Last column, (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/10/28/one-baltimore-23-the-best-the-hardest/), Baltimore City teachers shared the best things (unanimously: the kids!) and the hardest things (inflexible administrators, deteriorating buildings, overwhelming workloads, traumatized students, workplace bullies) about the job. This week, we’re going to look at how all of it impacts the well-being of our educators, and what we can do about it.
While stress in 2019 is a given — is it just me or are ~80% of the people you know depressed and anxious right now?– our teachers have it especially hard. Teaching is regularly found to be at or near the top of the list of the most stressful professions in America (https://wwmt.com/news/i-team/state-of-mind-teacher-stress-levels-on-the-rise), which is itself one of the most stressed-out nations in the world (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/americans-stressful.html). Add to that the problems of violence and poverty, and a tough situation can become untenable.
When the population you serve is particularly stressed, as our students so often are, not only is your job harder, you suffer from both vicarious trauma (the psychic distress of helping others through their pain, first coined for psychotherapists) and direct trauma (breaking up fights, being attacked). According to information compiled by the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, more than half of children in Baltimore City have gone through at least one “adverse childhood experience,” such as suffering extreme economic hardship, witnessing violence, or enduring racism, well above the average for the rest of the state and the nation (https://www.childhealthdata.org/docs/default-source/local-area-synthetic-estimates/adverse-childhood-experiences-among-baltimore-maryland-s-children.pdf). While efforts are being made to address youth trauma in our city (https://www.wbaltv.com/article/bill-proposal-to-help-youth-cope-with-trauma-in-baltimore/28472429), we have a very long way to go before our kids have the support they need.
On top of that, our students and staff have to operate within a system that is drastically under-resourced. There is fierce debate over the amount of funding Baltimore’s schools should receive, which we’ll get into next week when we look at the Kirwan Commission recommendations, but what’s not in question is that we have dozens of schools without air conditioning (https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/ac) or heat (https://www.npr.org/2018/01/18/578731411/baltimore-schools-heating-crisis-a-day-of-reckoning-for-the-city-and-state), and that teachers are having to buy their own supplies and work second jobs just to get by (https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/2018/10/9/baltimore-city-teachers-rely-fundraising-second-jobs-for-classroom-supplies).
So, what does all of that look like on the ground? In terms of the systemic cost, we see it in an incredibly high teacher turnover rate (https://www.wmar2news.com/longform/hundreds-of-teachers-are-quitting-at-baltimore-city-public-schools), which deprives children of experienced educators and costs the system a huge amount of time and money. In terms of the individual toll, I asked eight city teachers (and one counselor — while I’ve focused on teachers, all of this largely applies to other school staff as well) about whether they’d experienced impacts to their physical or mental health as a result of their jobs at city schools.
Here’s what they had to say.
A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:
Oh yeah. I’m physically exhausted by the early hours; my body was not built to function at 7 AM. And there are definitely days that are emotionally draining. Days when I feel like I didn’t actually make a difference, days when the students are so unruly that I feel like a failure as a teacher, days when the principal makes it clear that he is unimpressed with my lack of authority.
A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:
Yes, I felt very overworked and did not get proper sleep. I was also trying to remain active as an artist and this was a difficult dual life to support.
The classroom management aspect of teaching middle school, not having mentoring or support in learning those skills at the charter school in 2007 to 2008 definitely heightened my stress levels a lot. I really wasn’t used to having to raise my voice and break up fights, and the lack of support in learning effective classroom management led me not to want to have a similar experience.
A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:
Oh without question. I was suicidal for over half the year last year. At the very least teachers in the city system have access to pretty damn good healthcare (thanks to baltimore teachers union), which I have taken advantage of to get help.
[Me: I’m sorry it’s been so hard, but very glad you’re able to access help.]
It actually makes it harder.
[Me: How so?]
You feel like you cannot leave. Relative stability and decent benefits at the cost of a daily dose of emotional abuse for 180 days of the year.
A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school:
Specifically city schools? Yes certainly. I had a cold from September through March. I almost quit 3 times because of the overwhelmingness of it. I took every day off that I legally could: sick days, personal business days. I had never done that before. I was so exhausted on weekends. A couple of Fridays I came home and went to bed and slept 12 hours straight. I was age 59 when I taught there. One experienced city school teacher on my floor got sick and never returned.
An art teacher who has taught at schools around the city for seven years:
My first year I lost over 30 lbs and cried everyday. That first year one of my students died in a house fire, a 9 year old girl attempted suicide, another student’s mother had a breakdown and killed his little brother who was 2.
I leaned on the school’s social worker and school psychologist for support that first year. I don’t know what I would have done without them providing larger context of the world of education.
[Me: Context along the lines of the whole “you can only make so much change” thing?
Yes, and that this was just a reality in the world. I was just ignorant of that reality.
A former special counselor for Indian Ed. students across the district for 11 years:
Definitely. I started to go to therapy while I still worked for city schools. An incident with a principal who removed me/the program from his school actually caused me to vomit later that night. It’s always so hot or so cold, wherever you’re working. Roaches and mice in some places. Violence. It’s a lot.
The interpersonal stuff is worse than all that. I’ve been hit on, groped, cat-called, a lot of times school staff confused me for being a student and I would get corralled for cutting class (which was funny). My car was keyed, my office was tossed. Been called ‘white trash.’
A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools:
Omg. Yes. I have only had one administrator make me feel horrible (enough to almost stop teaching). But the unchecked behavior from needy kids and a punitive not restorative system is what kills me the most. I go home so depressed from the verbal abuse and hopelessness and noise I NEED the weekend to recover. I love my job but am sooooo excited I have only 4 more years.
A former arts teacher who taught for six years at city schools through various programs:
Yes. I was overworked and overstressed and had a terrible time getting sleep. Anxiety also upsets my stomach. Once, on an empty stomach I threw up stomach acid while driving to work. Sorry that’s graphic. This was not isolated to city schools though. I had similar issues working in a high needs school in another district, especially with a particularly toxic principal.
I also ached from head to toe, especially my arms from constantly breaking up or preventing fights.
A special education teacher with five years of experience who taught for half a year at a city high school before quitting:
Oh yes — the school environment was incredibly stressful (students’ behavior, lack of maintenance of the building, not having anything I needed in order to teach), plus add to that the feeling of being completely unsupported and even antagonized by administrators. Also the district places a lot of extraneous demands on teachers, mostly related to professional evaluation. I don’t know, because I had not worked in US public schools prior to this experience at BCPSS, but I suspect that some of this is typical of public school districts. However, when you pair those demands with a school environment that makes it impossible to do the actual job (i.e. teaching students), it begins to feel as though your job is to jump through hoops.
Anyway, yes: I wound up deeply depressed and extremely anxious; it affected my sleep terribly and caused chronic headaches. The day I quit, I immediately felt better — even with no job! That’s how I knew I had done the right thing getting out.
Thank you again to everyone who shared their story, and to all who are working to give kids a better future.
I want to be clear that the dysfunctions described above are not specific to Baltimore. Public school teachers across the nation are getting sick from stress, selling their blood plasma to afford pencils, and quitting at alarming rates. But that’s not true in ALL jurisdictions in America, or in all places around the globe — it doesn’t have to be this way. So… what can we do? The big-picture answer is to completely reform how we fund and manage our schools, and, again, I’ll talk about that next week.
The more immediate answer is that we do what we can to support the people on the ground. Get involved in your local school, find out what they need, help out, throw a party for the staff, raise some cash. Donate and share local teacher projects on platforms like http://www.donorschoose.org, and help the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap, which closed for lack of funding this fall, to reopen (https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-reopen-the-swap).
One cool local resource that I learned about in the course of these interviews is the Happy Teacher Revolution. Founded by Danna Thomas, who taught for seven years at Baltimore City elementary/middle schools, the organization now trains educators around the world in developing social support networks. HTR has free mental health & wellness support group meetings here in Baltimore, with the next happening tonight, Monday 11/18 at 5:30pm, and the next after that on 12/16 (flyer here: https://www.facebook.com/HappyTeacherRevolution/photos/a.1446151432136037/2484850484932788/).
On an entirely different note, Opal and I have been taking steps in the last few weeks to get Baltimore For Border Justice off the ground, which I’m deeply excited about. We’re holding an Advocacy Gathering about the gag orders bill (background: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/09/one-baltimore-17-voices/) this Thursday evening, 11/21 (https://www.facebook.com/events/1260854087432091/), please join us!! It is crucial that victims be able to tell their stories, so that when, for example, the state FREES KEITH DAVIS, JR., he’s able to talk about what happened and help us stop the corruption that allowed it.
Cultural Event of the Week: Like games, supporting local artists, and free pizza and beer? Baltimore’s gotchu. This Sunday, 11/24, local startup Terrible Games is holding a playtesting session at No Land Beyond for their freshman release, Token Terrors, to see how the rulebook holds up.
Green Event of the Week: Once a month, the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability (https://www.baltimoresustainability.org/about/commision-on-sustainability/) holds public meetings to discuss the pressing issues facing us as we try to figure out how to craft a livable future. This Wednesday, 11/20, the Commission is considering the question of waste — what are our long-term plans for dealing with it as a city, and how can we do better?
Song of the Week: “My Friends” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
My friends are so depressed / I feel the question / Of your loneliness / Confide, ’cause I’ll be on your side / You know I will / You know I will