It doesn’t take a lot of effort to notice the state of Mississippi, at least on an institutional level, doesn’t give a rip about its public school teachers.
Well, I should rephrase. Mississippi doesn’t care about public education at all. The statistics bear that out clearly. The teachers are just the scapegoats, as evidenced by low teacher pay, high turnover and a teacher shortage that no one is really doing anything in earnest to address.
Then there’s the Mississippi Department of Education — by far the least competent state agency in a state with a lot of competition in that regard (seriously, from experience, you’d rather deal with the DMV) — that this week outdid itself in dehumanizing teachers. A blog post dated Tuesday reminded teachers they need to buck up during the COVID-19 pandemic because other people are depending on them. It cites a Hanover Research study and offers tips and links to workshops to help teachers, you know, get tougher.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has required teachers to help children and families cope with the crisis,” it reads. “Teachers, particularly those who fail to engage in self-care or lack resilience training, are at increased risk of burnout or compassion fatigue. To mitigate this risk, this report provides examples of strategies districts can use to strengthen resilience among emotionally-burdened teachers.”
It goes on to talk about supporting student wellness and social-emotional development, how that’s key to academic achievement, etc.
You might be reading that and thinking, “So, what it seems they’re saying is teachers are responsible for making sure they are tough enough to help others manage a crisis (on top of teaching their academic subject matter). And if they fail it’s because they didn’t try hard enough?”
Yeah, that’s how I read it too.
Students are indeed the No. 1 priority of any functioning school, and any teacher worth his or her salt is already deeply invested in students’ wellbeing, academically and otherwise. The blog rightly notes the pandemic makes that investment more important than ever.
Thing is, teachers don’t have to be told that. The ones who need to be told don’t need to be teachers. What teachers need is to be a part of a team approach from the top-down that includes the department of education, administrators, parents and communities all helping each other get the thing done. And when it doesn’t work, they need to be part of a comprehensive, mutually accountable process for identifying and fixing the problem — not a district’s top-heavy administration or shamefully derelict state leadership asking, “How did teachers screw this up?”
But looking at the blog, MDE ain’t about that life. Teachers, by God, are responsible for their own resiliency and are being instructed to engage in self-care practices adequate enough to keep them from burning out or having “compassion fatigue” — the secondary trauma and stress experienced by someone who is constantly caring for others who have experienced trauma.
My wife is a public school teacher, so I know a little about what this looks like.
Back in June, Education Week published an opinion piece warning school districts against using the “teachers must learn to be more resilient” method of combating compassion fatigue. It specifically labels the wording in those methods as “language detours” that toxify the school environment and lead teachers to suppress their own struggles in favor of not appearing “negative.”
It’s almost as if, and stay with me here, trying to compel people to take care of themselves solely so they can better help others reduces their ability to actually take care of themselves. Or that it’s somehow counterproductive to tell a teacher, or anyone really, “You have to be OK so Johnny can be OK, and if Johnny isn’t OK according to our predetermined metrics, it’s your fault.”
Seems like if teachers getting the support they need was more of a focus, that would mitigate at least some of the other COVID-related issues — learning loss, trauma support, compassion fatigue — as a result.
Still, it should come as no surprise that Mississippi — the pride of American public education — is now advocating for harmful policies that will leave teachers holding the bag when they inevitably fail.
Everyone is going through this pandemic, teachers included. Moreover, teachers are human. They are not units of production, despite MDE’s and the Legislature’s constant efforts to treat them as such. They can’t be reprogrammed with new software to make them work more efficiently and shouldn’t be made out as the villain when ivory-tower plans that were asinine when hatched don’t pan out. They can’t constantly be told to do more with less and be all things to all people without any real support. It’s abusive and unsustainable.
Oh, and they aren’t nearly as replaceable as some seem to think they are either. Remember that teacher shortage I mentioned earlier? It’s only getting worse.
Zack Plair is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.