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Spoon Theory for Teachers

Note from Edjacent: This post was written in January of 2021 by a teacher who later left public education for her dream job working with a nonprofit that has a mission close to her heart. Her final year in the classroom was difficult and likely relatable for many practicing educators; she cared deeply about her students and their welfare, but her work took a painful and dramatic toll on her health and relationships. Her “why” faded and she ultimately decided to leave her school, risking her entire identity as “teacher” and her financial security. This is an important story. It may be more important now than it was when it was first published. We, as a profession, have a responsibility to hear these stories before they become histories. We must listen, learn, and act now, before it is too late. This post is anonymous. The author has chosen not to disclose her name and school because she is fiercely loyal and does not want to indict her students, colleagues, or administrators by telling her own story. Edjacent fervently hopes we can collectively reduce the cost (or even the perceived cost) of story-sharing for educators. Our stories belong to us. They are our power, our hope, and our future. Please share your story, without fear.

This has been the most exhausting year of my career, and it’s barely halfway through. I’ve been teaching for 7 years, and I always thought I was in this for the long haul. Sure, there were days or weeks that were exhausting, days or weeks that left me feeling drained or irritable, but even those times had bright points. This year, however, no matter how hard I try to find the positive moments in each day, I’m left feeling empty. Despite the constant chorus of “You’re not alone!” and “We’re all in this together!” I still end each day raw and spent, generally crying on the kitchen floor as my partner tries to untangle me from various bags. I couldn’t understand what was making this year so much more unbearable compared to years past; 2020 was a difficult time for everyone, but I was feeling the strain in ways that my friends in other professions seemed immune to. All of this doubt, confusion, and oblivion left me feeling lost until a conversation with my sister-in-law over Thanksgiving shifted my perspective. Like so many, my beautiful sister-in-law suffers from an autoimmune disorder and chronic pain. When I described everything I was feeling, her response was revelatory: I was out of spoons.

For those who have never heard of the Spoon Theory, it was developed by Christine Miserandino to help explain what it’s like living with sickness or disability. Now, it would be grossly negligent to equate being an educator right now to living with sickness or disability, and my own autoimmune disorder in no way taxes me in the way that others do, but the more I read the theory, the more understood I felt. Suddenly all of those lost and confusing feelings had an answer, and that answer is brilliant in its simplicity. The basics of the Spoon Theory are that everyone has a certain amount of energy (or “spoons”) to use throughout the day; however, each person does not have the same number of spoons as someone else. What might take my husband only one spoon to complete (waking up, getting out of bed, showering) might cost me two spoons. What might cost me only one spoon (eating breakfast, driving to work, turning on my computer, answering emails) might cost a friend two or three spoons. The point is that we all have a set amount of spoons to get us through the day, and when we’re out – that’s it. We’re out. No spoons means no more tasks that can be completed for the day. Some might be able to ration spoons or have the ability to borrow spoons against the next day, but those can easily get depleted. What made this theory so impactful for me is that now I at least understood where my sense of desperation was coming from at the end of each day: it was coming from me running out of spoons and scrambling to find the energy and willpower to complete simple tasks that still needed to get done. 

What so many fail to realize right now is that teachers are out of spoons. There have been articles, news reports, and countless emails and online threads about students needing grace because this is “trauma learning.” This has certainly been a time of traumatic learning for students, but it has also been a time of traumatic teaching for teachers. We are figuratively drowning in all of the endless pressures and expectations put on us to continue to educate while enduring new abuses from parents, students, administrators, and school boards. Teachers are being publicly criticized and humiliated for struggles while also being told to cheer up – that everyone is struggling together. Teachers are trying to bounce back and adapt with little to no notice to policies that are being announced before being effectively thought through. Teachers are being lied to and misled, gaslighted each step of the way through toxic positivity and veiled (or not-so-veiled) threats. With all of this, most teachers are logging on to Zoom or Google Meet sessions full of blank bubbles, smiling and cheerleading our way through the same amount of content and standards that we are expected to teach in a nontraumatic year. What used to take teachers one spoon to complete now takes multiple. What used to be everyday stressors now becomes the tipping point. Many teachers used to know exactly how to safely get through each day, how to balance students’ needs with parents’ and administrators’ needs, and how to do it all while instructing a beloved content. Now, teachers are using up all of their spoons before the end of the school day anticipating and fixing technology issues, completing various trainings, trying to safeguard against parents breaking policy (such as recording teachers during virtual classes without the teacher’s consent), motivating students outside of the classroom, effectively teaching content, and trying to keep everyone within the classroom safe through various cleaning practices. To put it simply: there aren’t enough spoons to do all of that and still be a person at the end of the day. 

I’m not sure how to find more spoons for myself throughout the day, and in the month since reading about the Spoon Theory, I haven’t done a great job at saving spoons. I’m still coming home feeling broken and raw, still crying on the floor and having to be coaxed up with promises of zoning out for the rest of the evening. While I desperately want to find a way to preserve some of my energy throughout the school day, I have no idea where that extra spoon or two I’d need to get through the evening in one piece could come from. My hope is that more people will begin to understand how unsustainable this environment is for teachers. My hope is that others involved in education will begin to find some ways to share spoons or to help teachers navigate their days successfully with the spoons they have. My hope is that I will find a way to better allocate my own spoons so that I can rediscover the teacher–and person– I used to be.


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