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Teacher Burnout

Reader Chris Rawlings adds this comment to the thread in which I complained about the Obama administration adding a new and controversial Title IX mandate onto public schools, by citing the experience of a friend who teaches in a poor, rural Southern school. Chris says:

My wife teaches in a poor urban public elementary school that serves a mostly Latino demographic. She would affirm in strikingly similar terms exactly what your friend said to you. Especially this part: for a lot of kids in poor schools, the school day is the most ordered part of their lives. We all think of school as a place where children go to learn how to read, think critically, and reason through basic scientific analysis, and all of that is true, at least in functioning schools. But for poor kids throughout America, growing up as they do swallowed by the neuralgia of their parent(s) and their communities, school is more than anything else a place where they can experience things a lot of us take for granted: good relationships, intellectual curiosity, the joy of their own imagination, and even food. My wife has come home in tears before when she’s learned that at least one of her students literally goes hungry. She’s also constantly amazed that her students don’t know how to eat certain fruits, or even know what they are, because at home they eat Ramen noodles and Cheetos or McDonalds for dinner. She’s had to buy coats for students before, and we live in Colorado, where you really do need more than the hoodie that those kids came to school with. I think my wife would confess that much more than arithmetic or reading, the most valuable thing she does for her students is to simply teach them how to be people, which is an astonishingly heavy burden for a 20-something young teacher like my wife to be charged with.

My wife regularly has students whose parents are deported to Mexico or in jail. Only a small number of them live with a married set of parents. The stories of brokenness, bitterness, and the asphyxiating crush of moral, spiritual, and emotional disorder are overwhelming. It is always bitter sweet when I visit her second-graders, because I’m always taken aback by how much they seem to crave my presence when I’m there, and especially my attention. In reality, though, it isn’t me at all. It is the fact that I’m a man. These kids crave male attention, and it is frankly unnerving the degree to which they do so. It is hard to shake the image of little girls blushing at you because they so very rarely every have any man—let alone their fathers—who bother spending time with them. It isn’t hard to appreciate why so many will end up pregnant or in abusive sexual relationships by the time they are 16. Or little boys who try to act far manlier than they are, because they think that male approval is something that has to be earned by machismo.

The problem with the way our schools educate our kids, generally, is that they teach them a lot without teaching them anything at all. We are creating a generation of moral idiots—automatons, really—who know a lot, but are sociopathic in their orientation to the world around them. We aren’t teaching them how to be truly human, and I don’t believe that especially the students in my wife’s school are getting that at home, either. This year one of my wife’s students asked her, “what is church?” And so many of them aren’t learning that from institutions of faith, either.

For her students, the starting point is opening their hearts and minds to a world better and way beyond the dysfunction and dystopia of the lives they inherit. She teaches them good literature, good manners, and a joy for the things we cannot see. In a public school, that’s about as much as a serious Catholic can do. Frankly, I think it does a lot.

I’ll finish by pointing out that my wife is leaving her school at the end of next week. We’re moving out of the area (actually, the country, to be precise) for another opportunity, but in any case my wife is simply burnt out by the pressure, the weightiness of teaching a population like this. It’s a lot to be a teacher today, and it’s vastly more to be a parent to thirty new kids every year. It’s wears you thin, as you might imagine. My wife is not leaving teaching, but a few more years at her school and she would probably feel no other option than to do just that. I assure you that she isn’t alone, either. It is a tragedy, quite simply. And it is one without the kind of easy, policy-based solutions that people like.

In the midst of the wreckage of the battle our culture has fought against the very understanding of what it means to be human, one of the last things we need is a federal mandate to mainstream transgenderism in our schools. My wife’s students—like any other eight year-old kid—need order, not the anthropological confusion that only deepens the existential ennui that hangs around the neck of American schools like a python slowly squeezing the life out of the schools and the kids who daily seek shelter in them.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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