Friday October 31st 2014

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An Open Letter to Teachers Seeking Balance

Guest Author Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade

When I talk with educators about the intense effort that will be required from them to be successful in our communities, it is nearly always the case that some of them will ask me: How can I do all of this and still have balance in my life? Cornel West says this line of questioning results from a Peter Pan mentality and a Disneyland sensibility; a quintessentially “American” perspective that never wants to grow up and share in the suffering of others, just have fun. We must be willing to stand boldly in solidarity with our communities, sharing the burden of underserved suffering. We cannot treat our students as “other people’s children” — their pain is our pain. Those looking to avoid this challenge will have us believe in individualized notions of success and suffering. We must reject this framework, replacing it with collective struggling alongside of one another, sharing in the victories and the pain. This solidarity is the essential ingredient for radical healing and healing is an often overlooked factor for balance in our lives and for improving achievement in our schools.

Great Challenges Require Great Effort

Is it unfair to ask teachers to make such intense personal and emotional investments in the young people that they teach? An educator’s answer to this question really depends on how they see their purpose as a teacher. If teacher is your “j-o-b” then it makes sense that you would see such an expectation as unfair, or perhaps as something you should only have to do some of the time. However, if teaching is your life’s purpose such that it is an extension of your family (not a burden upon it) then words like “balance” and “fair” take on different meanings. What does it mean to seek balance in a time when your family is suffering? What is a “fair” workload under these conditions?

In my experience, people that wonder on finding balance for themselves amidst struggle are people that see that struggle as a choice; while people that see their well-being as tied to those that have the least, do not see struggle as a choice at all. As a child, I once wondered aloud about my parents struggling so hard to support their seven children. My mother responded, “Sometimes, I do what I want. The rest of the time, I do what I have to.” My parents knew that raising us would be a great challenge that had to be met with great effort. They embraced this with vigor because that’s what they signed up for when they chose to have a family. They didn’t resent the bumps in the road, it was part of the deal. They didn’t resent the sacrifices, they signed up for them.

It seems to me that we aren’t all that different from my parents in our choice to become teachers in the community. It’s what we signed up for, and just as there were certainly times with each one of their children when my parents thought to themselves, “Damn, this is not what I signed up for!”, they also knew that they had no choice but to love us unconditionally, to stay committed to the process, because that is what they signed up for. When teaching in the ’hood isn’t measuring up to romantic “Dangerous Minds Freedom Writers” visions, we don’t get to bail out or say we are going to give a little less of ourselves because we “need some balance.” This is my hardest line with myself and with teachers that work in our communities. It’s also the expectation I have of the students and families in the community. But, we cannot ask our community to do anything that we won’t do ourselves.

There is a softer side to my perspective on this question. I recognize that there are times when I need to grab a moment to myself to sort some things out, just as there were times when my mother or father would have to say, “I’m sick and I need to lay down.” In those instances the children in our house had to step up. Those moments were rare and I know they crushed my parents because they felt like they were letting us down. But, that’s precisely why we love them so much. Our communities could do with a lot more of that kind of “over” commitment; the kind of commitment that stems from loving so much that we don’t worry about whether we’ll be loved back. When we form those types of relationships, the community loves us as much as we have always loved them (particularly when we need it the most). In my mind, that is balance. Balance is not something we can grant to ourselves, rather it is a gift bestowed upon us by those that we spend our lives loving.

An Inconvenient Truth: Teaching Ain’t For Everyone

Let me be clear, I do not believe that the work of being a teacher in communities that suffer under the weight of a litany of oppressive forces (racism, poverty, xenophobia, etc.) is for everyone. I do not say this because I think some people are more genetically predisposed to do it. Rather, I don’t think everyone is willing to accept the cost of meeting the great challenge of being an effective teacher. We know what it takes, we simply lack the collective courage to meet the challenge because it’s terribly inconvenient; and so, we act as though we don’t know how or as if we are still looking for more efficient ways (read shortcuts). We act as though the legacy of 500 years of slavery, colonialism, violent conquest, and institutional neglect will be resolved with mediocre (or even good) effort. It won’t. It took great effort from this nation to destroy our communities. The “inconvenient” truth of this historical fact is that a similarly great commitment of time and effort is required to heal our communities.

In 1976, there was an assassination attempt on the life of Jamaican artist Bob Marley, before he was to perform at a unity concert in his home country. Despite having been shot twice, Marley still performed at the concert two days later. When asked why he went ahead with the show, it has been said that Marley responded by saying, “The people that are trying to make this world worse are not taking any days off, so how can I? Light up the darkness.” We can debate whether it is fair to ask people to do this, or we can just get to doing it because it’s right, and moral, and just.

The US myth of meritocracy would have us believe that the change we hope to see in our communities will not cost us anything. This kind of false hope is mendacious; it never acknowledges pain. What we need is the kind of critical hope that stares down the painful path, and despite the overwhelming odds against us making it down that path to change, we make the journey, again and again. There is no other choice. Acceptance of this fact allows us to find the courage and the commitment to cajole our students to join us on that journey. This makes us better people as it makes us better teachers, and it models for our students that the painful path is the hopeful path.

This article was reprinted with the permission of Jeff Duncan-Andrade.

Jeffrey Michael Reies Duncan-Andrade, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Raza Studies and Education Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Co-Director of the Educational Equity Initiative at San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute. In addition to these duties, he teaches a 12th grade English Literature class at Oasis Community High School in Oakland, CA where he continues his research into the uses of critical pedagogy in urban schools. Before joining the faculty at SFSU, Duncan-Andrade taught English and coached in the Oakland public schools for 10 years, and completed his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Duncan-Andrade’s research interests and publications span the areas of urban schooling and curriculum change, urban teacher development and retention, critical pedagogy, and cultural and ethnic studies. He has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters on the conditions of urban education, urban teacher support and development, and effective pedagogy in urban settings. He recently completed a co-authored book on effective uses of critical pedagogy in the secondary classroom with Peter Lang Publishing and is finishing a second book on the core competencies of highly effective urban educators with Routledge Press.

Reader Feedback

4 Responses to “An Open Letter to Teachers Seeking Balance”

  1. [...] your butt every day of the week during the school year. Like Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade says in his article here at teach4real.com, teaching is going to be hard, and you need to be willing to throw yourself [...]

  2. [...] it. You have to decide to do this work. It’s just what Professor Jeff Andrade says in his article here on Teach4Real.com. Remember, you signed up for this job. You went through a credential program and [...]

  3. [...] You have to decide to do this work. It’s just what Professor Jeff Andrade says in his article here on Teach4Real.com. Remember, you signed up for this job. You went through a credential program and [...]

  4. amr says:

    I love your passion and priorities, but I would be more interested in reading your mother’s perspective on work-life balance! You definitely don’t sound like someone who has ever had to balance full time teaching + being the primary parent of small children. Just treat your students as your family = not that simple when you are a real life mama.

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