A teacher’s work never goes away: ‘You don’t clock out’

February 12, 2020 — by Allison Hartley and Brandon Wang

During a lockdown at St. Francis High School in Watsonville, Spanish teacher Stephany Marks was closing the blinds of her classroom when she saw a potential attacker run by, holding a gun. Chasing after him were several policemen. 

Even though the incident occurred nine years ago and ended with no injuries, Marks said that it still resonates with her during lockdown drills, making her more protective of her students and extra-strict about students barricading and hiding quickly. 

“It traumatized me because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Marks said. “I was just so worried about protecting the students.”

Protecting students in the event of a school intrusion is but one of countless situations in which teachers must be prepared to act as more than subject-area experts. Because teachers spend hours every week interacting with their students, many  develop deep bonds with them and can act as trusted adult role models. Sometimes students see teachers as the only people they can talk to in their lives.

Fortunately, teachers here are not alone as they cope with students in distress. English teacher Amy Keys said that CASSY, where students can go for therapeutic services, and the guidance and administrative teams offer “backup and support” for teachers. 

But helping students doesn’t mean trying to wave a magic wand and ensure their lives are worry-free and painless, Keys said. 

“Empathy can only be positive if you recognize that that person is a human being they’re going through a hard time, but here’s how I support him or her without always just removing all the obstacles,” Keys said. 

Teachers are given regular training in QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer, which is a protocol for engagement with students who come forward with personal problems, to provide teachers the skills needed to handle similar situations. Even with such training and years of experience in dealing with teens, however, many teachers say they are always affected by the difficulties their students are going through.

“It’s an hour’s drive home, and it sometimes takes me that whole hour to decompress from the day here, thinking about the students or planning lessons,” Marks said. “I get really affected by the students’ issues because they remind me of similar things my kids went through. It’s not like I check out and clock out — you don’t clock out on the students.”

Even hard-hitting topics such as suicide and racism that are discussed often in English classes can linger. 

“We talk a lot about emotions and deep stuff like humanity in general,” English teacher Emily Wu said. “When kids say they relate or when they stay back after class and tell me about how they relate [to tough circumstances], it does weigh on me. I have gone home before and felt the weight of what my students are feeling. I think sometimes I over-empathize.”

While Saratoga High may have fewer disciplinary problems or at-risk students than typical schools, teaching here nevertheless presents its own set of challenges: Teachers, like students, often face difficulty adapting to the school’s rigorous academic expectations.

“At first, it was a little bit intimidating knowing that Saratoga is ranked so high in the local community and nationally,” said Wu, now in her second year here. “Living up to that as a teacher of very strong academic students is a lot of pressure sometimes, but the other teachers and the administration did a great job of supporting me and making sure that I had enough material and enough emotional and mental support.” 

The district offers staff traditional mental health services such as therapy and treatment for mental illness as part of health care benefits for employees, but staff can also find support with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) from ESI Group, a private firm that offers a special program for educators called Educators’ EAP. 

The program is covered by the district and offers personal counseling, legal services and health and wellness benefits including fitness and meditation classes, among other resources.

But Keys said these services are not widely used by teachers because they are “just too busy.” 

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average upper-secondary school teacher in the U.S. works for 966 instructional hours per year, which doesn’t even account for time spent on school-related responsibilities outside of the classroom and places American teachers as the fourth most worked out of the 36 developed countries recorded in the 2018 study. 

One result is burnout in U.S. schools. A 2017 report from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found that 8 percent of U.S. teachers annually leave the profession, two-thirds of which are for reasons other than retirement.

Among the most common reasons for teacher dissatisfaction and leaving teaching cited by teachers in the LPI study were financial reasons, testing and accountability, lack of administrative support and large class sizes.

While Keys said that she has never wanted to quit the profession despite the challenges.

“People want to quit when they feel like they have no control over what’s happening,” Keys said. “I’m lucky to be in a school where I feel like I have a lot of creative freedom and that I’m in a place where people like working and getting better at what they’re doing.”

Keys, who also taught in Indonesia early in her career, studied abroad in high school in Germany, where her host parents were also teachers. 

Whereas American teachers not only teach long hours and also have other commitments, such as overseeing clubs or coaching sports, Keys’s host parents would teach earlier in the day and then spend their afternoons and evenings at home.

Keys believes that these differences come, in part, from the professional culture in the U.S. of “crazy Puritan work ethic” as well as a different understanding of responsibility for education.

“In other countries, my sense is there’s less expectation that the teachers are responsible for getting the students to learn,” she said. “American education is much more about the teachers’ responsibility for getting the students to learn, and even if the students come woefully unprepared and have horrible situations outside of the classroom, teachers are supposed to be responsible for that — for the students emotional and social well-being, lack of health care, and everything else.” 

Besides extra in-school work, teachers’ often head home to even more responsibilities such as taking care of their own kids or even more preparation for teaching the next day. 

To balance her job with taking care of her toddler-age son, AP Chemistry teacher Janny Cahatol opted to work part-time this year, teaching four sections of the AP class on Red Days and spending Blue Days keeping up with the work that happens beyond the classroom, such as grading, lesson planning, answering emails and attending meetings.

Keys, who also worked part-time for seven years when her now-adult sons were young, said that there was so much work outside of the classroom that teaching part-time was as tiring as an ordinary full-time job.

Navigating demanding work and at-home commitments is difficult for many teachers. Some actively avoid letting the details of their personal life infiltrate into the classroom, but others stay true to how they feel, even if that means sometimes being vulnerable with students. The vulnerability can help students connect to teachers and become more comfortable opening up to them when they need help. 

“I try to be myself, and if I’m having a bad day I’ll tell [the students],” Marks said. “I want the students to be comfortable to talk to me.”

Other teachers prefer to separate their work and personal lives, building strictly academic relationships with students; however, this separation sometimes challenges teachers’  emotional capacity to cope privately with personal issues while coming to work with a brave face. 

“If I did bring in all my baggage it would be really detrimental to the students’ learning environment,” Wu said. “There has to be some separation. As an adult, there's a lot of playing it strong and making sure that you have your best foot forward every day; emotionally, it’s a taxing job.”

Teaching requires a set of skills most jobs don’t demand. On top of the numerous hours spent outside of the classroom planning lessons, grading assignments and attending meetings, teachers have the emotional capacity to care for their many students, their families and themselves. It would seem that even more teachers would burn out after a few years, but many, including Keys, see teaching as a refuge from outside pressures of life. 

“If I’m going through something personal, when I’m in the classroom is the only time I might not feel that because I’m so in the flow and engaged with the ideas and people that I table everything else that’s going on in my life,” Keys said. “Then the day ends and the problems just hit you.”

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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