By Erin Gabriel
Illustrations by Kelcie McKenney
CW: Trauma and abuse
“A good teacher is like a candle, that consumes itself to light the way for others.”
– Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
This quote is often haphazardly thrown around in the teaching profession by well-intentioned people trying to highlight how essential the role of a teacher is. However, I cannot think of any other profession, other than healthcare workers—who are paid significantly better than teachers—where you are expected to “consume” yourself to be considered great or even just good at your job.
This is my fourth year teaching, and I am just about to turn 26. As someone young and still relatively new to the profession, I’m not surprised I ended up here. I always had a firm idea that I’d be in a helping field—plus it didn’t hurt that all the personality and career tests I took listed teaching as a top profession for me. I excelled in school (besides math which literally made me puke), and enjoyed the organization of it all, the comfort of routine, and the opportunity education afforded me. Plus, I’ve always been an avid reader, so I felt that made me uniquely suited to teach English. Overall, most teachers get into teaching for one of two reasons: They love the idea of teaching the content or they love the idea of building relationships with students. I fit into the latter category.
In my teens, I went through a significant amount of trauma. Physical and verbal abuse in my household and sexual abuse by a peer. A lot of things felt like they were falling apart in my life, and as a teen with a limited amount of life experiences, it was hard to envision my future getting better. I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms, mainly drinking, and if it was not for my grandparents getting involved and guiding me in the right direction, I am sure I would be on a much different path. I think subconsciously I knew I wanted to be that positive cheerleader for students who were not fortunate enough to find that in their families. And in my four years of teaching, I feel like I have been that support.
During my time as a teacher, I have taught a slew of English courses: 9th grade English, 9th-grade Remedial English, 10th-grade Remedial English, Short Stories, Teen Literature, Honors American Literature, Immersion for English Language Learners, study hall, and English Language Development for grades K-5. I’ve specifically worked with significantly impacted learners including Special Education students, English Language Learner students, students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education, Immigrant students, Alternative Education students (students generally in trouble with the law or behaviorally), and students with severe Social/Emotional trauma. Outside of the classroom, I’ve coached track and field, served as a club sponsor for student council, led the school’s wellness committee, and helped with multiple school dances and events.
Through all of that, I’ve been a part of students’ lives at their best and worst. Students who overcame all odds to make it to college or to win a state title in their sport. I had the opportunity to bring students to see national parks, and for many of whom, it was their first trip out of the state. And on the other end, I’ve been with students through their struggles. Self-harm, drug abuse, juvenile detention, ICE detention, court cases, physical abuse, emotional abuse, the death of family members or friends, mental health issues… the list goes on. Add to this all that has been going on in our world the last couple of years. School shootings, Trump, police brutality, ICE brutality, Covid.
Students are struggling and teachers are struggling.
Teaching, at least here in the United States, has never been easy. Embarrassingly low pay, sketchy contracts that are not up for negotiation, no funding, unrealistic expectations, hours spent outside of contract time, toxic positivity from district and administrators, and anger and threats from parents. No wonder Covid has sent many teachers over the edge. I am surprised a mass exodus of teachers was not happening at higher rates sooner. With everything else on their plates, teachers were asked to risk their health and safety for students with no compensation and then expected to fill in major gaps while being trained on social and emotional learning to help students cope with their trauma.
When I first started teaching of course it was still stressful. I was learning classroom management, getting to know my students and my colleagues, and familiarizing myself with content and curriculum, but despite all of that, I had never felt so aligned with my purpose before. All the work felt worth it because I was seeing the labor of that work pay off in relationships built with students, those ah-ha moments students would have when a concept finally clicked and the passion and pride a student would have in a project or story they had worked on. I was also surrounded by a collective of people whose values were in tune with mine. They loved their students, worked hard, and believed above all their purpose was to make sure students felt seen, heard, and loved. I found joy in going to student events they’d invite me to and grabbing a drink with coworkers on a Friday. It was not the easiest job in the world, but I was making a positive impact.
Flash forward to today. Those students I love so dearly are suffering. Socially, emotionally, academically in a world that seems to not offer much hope for their futures. My colleagues with who I felt such a kinship are tired and dropping like flies. Not surface-level tired, a deep tired that is impacting their mental and physical well-being. That hope and meaning are harder and harder to find day by day because what dawned on many of us during Covid was how broken the entire system is and how we can fight and fight for our students but—similar to policing—we cannot put a bandaid on a system that is designed to fail. That system needs to be completely obliterated and rebuilt from scratch. We are learning that we cannot and should not be stretched so thin, because even if we try to be successful at tackling everything on our plate, it is not enough, and the little incentives like a kind note or a Starbucks gift card are not cutting it anymore.
I have been through a lot in my 26 years, and there is no shame in the medicine game, but this year was the first time I ever had a full-blown anxiety attack. This year was the first year I felt like I needed to start medication to help cope with that anxiety. And of course, there are a lot of factors that led to this, but I attribute a lot of the increased stress and anxiety to teaching.
Other teachers are leaving or being fired due to the political climate. I have known teachers who were threatened by parents, students, administration, school boards, etc. for teaching books “about abortion”—Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which briefly mentions her choice to have an abortion—teachers being disciplined for teaching social justice content—such as the Black Lives Matter Movement or books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas—and teachers holding environmental film festivals for students being threatened if they show content that is about climate change.
I am experiencing emotional numbness concerning my work as a teacher. A job that used to be full of positive emotions. I truly believe it is my brain’s way of protecting me. And although I have worked hard to set boundaries, it does not feel like enough.
But when I feel like throwing in the towel, I am reminded of the stories of some of my students. Due to confidentiality issues as a teacher, I cannot share the majority of their stories—there are many powerful experiences I wish I could—but here is one I can share with permission.
Mateo* was born in a small village in Guatemala. Upon his birth, his father was already in America in hopes of sending money home to his family, so Mateo grew up with his mother, her siblings, his grandparents, and his own siblings on a farm. He attended school only until the third grade because it made more sense for him to help support the family than continue his schooling. At the age of fourteen, he decided he could support his family better from America, and against the wishes of his mother, he decided to travel to the United States. His option was to travel via La Bestia or El Tren de la Muerte—which means “The Beast” or “The Train of Death,” a freight train that travels across Mexico that many migrants ride on top of to make it to the border. It is a very dangerous form of transportation, and on his journey, Mateo severely injured his foot trying to jump onto the train. However, he continued his journey and made it to the border where he was apprehended by ICE and was held in a detention center for months. The experience in detention was arguably more traumatic than the journey itself. Eventually, he was released to his father, whom Mateo quickly found out had started another family in the United States and had an anger and alcohol problem. He was able to separate from his father and move in with an uncle from his mother’s side of the family. This was when he was enrolled in school for the first time since he had dropped out in third grade, and that was where our stories started to collide.
I met Mateo at a time when he was deeply missing his family, home, and culture. When he was struggling from the trauma he endured on his journey to the United States, in ICE custody, and at the hands of his father. He was working full time in the kitchen of a local restaurant with his uncle and was now going to be attending school with significantly limited or impacted formal education—which is education lingo for not having had any form of schooling for years. Add to this his first language being Quiche, a native Guatemalan language that is only spoken not written. Although he had some Spanish fluency at the time, he would not have been considered fluent in Spanish and had no experience with English.
He was angry, rightfully so, and was struggling with behaviors at school and was not able to participate in much of anything in class or with his peers, but for some reason, he quickly became attached to me as his teacher. Later on, his uncle told me it was likely that I reminded him of his mother who was of a similar age and height and subconsciously it was likely a comfort thing for him. We helped him start free counseling in his native language, enrolled him in an immersion program for newcomers, signed him up for the soccer team, and did everything we could to support him as a student. Four years later, Mateo has a strong friend group, plays varsity soccer, is fluent in Spanish, getting close to fluent in English, and is on track to graduate with hopes of becoming a chef, mechanic, or horse jockey.
This student who had experienced so much suffering overcame and is now thriving thanks to his hard work. I am so proud of him. But let’s not forget thanks is also due to all the teachers and coaches who helped him get to where he is. Without their dedication to helping him and finding the support he needed, his story could have easily been much different. Many students’ stories would not be the same had it not been for the impact a teacher had on their lives.
We as a society often forget or undervalue how impactful these relationships are, but we can’t any longer. If the mass exodus of teachers continues, we will not be able to ignore all the negative impacts it will have on us as a society and on the students who need a loving and safe relationship with a teacher.
Teachers will not consume themselves any longer, rather we will use our flame to burn down the broken system so that rather than being burnt out, our flame can blaze a way for a better future.
*Student name changed for privacy
Erin Gabriel (she/her) is an educator, writer, social media manager, and former digital journalist for CNN. Erin currently lives in Denver and loves anything health & wellness/professional development related as well as reading, being outdoors, and traveling. She is passionate about social justice issues but has specifically worked in the realms of improving the quality of public education, fighting for immigrant/refugee rights, and advocacy for disability rights.