Off Duty Mom

Thoughts from an exhausted mom who is NEVER really "off duty"

Bleeding Out

When I decided to go by “Off Duty Mom,” it was through inspiration from my own mom who, in the evenings of my childhood, would sometimes pick up a book and lie in bed in an attempt to have just a bit of time to herself, declaring that she was “off duty.” As an adult, once I had children of my own, I realized the importance for moms to go “off duty” every now and then.

When not on duty as a mom, I’ve spent a few decades as a high school English teacher. There were days when I didn’t know which job — mom or teacher — was more rewarding, exhausting, frustrating, illuminating, and/or indicative of my very identity. Both jobs have had their ups and downs.

You may have heard through sources such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Washington Post, and, you know, everyone you personally know in education right now, that teachers are quitting in astronomical numbers. And, they’re not just quitting their jobs, but they’re quitting the entire profession and giving up on years of training, years of dreaming, and years of just KNOWING that being an educator was their “calling.” Something is happening and it is bad, people.

I first realized that my own mental health was in decline just before the pandemic forced me out of my classroom. I remember a conversation I had with an assistant principal where she and I talked off-the-record about morale being low in our building. This is something that can just “happen” from time to time, though, so at this point, the very fact that she just sort of listened to me, heard my concerns about general dissatisfaction, and tried to be supportive was enough for me. But then a dear friend and colleague of mine quit — perhaps not suddenly, but it did unfold fairly quickly — and on that very last day of his, my administrators came over our PA system to let us know that we ought to take our work home with us over the weekend of March 14, 2020 since schools would be closed come Monday.

As schools closed that spring, many districts across the country took vastly different approaches to how they’d handle serving their communities. “Fairness” was an issue of particular concern for a whole lot of schools all over, especially when it came to taking care of the needs of Special Education students. Some schools realized that Zoom-learning wouldn’t really allow for Individualized Education Programs to be met fully which can violate federal law, so that was pretty bad. In order to have “equity” or “fairness” for all students, some schools chose to push through and go all “CDC-be-damned” and stuff to stay open despite, like, several million people dying. Others decided to educate NOBODY because that, too, was “fair” in that everyone was being equally shafted.

During the multiple months that followed, this “fairness” and “equity” remained pretty buzzy. It isn’t for no reason, either. Teachers had a glimpse into students’ home lives and realized that tons of stuff we never even realized was happening behind those closed doors was causing barriers to student learning. Some kids showed up to classes online with their younger siblings on their laps, being primary caregivers AND full time students at once. Some teachers saw a variety of conditions of homes, relationships, boundaries (or lack thereof), supplies, wi-fi reliability, noise levels, and all kinds of trauma-in-the-making. Some kids went fully MIA for the entirety of the time of remote learning. One parent came to an online meeting regarding her son’s pending failure of a course that was a graduation requirement for him while she was actively moving a table from one room of her house to another — huffing and puffing and screaming at her family members while (sort of) talking with me about whether her child was going to get a diploma or not.

The truth was that kids were dealing with all kinds of shit and teachers had a front-row seat. Of course, teachers themselves also had more than they’d signed up for on their own plates. We had to reinvent our entire profession from scratch, learn technology new to most of us, and figure out how to do the non-academic parts of our job with pretty much no help from anyone. Who could even help if they wanted to, anyway?

Things were NOT “equitable” for kids. They had all kinds of levels of support, love, affection, kindness, peace, responsibility, expectation, money, and ability. We always knew this, but it was another thing to witness it.

What happened was that expectations for school systems rose and accountability for students fell. The general consensus was that kids’ differences in preparedness for school wasn’t their “fault” (and it, indeed was not), so we, as a system, had to level the playing field for them. Makes sense on paper. But, of course, the root issues causing these unfair circumstances weren’t going to change for the better and we weren’t attempting to (or able to) fix any of that, anyway. The only thing we could do was “do better” for kids.

I do NOT disagree that “doing better for kids” is both warranted and vital. But, it certainly is stressful.

Art installation titled “Can’t Help Myself” by Chinese artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu

Have you ever seen that art installation of the dying robot? Well, there was this robot that constantly leaked hydraulic fluid and was programmed to sweep it up to return to its own system. At first, as the story goes, the fluid leaked at a rate that was manageable for it to contain and return to itself. Over time, though, the moments of “rest” for the robot became fewer and farther between and it was eventually in a situation where it did nothing but clean up this leak literally at all times. The leak was never fixed. It just kept cleaning up, over and over, never able to stop the root cause but instead just in a perpetual cycle of futile efforts to save its own life.

That robot “died” after the spills and loss of fluid became greater than its physical ability to clean up the mess and carry on. I had heard later that the irony of it all was that it wasn’t even a hydraulically-powered machine. Though it was programmed to “believe” that it had to perform this task to save itself, it actually never needed the leaking fluid in the first place. And yet, it died anyway.

Such is the state of education.

When does stress just become unbearable?

I’ve heard the saying, of course, that you “can’t pour from an empty cup” and so, I’ve decided to take a brief hiatus from teaching. Attempting to sweep up all of my leaking hydraulic fluid has left me exhausted and physically unwell. I’ve had heart palpitations. Depression. Anxiety. Stomach all tied up in knots. Sleeping too much. Trouble sleeping at all. I’m on 6 different medications a day like an old lady and half of them are for issues related to stress. So, I get it. That mass exodus of teachers: I get it.

The system is bleeding out. Hemorrhaging, even. And, there are underpaid, undervalued people who are working to stanch that flow every day. In return for their efforts, they are asked to do more: improve test scores, attend more meetings that could have been emails, close the racial performance gap, provide trauma support, get yelled at by parents, have the public refer to them as “glorified babysitters,” shift effortlessly between online learning and in-person as needed, wear masks, get tested, get vaccinated, break up violent fights, prepare for a mass shooting at their workplace, differentiate instruction so that each individual student gets a unique and tailored educational experience, do paperwork nobody reads, give standardized tests, and, well, you know, I am just tired of listing things so I have to stop.

I might add, though, that to the other teacher-moms out there: I know that being a mother is also unforgiving, thankless, and just damn hard, too. And it is hard in ways nobody ever told you about. I mean, we all knew there’d be diapers. But, when you have to deal with bullying, or mental health problems in your kids, or talking about sex and consent, or online predators — well, that was just not what I was thinking about when I was pregnant and people were all, “It’s hard but you’ll love it!” I do NOT enjoy worrying about an adult pretending to be a 13-year old girl to get a kid to meet him “IRL.” Give me a thousand diapers instead, actually.

What’s the moral to the story here? Hell if I know. I wish I had a perky call-to-action to end this rant. Or, a positive “however” statement to make here. I do not.

How many more empty teacher desks will it take before crisis truly sets in?

The world is changing. I guess that’s all there is to it.

If you’d like to read more about this nationwide teacher crisis, here are a few articles you might want to check out:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2021/10/18/teachers-resign-pandemic/

https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/teachers-are-not-ok-even-though-we-need-them-to-be/2021/09

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcperna/2022/01/04/why-education-is-about-to-reach-a-crisis-of-epic-proportions/?sh=fcd302178c7b

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-01-06/more-teachers-than-ever-are-considering-leaving-the-profession

https://www.wsj.com/articles/teachers-are-quitting-and-companies-are-hot-to-hire-them-11643634181

https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2019/09/05/we-need-to-stop-talking-about-the-teacher-shortage/?sh=472c6924494c

https://thejournal.com/articles/2022/01/19/survey-finds-teacher-shortage-exacerbated-by-bans-on-classroom-discussions-of-race-and-gender.aspx

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