I was recently bumming around online, looking through some of my old writing. I happened upon a video from several years ago. It was a video I’d submitted to EdSurge for the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards.
I finished watching it, and I’ll be honest, I felt a bit sad. I felt sad because that person who recorded that video on his bed in San Francisco–attempting to break into the worlds of education technology and thought leadership–that guy feels so far away. I feel like I don’t know him nearly as well as I used to.
Let’s be honest, I also felt a bit embarrassed because the video is a bit cheesy and cliché, but do I admire my 25-year old self for putting it out into the world. While listening to that courageous and vulnerable guy speak, this line was the most striking:
I think one of the biggest misconceptions out there is that teachers need to live in a vacuum–that there needs to be this strict boundary between the personal and professional aspects of ourselves. When in reality this idea is entirely counterintuitive, contradicting the very reasons for which we as teachers got into this profession in the first place.
And that purpose is sharing.
Somewhere along the way I stopped sharing. As many of you know, in the Fall of my fourth year teaching, I proposed a discussion to parents about the then-recent legalization of same-sex marriage. After a harsh reprimanding and a lengthy shaming, I felt myself disengage. My walls went up, and I went inward.
But this changed when I got to San Francisco. I felt liberated to be in a place where I was accepted as an openly gay man–where there were no obstacles standing in the way of me being my true authentic self. But it just so turned out that I’d encounter different obstacles there.
In San Francisco–in a culture that values technology and venture capitalism–it was safe to express your identity. In fact, it even felt celebrated to be a bit different, to be pushing the boundaries of education not only through education technology but also through my uniqueness as an educator.
But a universal truth–one that I’ve seen in many of the schools I’ve worked in now–came into light as time progressed in San Francisco. Most schools value diversity, but they only value it within a certain threshold–a threshold that is convenient for them. After all, once the people or the thoughts become too diverse, it becomes unproductive, complex, and hard to manage. It can even become seen as misalignment. In this scenario, I’m not talking about racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual diversity; I’m talking, instead, about diversity of thought.
It was hit-or-miss in San Francisco. At first, the diversity of thought was welcomed by most–but not by all. In the early stages of a start-up, the diversity is helpful. But there’s also a lot of ego in the business world. It’s truly a dog-eat-dog world: survival of the fittest reigns as the law of the land. And in the business world, fittest refers to whose ideas will garner the most support, usually in the form of funding.
There came a point when my ideas surrounding our use of technology became very unpopular. I pointed out flaws in our hypotheses and our model, but these truths were inconvenient. My thoughts didn’t align with the brand that we were selling, and as a result, they couldn’t be taken into consideration. The small part of me that understands business gets that. It’s hard to admit that technology is not going to solve education’s woes when you’re an education technology company. After all, the technology is the thing that investors are lining up to invest in. Needless to say, without it the company would cease to exist.
It goes without saying that this is what lies at the very crux of the issues related to mixing business and education. The driving force of decision-making too often can not be the welfare of people. It must be the product, the profit, or the company as a whole, even if it acts in opposition to the former.
To say the least, it was devastating to realize this. It was devastating to realize that I’d devoted myself to something so dehumanizing and cold. As you can imagine, the whole experience caused me to put up more walls, to go inward, and to roll with the punches until I left San Francisco in June of 2017.
I compare that jaded man who left San Francisco just about a year ago to the man who recorded that video upon arriving in San Francisco. The differences are striking, and it accounts for why I feel that 25-year old, incredibly passionate educator feels so far away from me now.
I’m not alone here. I know it. I know a lot of teachers who feel this way after this much teaching. We are chewed up and spit out by the education system. We are used for our ideas and skills, only to be told by a group of people–most of whom have never set foot in a classroom–that what we have to offer isn’t good enough or doesn’t align with the brand.
So what do we do? We put up our walls, we retreat, and we roll with the punches.
I got to the end of this year, and felt a similarly profound sadness, despite my new setting–a setting I find to be very supportive overall of my autonomy and well-being. Alas, I realized this sadness at one point when I was out at recess duty. I caught a student making fun of me–barking orders at his classmates, pretending to be “Mr. France.” My teammates and I laughed about it, but an uncomfortable feeling sat with me. Sure, kids make fun of their teachers, and I wouldn’t change the way I set boundaries with my kids. But still, it was hard to see such a caricatured manifestation of the walls I’d built over the past few years because I knew there was a grain of truth in the student’s characterization.
I knew I hadn’t shared enough of myself with my students: they didn’t know enough about my interests and unique qualities, and I think as a result, they weren’t able to humanize me to the degree one would hope. After all, it’s easy to make fun of someone you can’t humanize.
Teachers become the way they become not because they want to. We become what we become partially because we have to. It’s an act of self-preservation: it’s a defense mechanism against the scarce culture of never enough that plagues the education space.
How do we change it? We change it by approaching our practice and our classrooms with a sense of worthiness. We do it by setting boundaries with parents, helping them understand where your boundaries lie and why they lie there. But most of all, we change it by cutting ourselves a break and taking care of ourselves.
This summer, I’m not doing a damn thing other than taking care of myself. I decided this a few months ago, and as summer begins, it’s scaring the proverbial crap out of me. But I know this: if I take some time to take care of me, my walls will start to come down and I’ll go back to my classroom in the fall with a greater sense of contentment and worthiness than I probably ever have before.
We are our best when all the best parts of us can work together and sing in harmony. Putting up walls inhibits our identities from growing, and it stops us from sharing. And we need to be able to share in order to be good teachers.
I hope you’ll join me! Share your stories of #selfcaresummer by at-mentioning me @paul_emerich on Twitter and Instagram.
Or don’t, and just take care of yourself. Be well.