For a moment, imagine that you’ve been hired at a school. You arrive on your first day and are, for the most part, entirely confused about everything. It’s not because you don’t understand what the school does or what you’re supposed to be there for, regardless of whether or not it’s your first year or your tenth; it’s because you’re not sure how anything is done because no one has really explained that to you, even though you’ve been running around asking as many questions as possible to better understand the situation.
There was no orientation day for new teachers, helping them acclimate to a school that’s new to them. There wasn’t a meeting to explain the expectations, additional duties, and what administrative tasks you were responsible for. You received no emails outlining tasks that need to be done now. No one has made available the relevant program outlines or told you where to find them, if they exist. No one has made it clear what must be done for the classes or parents, outside of the things you were planning to do (creating a syllabus for students and families, creating or organising a curriculum, and hunting down relevant materials). In fact, you find that the work you were trying to do to get ahead of everything isn’t what they want.
They want something different. Your syllabus can’t look like this. Despite there being no curriculum, you must have your whole unit planned now with all relevant materials put together. You must teach this very specific textbook and in this precise manner, which hasn’t been provided to you until that day and has never been explained.
You go home tired, unable to really focus on doing anything that you know you need to do so that you can effectively teach the next day. Every day feels like you’re just working off the cuff, as if you can never figure out precisely what your end goal is.
And over the first few weeks, small problems continually arise because no one has explained to you basic operations. A student has given you a note saying they need to go to the dentist, and you let them leave at the appointed time. They come back saying that they need a specific piece of paperwork. What paperwork? No one is there to help you because everyone is either teaching or off in the copy room.
You leave the classroom briefly to check with someone nearby. You feel bad for interrupting them, apologising as you ask for help. They hurriedly shove a bunch of small leave slips at you and briefly explain what needs to be done. You thank them, and they rush back to their class.
More responsibilities keep cropping up: You’re responsible for collecting certain paperwork (which should be handled by the office because of privacy reasons). You’re responsible for collecting fees for something you’re not sure about and don’t know how to explain to your students because no one has explained it to you.
Along with the problems, other demands start piling up. But these demands are verbal, not written. They’re easy to forget when you’re already drowning in the other work and duties. Even when you start writing to-do lists, you don’t know where to start. Once you finally figure out what you’re doing, a colleague walks in and distracts you from what you were doing. They don’t mean to cause you problems; they only want to know how you’re settling in.
You’re so tired. Sometimes, you catch yourself wanting to give up and trying to convince yourself that you’re making a difference.
Even when you feel like you’re not.
For many first year teachers and teachers moving between schools, this is one of many experiences. Moving between different schools in different countries (for work-related reasons), I’ve had this experience multiple times. It’s always been strange to me how often this happens, and it’s always struck me as weird how many aspects of a school are entirely unspoken and unwritten. Some schools have ‘staff handbooks’ that outline expectations, though they’re often pretty vague; other places just have nothing, expecting you to inherently understand the processes.
It’s bizarre, it’s inaccessible, and it’s ludicrous. Why structure a system that stresses out the people who are meant to “educate the minds of the youth?” How do they expect their staff to focus on what needs to be done when they’re running around trying to figure out how everything works? And what about people who aren’t good at understanding or figuring out hidden rules? Why should we develop a system that is entirely ableist and dismisses people because they don’t fit in?
It’s just one of many things that lead to burn out. It’s like the first few years are intentionally designed to ensure that you’re as tired as possible so that they run through teachers as much as possible, keeping only the most tolerant of the absurdity and losing those who just cannot stand the system in which they’re placed. The whole school system is designed to weed people out who just can’t fit in, holding onto its bigoted values.
Now add, for example, ADHD to your imagined scenario.
You’re tired, and you’re forgetting things. People are just rattling off tasks for you to do and information related to your job, and you’re trying to remember or organise it as best you can. You’re writing notes on everything only to misplace them as soon as you get to your desk, and you never know where to look for them. Sometimes you end up throwing them out, thinking there’s nothing important on them. Other times you keep things you don’t even need, hiding those you do.
You have no time to organise because you’re constantly on duty. You lose your mornings to standing in a hallway, babysitting children during breaks when you really need to be putting your lessons together; you go into class half-prepared because you can’t get your schedule put together, especially because your school changes it on short-notice.
One day, you start working on one really important task only to get interrupted by a colleague who wants to talk, vent, or collaborate on something. You immediately shift focus to focus on your colleague, unable to say ‘no’ because the task you were working on was one you had to force yourself through. It was already hard to focus, and it’s even more difficult with someone else in the room. You can’t do it.
You finish talking with your colleague and start working on something else, forgetting about the original task you had. It’s hard to get organised in this situation, and no one really wants to accommodate the adult with ADHD. They’ve already told you that they can’t accommodate a single office because there’s “no space for it,” and they tell you that you just “need to deal with it.” It’s your responsibility to cope, even though you can’t figure out how.
You’re trying. It’s just not enough.
But to be fair, they don’t even want to accommodate the children with it, taking away their stim toys. They complain about how annoying that child is, and you’re trying your best to argue in their favour. Not only do you now have to do your own work, you’re forced to spend time advocating because other people refuse to allow kids to do what they need to do. You know you need to do it because you were that kid once, and that kid needs support.
No one wants to listen to you, and they don’t even really care. They want to argue that, even though a child has ADHD, they need to learn “how to behave.” You sigh because, while they’re talking about a child, you know they think that about you; they also see you as irresponsible, they see you as lazy, and they see you as annoying.
Working with those people makes you anxious, and you really just don’t want to. But you’re forced to. They fight you on everything, and you just… you just can’t. You collapse under the pressure to stay quiet, even though it kills you every single day.
You’re so tired. Days blur together, work is piling up, and you… You feel like you’re drowning.
So, to try to work, to try to focus, you leave the space that’s been designated as yours and try to hide somewhere else in the school (an infrequently used hallway, an empty classroom, an unused office, another building on campus away from everyone else), hoping no one will find you just so you can get something done. Your colleagues are a distraction. They don’t mean to be, but they are.
You’re tired of bringing work home just to catch up on what you need to do. You just want one evening to yourself so you can unwind, get your brain back in order, relax.
But even when you don’t bring the work home, you bring the comments of your colleagues back with you, ruminating on them when your brain cycles back to them.
Schools are hostile to disabilities. Ask anyone with a disability, any disability. The overwhelming majority of us have experienced abuse at the hands of the school system, as students and also as teachers.
Some schools entirely lack accessible architecture, making it impossible for some disabled students to enter or navigate the school. I’ve worked in schools where there were no elevators, stairlifts, or ramps. I’ve watched a student with a severe heart condition be forced to walk three floors of stairs just to get to their classes and be punished for the time that it took them to get there, even though there was no possibility of him getting there on time. I saw the same kid give up on coming to school because he just couldn’t handle it.
As a child, my disabilities went neglected. It was easy to not see them in children perceived as girls because they were only looking for them in the children perceived as boys. As an adult, I’m expected to know how to deal with them all the time in a world that’s not designed for me. It’s given me immense anxiety. I’ve had a number of breakdowns and panic attacks just trying, and I’ve mostly kept them hidden from the people around me.
Few colleagues have ever seen it, and those who do know the struggle that’s gone into trying to cope with the system. I hate crying at work, but I’ve lost count of how much I’ve done it because I just couldn’t keep up with everything.
I’ve had people tell me I’m “not cut out for it,” and I’ve had multiple comments made about my “dedication.” I’ve had my colleagues tell me that I have “no reason” being in teaching because of my “problems.”
The problem is them. The problem is the system. The problem is that we simply do not exist and are intentionally hidden or pushed out. The problem is that the people who don’t fit in are gaslit and manipulated into believing they’re the problems, only to realise it was never their fault.
The system is abusive, and it’s intentionally designed that way.