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.