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What's the Matter With Bathroom Breaks?

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This article caught my eye in The Atlantic. Looks like it's been around for awhile, but, then, so has the problem:

It's common knowledge that teachers today are stressed, that they feel underappreciated and disrespected, and disillusioned. It's no wonder they're ditching the classroom at such high rates—to the point where states from Indiana to Arizona to Kansas are dealing with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, the number of American students who go into teaching is steadily dropping.

Yes, yes. We know this already. Nothing to see here. But then the article goes on to describe where these insights came from: a survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers in conjunction with the Badass Teachers Association. The survey sought to figure out how teachers feel about the quality of their everyday life at work. "Harrowing" is the word this Atlantic author used to describe the results. I thought I'd better dig in and see what it said since I missed this survey when it was first released last May.

For starters, those results the author described as "harrowing" will surprise exactly zero teachers. For example, 89% of the respondents reported that they strongly agreed with the statement that they had been enthusiastic about their profession when their careers started. At the time of the survey, only 15% did. (At that point, 47% somewhat or strongly disagreed.) It only gets worse from there: 54% of the respondents reported that they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that they felt respected by their local school board; 77% reported that they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that they felt respected by the media; and 79% said the same about the level of respect they receive from elected officials.

You don't manufacture that much agreement in today's polarized climate. These teachers feel the pain of trying to get by in a profession that no one seems to respect and know exactly who's causing it: politicians, policymakers, and people who write hit pieces about the failure of public education. If that last bit seems harsh, think about it: when was the last time you opened your internet browser and read a story about what our public schools are doing well? Charters don't count for the purposes of this exercise.

But, wait—there's more. The more depressing aspects of the survey asked teachers about their stress levels and, in an interesting twist, about whether or not they've been bullied in the past year. I can only assume that the balance of teachers who said they have not been bullied have never attended a town hall meeting with Chris Christie.

This is seriously not stuff to joke about though: a full 30% of those surveyed reprted being bullied at work, and 58% identified a supervisor or administrator as the culprit. That's staggering to me. Moreoever, 73% of the teachers in the survey said they "often" find their work stressful, and described leaving work feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. The two biggest sources of stress were listed as negative portrayals of teachers and school employees in the media and adoption of new initiatives without proper training. That's not the same thing, I should add, as attributing stress to new ideas and new initiatives—while this survey didn't ask that question, the "without proper training" qualifier looms large. 

The teachers also fingered mandated curriculum, standardized testing, and large class sizes as everyday sources of stress. Coupled with the point about incomplete training, this brings a clear picture into focus: if we really wanted to make the lives of teachers better (and, frankly, it seems to be an open question whether or not we do), there a few simple steps we could take. We could, for example, continue to work to improve the quality of the school curriculum without allowing state departments of education or local boards of education to turn standards into prescriptive curricula. Make no mistake about it: the Common Core standards have led to even more prescriptive teaching in some places, but this isn't entirely the standards' fault. It's the fault of meddling officials who can't resist the temptation to break every act of teaching into smaller component parts and turn standards into formulaic lists of directions intended to be implemented in lock-step by hapless teachers.

We need to come up with a different way to frame the policy choices in front of us. If teachers' opinions really matter, we need to start paying attention to them: what the 30,000 teachers who participated in this survey are describing is not an educational environment. They're describing a demeaning workplace environment where bullying is commonplace (and not just bullying of students), where disrespect is the norm, and where mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion are endemic. People don't do their best work when they're exhausted, or when they're being bullied. People with big microphones would do well to remember that the  next time they rail against "bad teachers."

One simple choice would be to build some more time into the daily schedules of teachers, if for no other reason than as a show of respect and out of basic human decency. This might mean letting them have some down time to socialize with other teachers, to think about what they want to teach and what they just taught, to evaluate how students are actually doing in their classes, to develop curricular materials themselves, and, not least of all, to once in awhile put themselves first. That could mean taking a few minutes with the door closed to enjoy lunch alone or spend an hour reading instead of grading or chat in a legitimate teachers' lounge—I still don't care what the King of America says about what goes on in there. Maybe if teaching wasn't so damned stressful, teachers wouldn't have to sit around the teachers' lounge all the time saying "woe is us." This could be done pretty easily by any school board in America. What's stopping them?

In other words, instead of treating teachers like hourly employees—who also, by the way, deserve a much fairer shake than they're getting—we might try another approach. Let's treat them more like professionals. At the very least, can we give them some time to use the restroom? The one finding that horrified our Atlantic correspondent most was how high using the restroom ranked as an everyday source of stress for so many teachers. Seriously. Maybe we'll just start there: can we at least agree that adult professional teachers should be able to use the restroom whenever they want to? The fact that we even have to talk about it speaks volumes about what it's like to be a teacher these days.

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