April 2016 Advocate: Work or live?


Work or live?  Teachers should not have to choose

by Autumn Newman, Program Services Coordinator, CSM

At 34-years-old, I am already a retired teacher. After three years of part-time teaching at two, sometimes three, schools, I was given the “dream job,” a full-time, tenure-track position. This is the job most part-time teachers strive for because teaching part-time offers no job security, no benefits, and no livable income. It also means working non-stop 12 months out of the year. Pay is so low that you take any and all work you can get. You are also trying to attend as many non-teaching meetings, presentations, and flex days as possible because you need to beef up your resume for that full-time “dream job.”

From tenure to retirement in one semester

So when I was offered that job, I felt I had won the jackpot! One job, one school, one student body! Benefits, an equitable income, recognition from colleagues as a colleague…! I could never have guessed then that one semester after I earned tenure, I would retire.

The stress and microscopic inspection of the tenure process made me long for the anonymity of part-time teaching, and my workload was just as heavy as it had been even though I wasn’t yet doing any committee or non-course-related work. I was too busy in the first two years to worry about that workload issue. In retrospect, though, I was still working every day but 10 months out of the year. I could finally afford to take the fabled “summer off,” which in reality is one month in bed because you are so exhausted from working every day for the past 10 months, and one month preparing for, or feeling bad about not preparing for, what you know will be another non-stop ten months of work. In between those three things, you try to reconnect with everyone and everything that has been on hold for the past 10 months, those luxury items like marriage, friends and reading.
8-12 hours/day, 7 days/week, 10 months/year

During my fifth semester of full-time work, I suddenly developed chronic daily headaches and chronic basilar migraines. For those unfamiliar with this disease or who are under the very common misconception that migraines are simply severe headaches, you should know that: “severe migraine attacks are classified by the World Health Organization as among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and active psychosis.” Just when the tenure process was becoming less stressful, I was literally knocked off my feet by this illness on a daily basis. I pursued all avenues of treatment available, counting my blessings that I had health coverage. I made no attempt to work less but instead sought countless treatments to enable me to continue working 8-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 10 months a year.

My life was split in two: working while sick or not being able to work and worrying about the work that was piling up while I lay incapacitated in bed. I spent no time with my family, my husband, or my friends. I had nothing but my illness and my work.

Living with chronic illness, amazingly, has its benefits.  It puts things into perspective. I began to realize that my life had disappeared, not with the onset of my illness, but with the onset of my teaching career. Of course, the disease made it much more drastic, but when I was honest with myself, I had not had a life since I had been a student. Once I began teaching, I had done nothing but work. I had put everyone on hold, including myself, to teach, to get the dream job. Unconsciously assuming it would be better once I got that dream job.

Now, I had the dream job but I still worked all the time, and there was no end in sight. Even more terrifying, my tenure review was coming to an end and, if granted, my blessed protection from committee and campus-wide work would end. I would have even less time and even more work.

I looked around me and felt the water rising above my shoulders and seeping into my mouth. We were all drowning yet no one seemed to notice. Everyone I knew, the best, the smartest teachers were doing the same thing: working all the time. They had trouble with their families and spouses because of it. They were angry or tired or broken because of it. I wasn’t going to discover some new, better way (and believe me, I tried). I was going to be just like them, worked to death for the best years of my life.

There was always MORE to do

I had known that teaching would not be a regular 8-5 job with weekends off, but I did not know that it would literally consume my every waking hour. I loved my students, and I loved teaching them. I loved discovering new ways to improve, but that was the problem. There was always something to improve. Even though I was working all the time, I still wasn’t conferencing enough, grading papers fast enough…There was always MORE to do, and I had not even scraped the surface of non-teaching duties. I wanted to do so much but the bare minimum was already killing me.

The details of the rest of my story are unimportant here. It’s sufficient to say that I retired and took a regular 40 hour, 8-5 job. After one month of a regular, albeit full-time schedule, I am already seeing a small improvement in my migraines.

The reason I am writing this is not to blame teaching for giving me migraines. There is a strong genetic component to migraine, and it is extremely possible I would have developed them anyway. The reason I am writing this is to say that the workload of teachers is ridiculous and unsustainable. (My illness simply prompted me to this realization sooner than I otherwise would have, and for that I am very thankful). Working this much is unhealthy mentally and physically. I would never encourage my students, whom I love like children, to take a job that asked so much of them. Yet, I did it myself for eight years.

We must have a healthy balance of hard work and time to live if we are to make a positive impact on our students day after day, year after year. If we burn out, we are useless, or worse: harmful! Yet, how can anyone working this hard NOT burn out eventually?