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Avoiding A Sisyphean Cycle of Teaching

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

BY STEVE NUZUM


Disclaimer - The views expressed in all CEWL Views articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SCEA or NEA. We encourage you to share your comments and feedback.


It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.




Few professions are as strongly seasonal and cyclical as education. For those whose first profession is teaching, that cycle may have taken up most of your life: K-12, then college, then back into school again as a teacher. Semester One, Winter Break, Semester Two, Spring Break, Summer Break, Repeat.


For me, the comfort of the year-in, year-out, routine was one of the most appealing things about being a teacher. It was predictable, it was controlled, and it created a built-in routine, both for students and for me.


But that routine could also easily become a Sisyphean cycle: teaching the same subjects over and over, one year bleeding into the next. Days where it was easy to feel that I had walked a thousand miles to end up in the same place. And for many teachers, the end of summer brings with it both the excitement of new possibilities and a deep anxiety about the first days.


Particularly for less extroverted personalities, those first days are both vital and draining: meeting new students, colleagues, parents, guardians, and administrators. Learning names. Setting up new classrooms. Planning for courses added at the last minute. Writing syllabi. Attending professional development. Watching videos and slideshows and voice threads on bloodborne pathogens, HR directives, and school safety.


After sixteen years, I don’t have any great advice about starting the year, but I do think it’s important to be wary of the toxic positivity of “self-care” while finding ways to truly take care of yourself, advocate for your profession and your students, and be mindful of the things that have shifted in the profession, despite that sometimes-comforting/ sometimes-draining cycle.


Education is under a relatively unprecedented attack. While book bans and “parental rights” groups are not new, and in fact were central features of the battles against educational integration in the 1960s, the amount of political support and money behind groups like Moms for Liberty has intensified.


Teacher burnout, in recent years, has eclipsed that of other professions. As Anne Lutz Fernandez wrote in a piece this time last year, “A recent Gallup poll found that K-12 workers are more burned out than those in any other field, while a Rand survey said that teachers and principals are twice as stressed as the average American worker.” Those grim statistics have likely worsened since then.


I doubt most of this is really news to teachers and their supporters. We know we’re stressed. We know many have left the profession in recent years. Last year was South Carolina’s worst year in recorded history for teacher retention. We feel the attacks from political opportunists and from parents and community members who have been directed by those opportunists to treat teachers as scapegoats for the very problems we have begged our leaders for years to address.


Now, more than ever, those of us who care about this profession, about students, and about democracy, need to learn from the past and plan for the present.


We need to shake off the teacher-martyr role and embrace our role as experts in child development, in literacy, and in academic subject matters. We need to educate the public on why good teaching is not merely delivering “curriculum”.


We need to embrace good-faith efforts — even when misguided — to address both real and perceived issues with education, and we need to push back against bad-faith efforts to paint teachers as villains, public schools as “failing,” and many students as problems to be avoided through segregation and school choice.


My hope for this year, wherever it takes you, is that you can find and develop a community that supports you.


We invite you to join The South Carolina Education Association (The SCEA) and be part of the largest community of educators in the country. Learn more at www.jointhescea.org.



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