A friend and I have been talking about the Great Resignation, a phenomenon I consider myself to be part of. I’m still working in education, but I’m officially retired (drawing a pension) and have left the district I’d been with for more than a decade. I left for the reasons we’re presuming a lot of people have left and are leaving (at accelerated rates) their jobs: I was unwilling to return to my pre-pandemic life/job and found a way not to.
Now I work a 1/3 teaching job in a different organization, and I love many things about it. But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Things often feel weirdly off, and I can’t attribute all of them to my 12-year absence from classroom teaching.
A blog post this week from Sarah Kain Gutowski, a poet and college-level teacher, gave words to something I’ve been struggling to describe for weeks now. She is experiencing a large number of students who aren’t meeting usual expectations. Some cannot because of continuing pandemic-related challenges. Others seemingly won’t, or also can’t, or…who knows? They just aren’t doing the kinds of things we’ve always expected students will do. Sarah notes that simply failing large numbers of students isn’t a viable option, and that in the face of this:
There is only so much energy I can spend pushing against something nameless and shapeless but larger and stronger than I am. At some point, I just have to go where it guides me.
And I felt that zing of recognition and ohyes that strikes when someone puts words to exactly what I’ve been living.
I think, perhaps, it is not just adult workers who are resigning from work situations that are not working for them. I think many of us are, even the youngest among us, and we’re doing it in a variety of ways and not just with respect to work. I feel as if I’m in the midst of something nameless (because I don’t think “great resignation” really captures what I’m sensing) and shapeless that is something so far beyond just my little existence. I realized within the first weeks of school that I would have to go where it guides me in my classroom, and now I’m getting curious about how this Thing all around us might guide us in other ways.
For many decades of my life, I viewed quitting as nothing but negative. I remember a conversation with my dad in my early teen years, in which he expressed concern that I never seemed to stick with anything. While I’d had good reasons for quitting Bluebirds, the clarinet, track, and ice skating, I still felt shame about my lack of…something. Some kind of strength or some quality of character that was going to be essential for doing Great Things and living a Good Life.
Not many years after that conversation, my dad’s brother once infuriated me by lecturing a boyfriend on the same topic. “It’s so important not to be a quitter,” he proclaimed to the young man I loved who had recently dropped out of college. Nearly 40 years later, I can still feel my outrage, but I know now that my feelings were as much about my own fear and disappointment about my beau’s choices as they were about my uncle’s rudeness.
I was socialized to put up with things, and to see sticking it out as a virtue, and to never, ever quit something unless I had an alternative something else already in place. I saw myself again in Derek Thompson’s words I linked to in the first sentence of this post:
The truth is people in the 1960s and ’70s quit their jobs more often than they have in the past 20 years, and the economy was better off for it. Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one.
Oh, man. Do I know clinging to a crappy job (marriage, home, city) out of fear. What I know now is that fear is a terrible reason to stick with anything. Sometimes we have to. Sometimes we have to stick with something until we can find a safe way to escape it. Fear is a necessary emotion that often helps to keep us safe, and I don’t want to discount that or to ignore that, sometimes, quitting is really not an option.
But I am so here for this resignation thing going on, whatever it is. I’m still in process on my journey to a healthier, more manageable life, but I’m definitely getting there, and quitting my old job was a huge, first, and necessary step. I’m grateful, too, for my students’ various ways of quitting the ways in which we’ve always done school. They are pushing me to be a more humane and more effective teacher than I’ve ever been–and it’s leading me to new practices that are better for me, too. Sometimes I can get mired down in sadness and regret over things we have lost and are losing (truly bipartisan legislation, for just one), but this week I am finding value in thinking about things we should quit. I’m glad to be re-thinking the whole notion of quitting, and to rewrite some of the scripts that have shaped me, my life choices, and my feelings about myself for so long.
This weekend I got caught up on reading one of my favorite blogs, and truly enjoyed Bethany Reid’s recent essay about her marriage, written in an A to Z format. I love this format (similar in many ways to collage, a visual form I’ve always loved) and it reminds me of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, one of those books I wish I’d written. And now I’m thinking about writing an A to Z of things I’ve quit, just to see where it might take me…
Would love to know about things you’ve quit or want to quit, too, or your thoughts about the Great Resignation.
On Monday, a day off, I felt like garbage. I spent far too much of the day prepping for the week’s lessons, and by early afternoon I had a pain running down the right side of my neck and was cranky as a hangry toddler who’d missed naptime. I figured I’d been sitting incorrectly for too many hours, so I took some ibuprofen, even though I’m not supposed to because of my acid reflux, and then I piddled away what was left of my day, feeling even worse about how I was using my time.
School went all right on Tuesday, but I couldn’t stay awake in the afternoon to grade student work, my neck was worse, and I was still grumpy. I hated how another day felt wasted, but I couldn’t seem to get myself to do anything.
*Cue the migraine*
Thinking that there might be some connection between my neck pain and my ear that had plugged up several weeks earlier, I finally made an appointment to see the doctor on Wednesday to get my ear flushed out. I figured I could talk to her about the neck pain, and if nothing else, at least I’d be better able to hear my students again.
Sure enough, both ears were plugged. And that right one was super-infected, which might have been creating the neck pain.
I was sent home with an antibiotic (thank you, modern medicine) and instructions to rest, and then I did something pre-pandemic Rita never would have done: I called in sick for the next day.
I was pretty sure I could go to school and teach my two classes and go home. I wasn’t contagious, and I could power through on my migraine meds. It’s more work to set things up for a sub than it is to just show up and teach. Also: substitute shortages are a very real thing in Oregon, and I didn’t want to burden my colleagues, who would be asked to cover my classes.
But post-pandemic Rita is working to resist that kind of thinking and action. She finally realized that, hey, all that listless doing nothing wasn’t a sign of some character defect but was one of illness, and she needed to take care of herself. (Too bad she didn’t clue in and take care of her plugged ear sooner.)
So I stayed home, and I didn’t beat myself up for yet another day of doing a whole lot more of nothing much.
Not sure who needs to hear this (besides me, who needs to hear it regularly even though I’ve been through this cycle more times than I can count): When we can’t get ourselves to do things we want or need to do, it means that something is wrong. Not that something is wrong with us, but that something is wrong for us.
We’re not lazy. We might be conflicted, depressed, overwhelmed, anxious, bored, or sick, but we’re not lazy. Or undisciplined or too dreamy or any other kind of too much or not enough. (Lazy is word we often use when we’re too lazy to figure out a more accurate one, imo.)
Better to figure out what the real issue is and deal with it than to suffer through frustrating days wearing a psychological hair shirt. Sometimes real grit is doing a thing that feels soft, especially if you’ve been socialized to think that it’s your job to solve all the problems you see. There’s a line between rolling up your sleeves/pitching in/doing your part and sacrificing yourself in a noble but misguided (because futile) effort to put band-aids on hemorrhaging wounds. Seems a lot of us are looking for it these days. If you’re one of them, hoping my little story might help in your search.
And that’s all I can manage for a post this week. (See above.)
PS: A post by a blogging friend has me wondering if I need to state this clearly, so I will: I always welcome comments and discussion, even if I don’t ask a direct question to solicit them. To me, discussion in the comments is as much a part of blogging as anything I post, even though it can sometimes take me a bit to respond. (See above, again.) Feel free to chime in with your experience, your questions, your pushback on my ideas. I’m here for all of it.
When I began my part-time teaching job, I was determined to work only on the days I teach. This would give me all of every-other-weekday off. I’d teach in the mornings and do all my prep and grading work in the afternoons.
Those off days? Those would be a luxury of time filled with things bolstering enough to get me through the work days: writing, creative projects, cooking, reading, leisurely visits with friends. Maybe even some naps.
It hasn’t gone like that, so much so that Tuesday was the first day this school year that I could actually have an entire weekday free from work.
I was going to run to a local shopping center to pick up some things. I was going to go to the produce stand to buy ingredients for soup and some pumpkins for the front porch, and then to the grocery store to get some other things we were out of. I was going to make soup, and put out the pumpkins, and process a box or two of things in the garage that is still full of stuff from Cane’s house. I was going to spend some time with my son.
I put my back out in the morning, sliding a storage container out from under the bed, but I downed some ibuprofen and was out of the house by 10:30. I had finished the shopping center stops by 11:45, when I took a call from a friend. I sat in my car for over an hour, mostly listening and being witness to a challenging situation she’s dealing with. I thought of my list and let it go for a bit. This is what you wanted more of, I thought to myself. Time to be present for the people in your life. That’s more important than pumpkins or cleaning the garage out. And it was, and I was glad to use some of my day for that. I still had plenty of time left.
After our call ended, I turned my key in the ignition, ready to head to the produce market, and…nothing. The engine didn’t even click. The dashboard lights blinked at me, then went blank, except for one with a lock icon.
I called Cane, who helped me troubleshoot, and we thought the problem might be that the antitheft system had been activated. From our Googling, it seemed that perhaps I needed to let the car sit for a bit, so I decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.
I let a little more of my plan go, but not as easily. It was not the lunch I had wanted, but it was not a bad lunch, either. Still, I had so wanted a day mostly at home, puttering and making comfort food and just being in the place I love. I was now going to have much less of that than I’d hoped for.
I went back to the car and tried the things the internets had suggested I try, and…still nothing. I called the dealership and talked to someone in the repair center, who suggested it might be more likely that I had a dead battery. “Try giving it a jump, and then call us back if that doesn’t work.”
And there went what was left of my day. It was already after 2:00 by then, and it didn’t make sense to call for roadside assistance when Cane would be off work at 3:30. After having a mini-melt down (my back still hurt, and I wasn’t going to have time to make the soup, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if the car didn’t start, and I hate it when I feel at the mercy of things I can’t control), I let the rest of my plans go. I used a bit of my time in the car thinking about plans and how they do and don’t serve us. Then I took a nap.
The car started right away when we gave it a jump. (We still don’t know what caused it to go dead, but it’s been just fine ever since.) Rather than trying to make the soup work or figure out something else to make for dinner, I gave myself permission to go home and sit in a comfortable chair with a heating pad and a book and have my son pick up takeout pizza.
I had a wonderful evening.
Wednesday I had every intention of working all day so that Thursday could be that work-free day I’ve been dreaming of, but Wednesday afternoon I was so exhausted from low-grade headache and back pain and a morning of teaching that I took a nap instead. This, too, is what you said you wanted, I reminded myself. Enough ease in your schedule to give your body more of what it needs. I slept well, and when I woke I made the soup I’d originally planned for Tuesday. I never did do any prep work that afternoon, but it was OK. I adjusted my plans for Thursday.
Thursday afternoon I had a long and unexpected visit with a different friend, and my plans flew out the window again. It was the first time we’d talked since we both returned to in-person teaching, and much of our conversation was about how our lives are both the same as and different from what they were before March 13, 2020, when our world stopped. We did some wondering about our labor and supply chain issues and all the folks who, seemingly, have decided that they are not going to return to life as they knew it before that day when we went home for what we were told would be just a week or two. How do they do it? we wondered. Then,
“I guess I’m one of those people,” I said. “I didn’t go back.”
I can see, too, that my students haven’t really gone back, either. Like me, they are where they were–but important things are not the same, and we’re not the same, either. They are not driven by the same things as those I knew before, and they expect different things from us. “Good morning, Ms. Ramstad,” one began an email to me this week. “I want to let you know that I won’t be in class on Friday because I am taking a mental health day.”
Good for you, I thought, and marveled a bit at how things have changed in the twelve years since I last had my own classroom. On Friday, my students gave presentations about aspects of their lives that have likely contributed to their biases, and they talked freely about all kinds of things that would once have been the stuff of secrets or privacy or shame: religious belief, gender identity, divorce, addiction, discrimination, incarceration, mental health.
As each shared pieces of themselves with the rest of us, part of groundwork we are laying to be able to talk productively about important and controversial topics, I felt myself softening and opening and feeling connection with fellow humans. By the end of my classes, I felt fuller, not depleted. I needed no recovery from the day’s work; instead, the day’s work gave me some recovery from the on-going dire news of the world.
Each day, they teach me more about how to be a teacher for them and how to live in the world that is emerging from and for us. In the presence of these complex, resilient, and open people who sit in front of me every other day, I have seen more and more clearly how arbitrary and unnecessary so many things in schools have been–like rigid plans and inflexible due dates. The last time I was a teacher, I spent so much energy managing due dates and absences and the rules around them. If your absence was excused you got an extension on a due date, and if it wasn’t you didn’t, and if the assignment was late you lost points on it, and if it was on time you didn’t. Tracking all of that was time-consuming and exhausting, and our practices rested an all kinds of assumptions about what students would do and should do.
I didn’t question it much, though; it was just how it was. I never liked it, but I felt I had to go along. It was what everyone did. We assumed that if we didn’t do such things, no one would ever turn anything in on time. It was what students expected, too. If we didn’t take off points for late work, students who turned their work in on time would complain that it wasn’t fair. They’d stayed up all night to get it done and they should be rewarded for that. (And others punished for not doing it.) If we didn’t hold students accountable for meeting deadlines, we said, they’d never learn the importance of doing it.
What a crock! What a waste. What needless labor and pain for all of us that didn’t need to be. We imposed it upon ourselves. We did it because that’s how it had always been done, and because it’s what had been done to us. It felt natural and right (even when it felt wrong), but it was all something we’d manufactured. It didn’t occur to them or us that, perhaps, the true unfairness was in expecting students to sacrifice their health or other important things for a grade.
Now, in the wake of Covid, doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past. We are reminded frequently of all that our students have been through and of what they are still enduring, and many things seem up for reconsideration.
Now, I strive to ground all of my practices in authentic purpose and true care. When I could see that some students were submitting assignments in the middle of the night, I told them that I never want to see that they’ve turned an assignment in after 11:00 pm. I’d rather they sleep and turn it in late. It doesn’t mean I don’t have due dates. I do. Every time, many students meet them, and some don’t. When they don’t, though, our conversations are not about the points they’ll lose. They are instead about what barriers are keeping them from getting their work done and what strategies we might use to remove them. No one seems to care that someone who turned the assignment in late gets the same full credit as someone who turned it in on time. Maybe it’s because we’ve talked about how grades should reflect what we know and can do with regard to our learning standards (rather than our behaviors), or maybe it’s because they like knowing that, should they need it, they will be given some grace when they can’t meet a deadline. (Because things happen to all of us, eventually.)
To be honest, I don’t know why they’re responding differently. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.
It is so freeing to teach this way, to be this way. It feels so much more humane. There are some natural consequences when deadlines are missed (say, when progress report grades are due), but I am driven much less by plans and deadlines that I’ve created and much more by what all of us need. The grace I extend comes back to me; when I explained to my students that some assignments wouldn’t be reflected in the progress report grades because I hadn’t had time to grade them yet, no one grumbled. It’s just how we are now, it seems. We trust that the soup will get made eventually, and some nights we eat take-out pizza because that’s all we can manage if we want to be OK. We’ll all live.
As I rest from this week and begin turning toward the next one, I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to. This week, the more I let go of ideas about some days being for work and others for the things I want to do, the more work became a fulfilling thing I wanted to do, and the more peace I felt about whatever I could and couldn’t accomplish in any given day, either in my school life or my home life.
All of this pondering about plans sent me back to the Burns poem alluded to in the title of this post, and re-reading it I focused on things I never have before, such as its line about Man’s dominion breaking social union. I realized how much our pandemic has been like his farmer’s plow, and how much I’m coming to think, like the farmer, that in spite of the sudden and unwanted destruction we’ve lived through (those of us who are still alive), it might be better to be the mouse than him, who looks back at prospects drear and forward to fears. Even though I know it could be upturned at any moment, I’m much preferring the honest nest I’m building now than the one that gave me false security before.