I recently wrote about stress mindset and the power of shifting our perspective from seeing stress as a form of suffering to viewing it as a signal to make a change. Across the nation teachers are feeling stress because they are overworked and undervalued. According to the 2022 Gallup Panel Workforce Study, K-12 workers have the highest burnout rate of any profession. It’s no surprise that teachers have been leaving the profession in droves and will continue to do so this year.
I think about leaving too. A lot. So much so that I’ve swapped scrolling social media for searching job postings. Yet I can’t help but think, where does the mass exodus of educators leave our children? And what if leaving isn’t the change we’re supposed to make?
But First a Story
When I taught second grade, my class raised caterpillars. The students would watch in amazement as the butterflies emerged from their chrysalides. It seemed like such a struggle as the wet, wrinkled creatures wriggled and squirmed their way out. Inevitably some sweet child, an empath like me, would plead to intercede and help a poor butterfly. It was at this point that I would tell the children about eclosion, the process of the adult butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. (There might be an entomologist out there who can point out flaws in my scientific description, but I like the way this analogy works, so bear with me.)
The process of eclosion is triggered by the release of hormones from the tiny butterfly’s brain that soften the chrysalis and prompt the central nervous system to release a chemical, which in turn strengthens the wings and prepares it for flight. If we interfere and help with the struggle, it will result in the butterfly’s wings being too weak to fly. Our seemingly well-intentioned act will doom the insect.
But if we let that butterfly struggle, let it wrestle its way out of its cramped, dark chrysalis, it will hang patiently for a time in a moment of stillness and transition as its wings dry. Then it will fly.
We all know how this metaphor applies to our work with students. We are comfortable with letting our students struggle because we know that from struggle comes growth. But do we give ourselves the same grace?
The Problem is Not the Problem
We are in a time when our schools have become political battlegrounds. Teachers have gone from being heroes to being villains. We are struggling to address so-called learning loss, kids with behavioral problems that continue to get worse, lack of a living wage, and yes, burnout.
So we could complain. We could complain that the system is broken. We could complain that we are overworked and undervalued. And we wouldn’t be wrong.
We could blame. We could blame society, COVID, parents. We could blame our students’ overuse of screen time, lack of enough sleep, undernourishment, or not enough exercise. And we wouldn’t be wrong.
We could complain or blame. But that won’t solve any of our problems.
What if we take action? I’ve come to realize Superman is not coming to save us. The higher-ups are not going to swoop in and fix the broken system. No one is coming to fix society’s ailments.
What if Jack Sparrow was right when he said, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem”?
What if we stop seeing the problem as a problem and instead as an eclosion? We thought that emerging from COVID was going to be about getting back to “normal,” but what if instead it’s about providing us with that which will strengthen us to do the work we are called to do as educators? The work to shepherd students to understanding themselves and their place in the world. The work to shine a light, to speak for what’s right in education. What if the struggle and challenge of breaking free from the system is preparing us to spread our wings and be the change the world needs?
Is this realization terrifying? Yes. But I find it empowering as well. Because if no one is coming to save us, it means we are going to have to save ourselves. We are going to have to struggle, but we are also going to get to fly.
I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from a book I have read to my own three children hundreds of times, We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. In the story, a sweet family goes on a bear hunt. For each obstacle they encounter, we hear the refrain, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We can't go around it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”
As I held my own children on my lap and read and reread this classic picture book, I hoped they would understand resiliency. Now I hope for resilience for myself and for educators everywhere.
I still don’t know whether I’ll leave teaching after this year or stay for the metamorphosis I hope for. Either way I know that I will embrace the struggle. I will learn from it. I will grow.
What About You?
What will you do? Let’s talk about it. Write a comment below, or contact me directly. There is collective power and wisdom in community. Check out our offerings at Edjacent. We offer learning communities, one-to-one coaching as well as content to support educators at all levels.