This Work. It is Lonely.

Fair warning: This blog post is a mess. It is one of those written more for me than for others. But I share it in some small hope that others can relate. So here we go…

It is strange how lonely teaching can be. In a profession where we are rarely, physically, alone in a room, it seems that so many of us still feel alone. We feel isolated even though we are constantly surrounded by students and teachers and administrators and noise and chaos and busyness. We are on committees and teams and in professional learning communities and on grade levels and on faculties and in districts and yet, still, so many of us feel so alone.

Maybe people in every job feel this way. Perhaps people who are sitting inside the walls of an office or a cubicle or standing behind a counter or at an assembly line, perhaps they all feel lonely. Perhaps it is a larger problem of this world we are living in. But I don’t know enough about that.

All I know is that somehow, the more I teach, the more I talk with other teachers who are also feeling lonely. And the more alone I seem to feel.

Part of it is just who I am. Social situations drain me. It’s not that I don’t like being around other people, but for me it is hard work. It exhausts me. After a while I need to hide away somewhere quiet and read a book. So when it comes time for lunch, I am most often at my desk alone because I need the time to recharge. When I am planning, I am usually at my desk alone because I need the quiet to focus. When I get to school in the morning, I am often at my desk alone because I need the peace to help me prepare for the day.

So perhaps I am feeling lonely because I so often choose to be alone. But I think that choosing to be alone and feeling lonely are two different things (which reminds me of the brilliant definitions of alone and lonely given by Ally Nickerson in Lynda Mulally Hunt’s beautiful book Fish in a Tree). So I think that there is something bigger here at play.

Then I think about the way that I collaborate. I will be honest, I am pretty sure that I suck at it.  I am really good at sharing what we are doing in our classroom when I am asked about it because I like to be helpful.  I am good about writing about what we are doing in our classroom because I process by writing and so it helps me to put my thoughts down somewhere before they get to heavy in my own head. I am good at helping others when they come to me with a problem or question or ask for an idea because I get great joy from planning engaging work for kids. I am good at reading the words of others on blogs, in books, in articles and I am good at learning from the ideas that I read about and finding a way to make them my own and use them to do better and be better for my students.

But I don’t really think any of that is really fully collaborating. When I sit down to plan out a unit, I mostly do this alone or with my students. I do not ask coworkers if they want to plan together. I do not always, or ever, think to ask my coworkers, “Oh, how are you doing this?” I am not sure that I listen well to other people’s ideas. Often people will say things and then my own ideas tend to starting flying through my head so quickly that I think I often miss the ideas of others because I am busy getting lost in my own. I do not often offer to share if I am not asked first. And I recognize that all of these things just isolate me further.

So perhaps this is why I feel so alone.

Then I think that some of the things that I do with my students, I think that they might actually push other people away. Or maybe I am just scared that they will push other people away and so I pull before they have a chance to push.

Several years ago, I made a commitment to myself and to my students to bring issues of social justice into my classroom.  It began, I think, when I came out to my students and realized that it was the first time that any of them had ever heard the word gay said in school by a teacher. I have written a lot about that. But, I think it changed me. It made me feel like I was not doing enough to teach my kids about the world beyond reading and writing.

And then, came Trayvon Martin and then Ferguson and then so many other stories that highlighted for me the racial crisis that our country is in. And then I realized that no one was talking to my mostly white students about race. I have written a lot about that, too.  I realized that I had to find a way to show my students that reading and writing could actually take these things that are so wrong and start to try to fix them.

And I think that this work may have isolated me. Because I don’t know that others want any part of it. Or maybe, I am just afraid that people will think I have gone too far. Because people have told me that they would not touch the issues we talk about in my class with a ten-foot pole. And people have told me that I am making people feel bad by talking about privilege and oppression. And maybe this has scared me. So I close my door and I gather my students close and I engage in the work that I fear others will not approve of.

Because others have made me doubt myself and question if I should not be doing what I am doing. I take that back, no one, other than myself, has made me doubt. I did that all on my own. However, when people questioned why I was talking about race or gender identity or police brutality or sexual orientation, then I allowed those questions to turn into self-doubt. I wondered if perhaps I should stick to simply teaching how to read and how to write.

And I think that maybe my fear of hearing things that make me doubt myself has caused me to just hole up in my room and retreat further instead of putting myself out there and asking others to join me.  Or perhaps, even better, finding out that there are others in my building or in my district who are already talking about the exact same issues and we just haven’t figured it out yet.

So as I sit here, near the end of the school year, and wonder how I got to this lonely place, I wonder if I haven’t had more of hand in it all than I have realized. Perhaps it is not solely the nature of the job or the nature of the world we live in. Perhaps much more if it is due to the conditions that I have created for myself. And if that is the case, then that is where I have to start.  I am not exactly sure how, but I suppose that is the work that sits ahead of me.


13 thoughts on “This Work. It is Lonely.

  1. I have no helpful comments I am afraid – just a lot of head nodding and gratitude that you shared all of this. I think you use your blog for some amazing sharing and also for some fantastic perspective finding. I, for one, am so glad you dive into the work you do with your students and even more glad you share. I am switching jobs this fall. I begin applying for new jobs next week. I may be moving up to a Grade 4 or a 3/4 after teaching 2/3. If that is the case, I had already planned to move into your blog. So you might not be so lonely with me roaming around in here! 🙂 But seriously, I hear you on the sharing and the reading but the not asking “How would you . . .?” I have started collaborating with a few colleagues more this year and it has been wonderful. I am scared of how much I will miss them. In fact, the last time we more formally got together, I shared your blog and they were blown away. Keep writing, keep diving in, keep asking the questions.

  2. This is such a needed experience to be heard in the education world. There is some vicious relationship between teachers who love to be “on” with their students but then need to be “off” with adults. It’s like being an introvert/extrovert changes based on the context. Thank you for sharing, and in this…you are not alone; I am with you.

  3. As I read on, I felt more and more that much of what you have to say is what I feel, too. Like Carrie, I have no wise answers, but I suspect that you yourself will come to such answers as you continue to mull over these ideas and allow them to take you where you need to go. Teaching is an exhausting business: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. This is especially so if you teach the way you (and I) do – it’s a full on, totally committed kind of journey. It’s hard to find companions in our buildings for such a journey. I learn so much from you…know that that there are many of us who appreciate all you share.

  4. This resonates so much with me also. A group of 8th graders have started eating lunch in my room the last few weeks, and today I had to ask them, “Please, no music today,” because I was so cranky all afternoon after not getting that noise-break during the middle of the day. And yes, I’m in my room in the first place because eating with colleagues doesn’t give me the break my brain needs from interacting. And yes, also, to the isolation of following your teacher heart instead of The District Curriculum. I think you are asking good questions, and I’m impressed that you are looking at yourself for answers as well as “circumstances” and “that cranky guy in the lunchroom.” (Just me?)

  5. Jess…
    There is so much I want to say, to talk to you about how you’re feeling, but I can’t here, in a public place, because we both work in the same district and I don’t want to say things that could be taken out of context or misconstrued. This work can be lonely (and coaching can be even lonelier, which is the biggest reason I’m crawling back INTO the classroom), but it doesn’t have to be. There are people here who will listen without judgement. I have been in awe of the journey you’ve been on the past few years, and I’m thinking about how I can do some of that work with my third graders in the fall.

  6. As a department teacher (librarian) I love the opportunity to find out more about what is happening in the classroom and find ways to connect my curriculum to the classroom teachers. Reaching out to PE or music or art or any of your other specialists is a great way to deepen your curriculum and build a partnership. And, it has the added bonus of connecting with a grownup occasionally.

  7. I relate so much to this. It’s the end of the year and I’m again thinking “you should have made more of an effort to befriend your coworkers AGAIN this year,” and although I have several close friends at school, I know I’m way on the outside – and largely it’s my own fault. I too need a break from people during lunch; the group lunches that other teachers have always smell great and I know they have fun, but I need to not be ON for a few minutes. I do have kids who eat lunch in my room with me, and I don’t mind that at all – they aren’t in my class anymore and want to talk about books or life and I don’t feel the pressure to be “on” with them the way I do with my coworkers. But you’re right – even when it’s of my own doing, it does get very lonely.

  8. Jess,
    I feel like you are speaking directly to me. I have felt myself getting more and more isolated over the last couple of years. I feel alone and lonely. And, even more than that, I feel more and more like I’m living and teaching under the gag rule. I’m trying to do something about it, but I’ve yet to hit on that one idea, person or project that will set me free. Melodramatic, I know, but this is how I feel. I have been in education for many years and I’ve never felt worried about speaking my mind…until now. Should we start a lonely hearts club to pull ourselves out of this hole/funk/lonely place we’re in? If so, count me in!

  9. Pingback: Links I Loved Last Week: A Round-Up of Online Reading 5/29/16 | the dirigible plum

  10. Well said! I can identify with the ‘alone but not lonely’ feeling as a classroom teacher. I was recently told by leadership that it had been noted that I didn’t spend time in the staffroom. That’s because I need time to recharge and reflect. I’m pretty sure I suck at collaboration too. 🙂 Schools need to cater for introverts as well as extroverts; we don’t all always do our best work in teams. Some of us work best when we are alone.

    Keep your head up, stay true to yourself and never stop doing what you believe is best for the students in your care.

  11. This is a very thought provoking post and it’s interesting how we all feel this way in one way or another in our teaching profession. I believe that most of us are “quiet teachers” who need time alone to process and re-energize, so closing the door during prep or lunch is for survival, not because we are unsocial. But, yes, this could cause loneliness. However, I see other teachers who seem to need to do everything together with someone else and many of us are not that way. I don’t want to be that way. I do know that reaching out to others, though, feels good. We really all share the same desires for our students and need to honestly spend time just listening to one another.

    Please know you are not alone.

  12. Thank you for sharing . Very honest. Totally relate and looking for a way out …it’s not healthy for mind body or spirit 😦

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s