An Advent Lament for Burnt-Out Teachers (and Our Needy Students)

He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth and turns it over. – […]

Ben Self / 12.18.18

He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over.

– Andrew Hudgins, “Christ as a Gardener”

Being a teacher is easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Midway through my fourth year now at a high-poverty public middle school, I can say with gratitude that it has certainly gotten better—and yet it remains punishingly stressful and discouraging work, especially this time of year.

They say you’re not supposed to wallow, though I often do. They say complaining only makes things worse: “If you don’t like something, change it,” saith Maya Angelou. “When you complain, you make yourself a victim,” saith Eckhart Tolle. “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry and complaining,” saith Stephen Hawking.

Americans have long preached a glittering gospel of positive thinking, and often from the pulpit, though it doesn’t seem to have ever quelled our discontent. If teaching has taught me anything, it is a deep skepticism of inspirational quotations, which are plastered on the walls of every classroom, hallway, cafeteria, and bathroom in America’s schools, to little effect.

As plenty before me have pointed out, upbeatness is one of those little-l laws that have long pervaded American culture. Terry Eagleton, that charmingly grumpy British intellectual of both Catholic and Communist leanings, summarized our nation’s “hubristic cult of can-do-ery” and his concept of faith in his 2009 book Reason, Faith, and Revolution:

[Faith is] being gripped by a commitment from which one finds oneself unable to walk away. It is not primarily a question of the will, at least as the modern era imagines that much fetishized faculty. Such a cult of the will characterizes the United States. The sky’s the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you try, you can be anything you want: such are the delusions of the American dream. For some in the USA, the C-word is ‘can’t.’ Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness. This Faustian belief in Man’s infinite capabilities is by no means to be confused with the virtue of hope.

Real hope, Christian hope, is not optimism about human nature or human capabilities. I get that part. In fact, you might say that it is a species of despair that moves us to true faith. As W. H. Auden put it: “Nothing can save us that is possible: / We who must die demand a miracle.”

But I still struggle with the relationship between faith and upbeatness. Part of me still feels that if we really have faith, we ought to be upbeat, or at least that some posture of joyful gratitude should come naturally to those who trust in God. Of course I know better. But that is certainly the message I’ve ingested through most of my encounters with American Christianity: “Be a cheerful giver!” “Rejoice always!” “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face!” etc.

And in theory I suppose positive thinking makes some sense in the context of Christian faith. Why be bitter and resentful when we have so much to be grateful for? Henri Nouwen wrote compellingly of the benefits of gratitude in The Return of the Prodigal Son:

Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. …

Gratitude, however, goes beyond the “mine” and “thine” and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. …

Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. … I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness.

No matter how hopelessly inadequate I feel to the task, I’d say Nouwen is probably right—I’m sure practicing gratitude is a very useful and healthy spiritual exercise, a most practical sort of prayer. My fiancée keeps a gratitude journal and swears by it. And perhaps Nouwen is also right to suggest that the most pressing of my problems are within me, with my own lack of discipline.

But of course, I desperately want to be more grateful and upbeat, to focus more on the positives than the negatives in my classroom and in my life. And yet sometimes—perhaps most of the time, especially during these long stretches without a break—I am, against my own best interest and my students’, heavy-laden with darkness and despair, gloomy and grumpy, ground down and dictatorial. Some mornings I stand there before my class a simmering skin-sack of irritability, bitterness, and shame.

Thus, although this entire post may just be a form of self-justification, and although I’m sure there are plenty of scientific studies to suggest that it’s bad for my health, I claim the right to wallow. I claim the right of burnt-out teachers everywhere to ignore the great American prophets of positive thinking and just rant and rave from time to time. It is, after all, one of our favorite pastimes. Sure, it may not actually make us feel better in the long run and it may not be very good for school culture—but sometimes it just feels right and just.

In fact, to push back a little further on this notion of making a “discipline of gratitude,” I wonder if there isn’t also room for an opposite sort of discipline—not so much a discipline of resentment but of lament, a regular accounting and acknowledgment that things are very much not as they should be, whether in our own lives, in our schools, in our communities, or in our country.

“Discipline” is probably the wrong word, but there ought to be the freedom for that sort of thing. And of course not just for teachers, who are hardly the only chronically stressed category of folks in America. I’m sure plenty of overwhelmed nurses, farmers, social workers, waiters, grocery-baggers, pastors, bus drivers, journalists, and climate scientists are struggling to make it to the Christmas break, or worse, don’t get a break. I’m sure they too have to self-medicate. I’m sure they too would benefit from seeing a very understanding therapist. Who wouldn’t?

And yes, complaining may cause us to focus more on the negatives than the positives, but pretending that all is well when it clearly isn’t cannot be healthy either. We must be free to name at least some of our frustration, outrage, and despair. To those of us who swim in it every day, such may after all be the most natural response to the realities at the lower-end of the American educational system. I can tell you: the outlook from inside the system is pretty grim, y’all.

Perhaps Advent is also the perfect time for such an accounting. There are other seasons in the church calendar for exploring the life of faith with much joyfulness and exuberant celebration. But it seems to me that Advent is specifically set up to be a time of lament, of doubt, of “embracing the darkness.” Certainly, there’s plenty of lament in the Bible, even wallowing. I’d love to see someone make a list of the whiniest, gloomiest Psalms.

Richard Beck, one of my favorite religious bloggers, recently responded to comments he was getting about some rather gloomy posts he’d written. As he explained, such topics “might not seem to be very seasonal and cheery to some readers. Why dwell on such dark, tragic, and horrific things during the Christmas season? Well, because it’s not the Christmas season. Not yet. It’s Advent now … the season of exile, a time of god-forsakenness … the season of longing and groaning … the perfect time to dwell on such dark, tragic, and horrific things.”

Of course, much of my own wallowing doesn’t reach the level of lamenting things “dark, tragic, and horrific,” but in struggling to teach students from the lower rungs of society I also can’t quite escape the ever-present effects that “dark, tragic, and horrific things” have in their lives.

According to Fleming Rutledge, Advent is the “midnight” of the Church year, “the season of the ‘works of darkness,’ the season in which the church looks straight down into its own heart and finds there—the absence of God.” As Elisabeth Fondell recently added in a little Advent meditation in Image, “Embracing the darkness is a common theme in the winter months … Rutledge calls it ‘taking a fearless inventory of the darkness.’ What does it mean to embrace the darkness, to live in the darkness, to take an inventory of the darkness?”

To me, it means an openness to lament, which is probably a slightly more dignified, slightly less self-centered kind of wallowing. It means being vulnerable about “the things we’d rather not mention, the things we’d prefer to ignore,” both in ourselves and in our wider world.

Anyway, with all that in mind, after much preamble, and as we enter (at least in my school district) the last week before Christmas break, I would like to offer up this lament before God, on behalf of my fellow burnt-out teachers (and our needy students):

Lord, to co-opt the immortal words of your servant Fannie Lou Hamer, we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, of trying to teach kids sicker and more tired than we are.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of our country asking us to fix its deepest problems, to miraculously disrupt the hideous death march of generational poverty.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of those still-too-frequent days when our students terrorize us in our own classrooms, and we come home hoarse and shaking mad with dangerously high blood pressure.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of students drawing penises and swastikas on our clipboards.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of going to work with that dreadful whisper in the back of our minds that this might be the day someone shoots up our school.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of all the grab-ass games in the hall, the open defiance, back-talk, endless excuses, and jaw-dropping denials in the classroom.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of being asked to repeat the damn directions.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of using our own money to fix up and stock our classrooms, support student fundraisers, or pay for all the junk treats we use as classroom bribes.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of the growing inequity and segregation that infects every part of our educational system, of some kids having so much and some so little.  

Lord, we’re sick and tired of all those parents pulling out the stops to make sure their kids get into private schools or the most exclusive public ones and then complaining about our “broken” education system, but also of not being able to really resent them for it since most of us would probably do the same and probably went to those same exclusive schools growing up.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of screen-addicted latchkey kids coming in exhausted after getting three hours of sleep.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of winter “spirit days” when sometimes just putting clothes on and making it into work by 7 a.m. is about the sum of “spirit” we can muster.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of having to get on students for cussing or smacking each other on the neck, not sitting in assigned seats, walking on the wrong side of the hallway, playing on their phones, wearing their hoods up, etc.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of feeling like drill sergeants holding students to standards of behavior and performance we often didn’t meet at their age, or even now.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of all the DRAMA, of having to play the role of counselor and mediator when students come into class an emotional wreck looking for a fight.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of having to be infinitely patient and compassionate with kids who’ve been through hell, of still being expected to raise test scores knowing that some of our students are living in shelters right now, are caught in the middle of custody battles, have been smacked around by parents or had their houses robbed in the past week, or have parents in prison or dead from drug-overdoses.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of having to put out fires when students start trashing each other in school with racial and gay jokes, poverty jokes, smell jokes, fat jokes, broken family jokes—every kind of hurtfulness you can imagine.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of students moaning about two pages worth of class reading, or snickering every time we encourage them to read a book outside of class.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of having just about every sentence we say in class interrupted, of having to herd these Cat-in-the-Hat shit-disturbers into a little learning, and of all the times we run out of patience and stoop to their level.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of so many students just not giving a shit about their education, and of not being able to totally blame them.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of all the “shoulds” of the teaching profession, of having to feel like the job is some kind of mission for which we’re obligated to endure great suffering.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of our own massive shortcomings as teachers, of all the times we still try to use criticism, grades, and other kinds of punishment as a motivation, of all the times we revert into legalistic authoritarian mode even though it doesn’t help a thing.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of having to stand there some days feeling mostly helpless against despair—the despair of knowing a lot of them simply won’t have a decent shot at a decent life, and knowing that it’s our responsibility to still try and help give them one.

Lord, we’re sick and tired of people thinking that teachers have it good because we get lots of vacation days, of having to try to convince them that—while the job has plenty of perks, not least of which is loving our kids to death—it is still a bane of a job, made infinitely and needlessly worse by America’s crap social policy and terrible history.

Lord, in this week before Christmas break, as we crawl towards the summit of Mount Doom, we ask your blessing: that you would take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our lives and seed them with your love.

Lord, as we stumble despairingly through this season of Advent, we await your turning over. We await your kicking through of this darkening earth with your bright spade. And we beg your mercy. Mercy, because we are not better soil.