Teachers are not always treated like valued professionals. We are treated like pack-mules. Pile on dozens of roles that we are expected to take on, add unrealistic paperwork & too-frequent curriculum changes, grapple with inadequate supplies and resource, carry the projection of parental abdication of responsibility to their kids, tie it all up with the idea that we are supposed to solve everything – and along the trail of education we go.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The toxic culture of teaching isn’t just the systemic issues that place unrealistic expectations and workloads on teachers. It’s when teachers buy into this and propagate it.

I once asked a veteran teacher what her tips for novice teachers were from all her years of experience to make their first years easier. She volunteered to be interviewed for an article I was writing.  Her response? “I wouldn’t tell them anything – they can suck it up and deal with it like we all had to”.

I heard a 5th year teacher remark, “I’m doing all this extra work now, and then when I have kids and a family I’m going to expect the younger teachers to do the same thing I did. I’ll have paid my dues.”

I recall a principal telling a teacher with a good reputation for “being able to put a lot more on her plate than others” that she’ll have to “pull her weight like everyone else” when she wanted to know if the class sizes were going to be reorganized by the district as they were past capacity at 42 students.

Is teaching like some hazing initiation into a toxic sorority?

How many teachers actually think like this? Teachers, we can do better.

That kind of turning on each other is a symptom of a culture that prioritizes self-neglect as a virtue.

That can be triggering to read because most people who burnout are hardworking, loyal, dedicated, committed, responsible – and they generally feel good about their work.  Until they don’t. And if we don’t heal from it, those kinds of heartless, thoughtless responses is what we get.

And instead of problematizing it we say: oh we’re all in this crazy boat together – let’s make the best of it.  Actually. Let’s not.

This self-neglect isn’t intentional. It’s conditioned by-product of a toxic culture.  Where self-sacrifice is held up as a paragon of virtue, where our needs are always placed last for the good of the kids, where self-denial supplements nourishment, where martyrdom masquerades as heart-based teaching practice – wellness cannot thrive. Truthfully, even surviving becomes difficult.

This conditioning is within the culture of schooling. It’s also within the larger society, and within our own families.  This is why I say that recovering from burnout is not about going to the spa or taking regular breaks. It’s uncovering our core self from the layers of toxic beliefs about work, care, engagement and vocation that we have been enculturated into.

The first step out of self-neglect is to have compassion for our needs. It is to love ourselves enough to meet our needs. Being able to survive on an ethos of self-neglect is not being self-disciplined. Self-discipline is to be devoted to the care of the self. If teachers want to be valued, we have to start with valuing ourselves and eachother.