Back to School
Avoiding A Sisyphean Cycle of Teaching
This piece was first published on the South Carolina Education Association’s (SCEA) Center for Educator Wellness and Learning (CEWL) site:
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
-Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
Few professions are as strongly seasonal and cyclical as education. For those whose first profession is teaching, that cycle may have taken up the majority of your life: K-12, then college, then back into school again as as a teacher. Semester One, Winter Break, Semester Two, Spring Break, Summer Break, Repeat.
For me, the comfort of the year-in, year-out, routine was one of the most appealing things about being a teacher. It was predictable, it was controlled, and it created a built-in routine, both for students and for me. But that routine could also easily become a Sisyphean cycle: teaching the same subjects over and over, one year bleeding into the next. Days where it was easy to feel that I had walked a thousand miles to end up in the same place. And for many teachers, the end of summer brings with it both the excitement of new possibilities and a deep anxiety about the first days.
Particularly for less extroverted personalities, those first days are both vital and draining: meeting new students, colleagues, parents, guardians, and administrators. Learning names. Setting up new classrooms. Planning for courses added at the last minute. Writing syllabi. Attending professional development. Watching videos and slideshows and voice threads on bloodborne pathogens, HR directives, and school safety.
After sixteen years, I don’t have any great advice about starting the year, but I do think it’s important to be wary of the toxic positivity of “self care” while finding ways to truly take care of yourself, advocate for your profession and your students, and be mindful of the things that have shifted in the profession, despite that sometimes-comforting/ sometimes-draining cycle.
Education is under a relatively unprecedented attack. While book bans and “parental rights” groups are not new, and in fact were central features of the battles against educational integration in the 1960s, the amount of political support and money behind groups like Moms for Liberty has intensified. Moms for Liberty, classified as an antigovernmental extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was able to gain the implicit endorsement of every major Republican presidential candidate, as well as some of the country’s most radical education leaders (including SC’s Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver) during their 2023 “Joyful Warriors” conference.
Teacher burnout, in recent years, has eclipsed that of other professions. As Anne Lutz Fernandez wrote in a piece this time last year, “A recent Gallup poll found that K-12 workers are more burned out than those in any other field, while a Rand survey said that teachers and principals are twice as stressed as the average American worker.”. Those grim statistics have likely worsened since then.
I doubt most of this is really news to teachers and their supporters. We know we’re stressed. We know many of us, and many of our friends and colleagues, have left the profession in recent years. Last year was South Carolina’s worst year in recorded history for teacher retention. We feel the attacks from political opportunists and from parents and community members who have been directed by those opportunists to treat teachers as scapegoats for the very problems we have begged our leaders for years to address.
I hope none of this is a cause for additional stress or despair, but I also believe we have to be clearheaded and honest with ourselves to address these attacks on our profession.
Now, more than ever, those of us who care about this profession, about students, and about democracy, need to learn from the past and plan for the present. We need to shake off the the teacher-martyr role and embrace our role as experts in child development, in literacy, and in academic subject matters. We need to educate the public on why good teaching is not merely delivering “curriculum”. We need to embrace good-faith efforts— even when misguided— to address both real and perceived issues with education, and we need to push back against bad-faith efforts to paint teachers as villains, public schools as “failing,” and many students as problems to be avoided through segregation and school choice1.
As Nick Covington writes, in a recent op-ed about Iowa’s anti-trans legislation, which, like many SC district policies, requires teachers to out their students,
Wherever possible, adults in schools should leverage their relative power and privilege within their context to resist dehumanizing kids. As a parent and former classroom teacher, I plead with educators to make others do the work of denigrating and disrespecting kids. You do not have to be an accomplice to their cruelty.
I didn’t make it to year seventeen as a teacher— at least not yet— but the only reason I made it is a far as I did was the community and solidarity I found with other educators and advocates— with my coworkers in Richland 2, with the board of SC for Ed, with members of the SCEA, ACLU, and WREN, as well as other state, local, and district advocacy organizations. Relationships with these people and groups made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my struggles, nor was I the only person who wanted better for myself and my students. Working with together, we managed to move the dial towards progress in a state— perhaps the most anti-labor state in America2— where educational progress is extremely difficult.
That advocacy did involve a lot of extra work, but it was the kind of work that made the rest of the job bearable and meaningful. It was a choice to get involved that made me understand better the sliver of the educational system over which I had control, that made me realize I had to put on my own lifejacket first.
My hope for this year, wherever it takes you, is that you can find and develop community that supports you.
One way to distinguish people advocating in good faith for children from those using “parental rights” as code for defunding schools, villainizing children, and supporting segregation/ privatization efforts: ask yourself whether they are advocating for all children. According to The Body Keeps the Score (van der Kolk, 2014), “The vase majority [of traumatized children whose records were examined] came from extremely dysfunctional families. More than half had been emotionally abused and/ or had a caregiver who was too impaired to care for their needs. Almost 50 percent had temporarily lost caregivers to jail, treatment programs, or military service and had been looked after by strangers, foster parents, or distant relatives. About half reported having witnessed domestic violence, and a quarter were also victims of sexual and/ or physical abuse.” In other words, while most parents and guardians are desperately trying to be part of the solution, our most vulnerable students, who are often having the most trouble in school, are not well-served by a black-and-white view of schools as merely servants of “parent” preferences.
According to The State, South Carolina had the “lowest proportion of union membership in the U.S. in 2021. According to Oxfam, SC ranked 47th in ranking of best and worst states to be a worker in 2022. South Carolina’s teacher contract is arguably about as anti-teacher as you can get, with essentially no protections for educators and vague, blanket, requirements for service that can be changed without notice.