I’ve written here about being a school librarian, but I’ve never said much about the other role I played for the last third of my career as an educator: instructional coach. In short, my job was to support teachers in improving their instructional practice. My speciality was literacy, and I was often leading training sessions to teach teachers how to implement an instructional framework my district had committed to that I came to believe wholeheartedly in.
My faith was based in both research studies showing the framework’s effectiveness and in seeing how it transformed teaching and learning for those teachers I worked with who implemented it fully. For a very few teachers, I watched teaching become more joyful, less arduous, and more effective.
Why only a very few? you might be wondering. Well, because very few were willing/able to implement it fully. Many were frustrated and burned out by the many, many systemic inadequacies they worked within. Many had tried many, many things already that had promised to make things better, only to be disappointed when they did not, in fact, make things better. What I was asking them to do was not easy, and most of us won’t voluntarily do hard things if we don’t have faith or hope that doing them will make things better.
“I already do that,” they’d say to me. (No, they didn’t really. They did parts, or they did things that were “that” superficially, but not in the ways that mattered most. But they weren’t really doing it.)
“It won’t work because ______ (fill in with any number of things that are beyond a teacher’s control to fix or change),” they’d say. They believed that if someone else could just fix those things (poor attendance, kids’ home lives, lack of resources, etc.), the ways in which they were teaching would be just fine and they wouldn’t need to change what they were doing.
I was often frustrated and bewildered by their responses. There I was, offering a way that was in their control to make their teaching lives better–and improve their students’ learning. True, it would require them to teach in some radically different ways. It would require the shifting of some long-held paradigms. It would mean bucking tradition and giving up some things that they valued. But the current ways weren’t really working! (Everyone admitted that.) And they were unsustainable!
“What do you really have to lose if it doesn’t go well?” I’d ask. “Just try,” I’d implore.
Most did not. I could not understand the resistance I faced when I was offering tools of empowerment. So many people I talked with were so frustrated because they felt powerless. “The great thing is that you have the power to make things better,” I’d say. “And the hard thing is that you have the power to make things better.” It’s hard because if we have the power to make a change, we are the ones who have to make it happen. We are the ones who have to change. We can’t wait for someone else to do things to improve the situation.
This fall, as a student in a 7-week pain management course, and in subsequent experiences that have grown out of that one, I’ve come to a greater understanding of that resistance.
I hated my pain management course. I dreaded Thursday mornings, when I’d have to sit in a 2-hour Zoom meeting and listen to excessively chirpy and annoyingly positive facilitators tell me that I had the power to reduce my pain and make my life better.
I was pretty sure that those facilitators did not know chronic pain the way my fellow participants and I know chronic pain. They were not living it as we were. (I actually don’t know if that’s true. They might have been.)
They shared a poem that basically said it was our responsibility to change the course of our journey with pain, and the implication that it was my choices creating my pain (and therefore my fault) pissed me off so much I said in a session that I thought the poem was ableist and insulting and wondered if perhaps they could find something that gave a similar message about empowerment without the victim-blaming. (Yep, I was that person.)
I, and, it became clear, all of my fellow course participants, had already done and tried so many of the things they were “teaching” us to do. And yet, there we all were, still in pain that was negatively impacting our lives. That pissed me off, too.
In one session, I got extra pissed off because life circumstances for most people make the remedies they were suggesting impossible to implement. Many of the things suggested would not have been possible for me to do in my life when I was working full-time and single-parenting my kids. Since September, I have told others that my new job is getting a handle on my health and pursuing remedies to the various maladies that have plagued me for 3 decades or more, and I haven’t been joking. It has felt like a full-time job, doing All The Things (which I won’t list here).
And, man, if I don’t now get where all those teachers who didn’t want my Kool-Aid were coming from. I was just as burned out from years of struggle with my health and the healthcare system as many of them were from years of struggle with their teaching practice in a dysfunctional educational system. Like the teachers I worked with, my frustrations and anger and hopelessness were real and justified. Things have been all fucked up and it just isn’t right.
But that doesn’t mean my pain class facilitators were wrong.
Seeing the parallels pretty quickly, I forced myself to do the kinds of things I wished more of my colleagues had been able to do with me. I made myself stick with the class. (I did skip one session, though.) I made myself keep trying new things. I made myself keep making and attending appointments and doing the things at home I’ve been advised to do. I read books and clicked links and watched videos. I made myself work to keep an open mind. I gave myself permission to be imperfect in all of this and take breaks when I just couldn’t with it all. And this week, I finally (I think, I hope) got to a doctor who was able to weave the many threads of my story with pain into a cohesive narrative. For the first time, ever.
And damn if those perky facilitators weren’t (for the most part) right. (Yay! And Fuuuuck!)
As is often the case with true stories, there is no black-and-white conflict, no easy cause-and-effect, no simple or neat resolution. There is much more “yes, and” than “either/or.” Yes, there are things I can do to improve my life with pain AND the pain has not been something in my control because it originates from my parasympathetic nervous system, which cannot be consciously controlled. Yes, it is, in a sense, “all in my head”–in that the pain originates in my brain–AND the pain is real, and felt in other parts of my body. Yes, the parts of my body that (now) hurt are structurally sound and disease-free, AND decades of living with a hyper-aroused nervous system have caused physical damage to some of those parts. (Also: In the past, some body systems were damaged, and that damage created pain, and that contributed to forming neural pathways that create pain now, even though I no longer have those organs that created the initial problem. It’s been tangly.) Yes, I lived and worked in broken systems for years that helped create these problems and that I was powerless to change, AND simply leaving those systems hasn’t made everything all better. (And won’t.) Yes, there’s finally a pathway to something better, AND going down it requires a lot of resources that aren’t available to a lot of people–which means that I probably couldn’t have done all that much to improve my situation in the years when I didn’t have them. And that we shouldn’t blame or shame those who don’t have what they need to be able to shift out of surviving a situation to improving it.
As was true for the teachers I worked with, there is no outside fix that will make everything all better and what I want it to be. There is no quick and easy solution, and certainly no perfect one. I cannot pick and choose the parts of a coping framework I can easily adopt and ignore other whole parts of it. If I do, I will get only partial benefits, if any. (Which is why so many of the things chronic pain sufferers been told to do over the years haven’t really worked for many of us.) Improving things will require me to adopt new paradigms and do things differently and it will take some time for me to see results. To stay on this path, I will need to abandon others, and there is some loss in that.
But I will tell you this: for the first time in years, I have hope that things can be significantly better. If you’ve ever lost hope and then regained it, you know what a gift it is.