It’s been more than a decade since I first started teaching. In that time, it’s been a field that I’ve felt both alienated by and pushed away from. Which is funny because I constantly hear how good of a teacher I am, how much kids like me, how patient I am with developing relationships with others, and how parents really love the way that their kids approach my classes because they hear how much they like me (even if their kid doesn’t like the subject).
It’s a field that, because I’ve always loved working with kids, I’ve struggled to stay connected to. Between administrations that simply don’t care about children and colleagues who actively refuse to acknowledge the humanity or personhood of children, I have pushed myself to stay. Even when I started realising that compulsory schooling could never be reformed in any meaningful way to help liberate people, I stayed because I had convinced myself that I could be someone who was able to reduce the amount of harm caused by schools.
I’ve realised that this position is no longer viable. In fact, it was never viable in the first place. And that lesson was one of the hardest for me to actually learn.
Those of us who try to fill these roles of ‘harm reduction’ are far beyond our breaking points. We’re burning out at a faster pace than other people around us, especially because we have to work against so much, including high levels of abuse or being directly targeted by management. This is particularly true for those of us who are already marginalised and looked down upon in this horrible system, regardless of whether we’re working in a public or private institution.
Queer teachers are exhausted by feeling as if we don’t belong anywhere and that our existence in many classrooms is illegal, being forced by legislation passed by people who “represent” us to hide who we are even in the smallest of ways or receive consequences. Black teachers and students alike are being forced to deal with yet another injection of anti-Black racism into school systems in response to a wave of “anti-CRT” legislation (as if there wasn’t enough already). In some US states, trans children risk losing everything that is close to them should they even so much as admit to being trans to the wrong person because teachers are expected to report their families for “child abuse.”
But this isn’t new. This is how schools have always functioned; it’s how they’ve always behaved. They have always been institutions of harm, especially for marginalised communities.
And we can’t really mitigate that, no matter how much we try.
I remember how hopeful I was when I first became a teacher, even before I went to university to get a teaching qualification. I remember how much I cared about schools being a healthy and safe environment for children and how much I believed they should be communities.
Looking back, I see a person who I vaguely remember and all of the beliefs they held that have been persistently shattered through the various ways adults around me have shown how little they care about children, through all the many ways they seek power. It’s weird to think about how much of the pro-school propaganda I had readily believed despite the fact that I had joined teaching because of my love for learning and my disgust for the ways school forced us to “be educated.” At the time, it was as if there couldn’t be any other way to exist so we had to fix it.
I had grown up being told that schools were a force for good, that they were the “great equaliser.” I remember how often we were told that they “supported a healthy democracy.” I’d never once seen an indication of that supposed “truth,” but I wanted it to be true. I thought I could work towards that goal, to actually help accomplish that.
Funny how the same story can be spun to grab a range of different people for the same field.
I had hoped that I could change the system for the better. Like many others around me, the constant messaging of the day was that the only way to change the system we existed within was to change it from the inside. Remembering how tormented I’d been by it, I wanted to improve it for other kids who also struggled to tolerate it. I wanted to make it better for people who felt like some element of school was just out to get them, even though they tried their best.
I wanted to support kids who often got tossed to the wayside, shoved into structures that only served to hurt them in the future because the school saw them as useless and unworthy. I was that kid growing up. I didn’t want to see more.
And I tried, but I don’t think what I’ve ever done has been good enough.
I feel this way largely because the only thing I have ever really been able to do within schools has been to act as a form of harm reduction. Though I’m happy about the spaces that I was able to create – spaces where children often felt freer to be themselves, felt they were more able to engage in activities that improved their learning and focus, felt more open to exploring their interests, and felt that they could take risks because it wouldn’t hurt their grades in the slightest – I hate the toll that it’s taken on my own mental health to simply exist in those spaces at all. I hate who I sometimes have to become in order to keep going.
Very few people around me have ever really known how much fighting I have had to do to keep those spaces going and alive, when I was able to. They don’t know the number of times colleagues have told me that the “kids are taking advantage of me,” treating me as if I have no agency or haven’t been an active participant in what’s happening. They have no idea how often I have been so completely shut out by those around me, intentionally denying me access to any relevant decision-making process unless it’s something so entirely superficial and meaningless. Not many have known how frustrating it has been for me to constantly fight with other adults about why children are people and how uncomfortable it has always made me that they have consistently tried to force me to exert more control over them.
It has been beyond exhausting to work with people who actively engage in bigotry of all forms, to have to help students deal with the racist teachers in their midst who have openly harmed them through “jokes” and then tried to invalidate the anger they rightfully feel. It has been so fucking nauseating to work with open misogynists who scream at girls about showing their shoulders while simultaneously hitting on the same girls, making their lives hell when they refuse or try to report them. I have hated so much that I couldn’t help create a better environment with those kids beyond my own classroom, even if that is better than nothing.
It’s been fucking horrific to work with people who actively deny or put down the mental health struggles of those around them. I’m so burnt out from having to explain to people constantly that their desire to “be a saviour” to someone and ignore their needs will only result in further harm. I’m tired of having to put additional energy into validating the anger and feelings of children because some other adult has told them that they’re “misunderstanding the situation” or “being irrational.” I am sick to my stomach of having the same five conversations about attendance and having to constantly fight with people about how it doesn’t matter, especially if it’s because that student is struggling with something that no one is even bothering to help them with. And don’t even get me started on how absolutely atrocious it has been to work with (and fight against) school principals who tell students with visible scarring that they need to hide it because it “disturbs others” and “makes them uncomfortable,” without even a hint of recognition or care for how they continue to negatively impact that kid’s view of themselves and the world.
And I just can’t do that to myself anymore, as much as I want to stay with the kids and be there to ensure they still have access to spaces where they feel most comfortable and less anxious. I can’t keep putting myself in spaces like that because it is making me lose all hope for the possibility that the world can be better, since I only see it getting worse and more ridiculous.
The main lesson I’ve learned throughout the course of my career is the one that’s making me leave it: The system isn’t broken, and it’s always been designed around ways that enable us to do the most amount of harm.
For many, it has been a site of continued colonialism and imperialism. It has been a place that has committed grave acts of genocide, both in terms of actually killing people (particularly Indigenous people through a system of residential schools) and systematically tearing them from their culture and replacing it with the “correct” one. It has helped murder languages, flatten multiple identities, and assimilate many into one “proper” people. They have damaged our collective ability to recognise that there are many different ways to understand something, to know something, and to learn something.
They have brutalised us for thinking differently and questioning what’s happening to us (even when claiming to teach “critical thinking” skills). Children who think differently are tormented until they think “correctly,” until they perform normative “logic” for the adult in the room. If they can’t do something, they are deemed “lazy” or “unwilling.” And for all that absolute absurdity, people still support the system as if it “helps” anyone.
It never has, and it never will.
And though some may leave it with fewer scars than others, we all leave it with immense amounts of damage done to us and society. From the very ways that schooling limits our capacity to learn and explore other potential worlds to the many forms of oppression that take shape in every policy, we have all left with so much damage to deal with. We’re left with so many things to unlearn that we were indoctrinated into before we ever had a real say in our own lives, things that enable us to continue to harm others after we leave.
We’re all victims to this structure, but some of us are also perpetrators (and some more than others).
That’s also something that I’ve felt uncomfortable with. Even by existing as a “harm reducer,” I still have had to enact various forms of harm towards my students that I never wanted to do in the first place. For instance, I’ve never believed in grading people and the structures we’ve developed to do so. I see no value in arbitrary numbers or letters that do little more than confuse everyone, prompting them to figure out why they lost a point or what the actual difference is between an A or a B. No matter how much we try to make grading “equitable,” it still requires active participation in systems that increase anxiety and fear in children.
I’ve even openly said this to my students and some of their parents, but saying that does nothing towards getting rid of it or other processes that are based entirely upon it. Hell, I even have to preface my anti-grading statements with nonsense about how I “know we all exist in a system that values it” which means we “are forced to care.” The only recourse I have is to harm them as little as possible while also drawing as little attention to myself as possible so that I can continue doing as little harm to them as possible in a never ending cycle of bullshit masquerading as “best practices” in a field that feigns to care about learning.
And that is probably on the more mundane side of the scale in terms of harm. The sheer amount of control exercised over the bodies of children is astounding, and the active refusal by adults to engage with kids questioning their actions or rules infuriates me. Even the people who claim to want to “create lifelong learners” simply aren’t working toward that goal, participating in institutions that actively quash an interest in learning and shut down those who question their strategies.
The kids know something’s wrong, and they know that things aren’t working. So many of them see the institution for what it is: a sham that has been invented to “put them in their place.” Many more see it as something that is actively trying to hurt them. I cannot count the number of times in the past decade that I’ve had students tell me that they want to kill themselves because of stress and anxiety they feel when at school. They aren’t alone, either, because there are way too many kids considering it.
I just don’t know how we keep doing this. Everyone realises there’s a problem, yet no one wants to give up schooling in favour of figuring out something healthier.
Really, I just wanted schools to feel safe for kids who felt traumatised by existing in them. But I couldn’t change that because my individual existence couldn’t change the other adults around me. It couldn’t make them pause and think that their views on children were genuinely harmful because there was only one voice challenging them. And honestly, I just have to say that the reason I couldn’t change that is because no one can do that on their own.
The system doesn’t give in to individuals. It will never stoop so low as to consider the ideas of a single person. It will only continue to actively tear down or push out those who fight against it.
I could only give kids a very temporary and momentary reprieve. That space will disappear the moment I leave. There is no guarantee that they will get that back in any capacity, and there is no guarantee that the next person will try to support struggling kids as much as they need. There is no guarantee that the next person will work with them to solve issues in ways the kids see as being helpful or work with them to find solutions to harder problems. Those spaces aren’t sustainable and they never will be, especially when we rely upon individuals to function that way within systems.
The system is functioning as intended. It’s designed to cause as much trauma as necessary. And it will chew up and spit out those who want to do something better. It will grind our bones to dust before it lets us change it. Individually, we cannot defeat the system. It will always win, trying to tire us out and extinguish whatever fight we may have left in us.
And I refuse to be that individual anymore. So I quit. I’ll find some other way to work toward prefiguring a healthier world, and I will find people of all ages with whom to organise.
Because I need hope and beauty in my life, not the disgustingly soul-crushing environment of a school.