today).

The logical question at this point might be: What does this have to do with teaching?

Well, I did mention stress. And Mr. Sheehan’s comment about teaching being similar to a dysfunctional relationship definitely resonates with me, and relationship dysfunction does cause stress.

I haven’t talked much about what I’m doing these days, but the short, non-specific version is that I’m full-time staff and part-time faculty at a community college. I love community colleges – open access and open enrollment mean that we are often the “college of last resort” for many students, and it is amazing to watch some of them rise to the occasion, exceed all expectations, and really show us and themselves what they are really capable of. However, this takes a lot of work, and not every student chooses to expend that level of effort (although it takes a lot of effort to give them the choice to accept or reject that opportunity). In the last two years, I’ve pulled a lot of all-nighters trying to get assignments graded – probably more than I pulled in my own student days. And my “day job” is not without stress, too. I’m not front-line customer service (most of the time), but I supervise people who are (which, in its own way, is worse – I’m the Complaints Department for those front-line folks). Most of the folks that work with me are nothing short of amazing, but the community-college setting also means that my staff is in a near-constant state of flux as student staff members move on to the next phases of their educational journies. At the same time, since my folks have often been chosen for their academic skills, some of them can be a bit of a challenge to work with (full disclosure: I am not always the easiest person to work with either – I’m not trying to say that I’m any less guilty of being difficult). In any office, there will always be a few folks that seem to thrive on stirring the shit pot, and mine is no exception (full disclosure: I am not one of those people). That sort of drama is very stressful to me.

So, yeah, lots of work stress. There’s family and personal stress too, but I am forced to admit that while I can’t choose my family, I do have some control over where I work and what I do. I have to concede that I left high-school teaching because the stress was getting to me, and now I’m starting to discover that, in a lot of ways, I’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. And I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what I should do about it. I spent so much time chasing this dream that I feel guilty at the idea of giving it up. Besides, as the saying goes, “I ain’t trained to do nothing else” (I think Bill Engvall said this during one of the Blue Collar Comedy specials, but I’m not 100% certain). At the same time, if this profession (not just this particular job, but the profession in general) is ruining my health, can I afford to keep doing this? My co-pay for the ER visit was more than half my monthly salary (and I have “good insurance” – but that’s a rant for another day), so I’m not exactly raking in the dough, either. Could I make more money in the private sector? Almost certainly. Would it crush my soul? Honestly, I’m not sure. I know I have a deep passion for the work I’m doing, but I’ve learned over the years that even deep passions can be dysfunctional and unhealthy.

I think the thing I hate the most is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. The state in which I live has a lot of budget problems; if even a fraction of those could be addressed, there would probably be more than enough money to give me and my staff a much-deserved raise (which would also help me attract more and higher-quality staff members), as well as hire the full-time assistant that I was promised in the initial interview (and have had about six weeks of the two years I’ve worked there). We could afford to hire more full-time faculty (I have often argued that courses like the First-Year Composition that I teach are far too important to be taught by part-time faculty with no other ties to the campus – students need and deserve instructors who are available on-campus and have the time to devote to them). We could increase our in-state subsidy and actually lower tuition, allowing us to reach even more students for whom the only real barrier to attendance and success is financial. It’s hard to “stick it out” while feeling that your neighbors and elected officials really don’t give a damn about you and what you do. The financial troubles plaguing my state are almost completely the result of elected officials that do not value what I do (or at least, they value tax cuts for their buddies far more than they value me and my students). It’s hard to accept that my life’s work and the futures of my students are less important than a campaign donation (that I would happily make if I wasn’t, you know, constantly broke).

Mr. Sheehan, after lots of consideration, decided that his best option was to leave his state and find similar work in another state. I’ve certainly considered this; I’m on a number of Listservs that connect people in my type of job from colleges and universities across the world, and there are often job postings – postings that promise to double or even triple my modest salary if only I would move out of state. I’m not against the idea of moving out of state, but the time is not right for me to do so – I have responsibilities to my extended family here, for now. We lost Mr. Celtic Goddess’s father a few months ago, and we have three close family members currently fighting cancer (I did mention stress, did I not?). Not to mention the fact that we bought a house last December; there isn’t enough equity built up to make it financially feasible to sell even if we didn’t have other reasons to stay. And of course, we’d miss all our families and friends if we left town.

So what’s the solution? I’m truly afraid to admit that I don’t know. I know I’ve got to get my stress level down if I want to get better and stay better – all this stress is ruining my health, and that point has been rammed home in truly epic fashion this past week. I do not want to end up back in the Emergency Room. And beyond that, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time. There’s got to be more to life than always worrying about work (of course, that thought opens up yet another can of worms, since I seem to end up stressed out no matter what job I have – so what part of it is the job itself, what part of it is the culture of work in general in this country, and what of it is me?).

One thing is certain: whether I stay in-state or move out-of-state; whether I stay in my current career or move on to something more financially beneficial; no matter what I do, I think in my heart, I will never stop being a teacher. I’m not sure what that means, or if it’s yet another symptom of my dysfunction, but I think it’s so engrained in my psyche that I’ll never fully root it out (assuming I wanted to). And although I wish my relationship with my passion was healthier, I don’t think I want to change the passion for seeing students succeed.

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