Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reclaiming Power in the Aftermath of the Budget Repair Bill

4 Colours of Solidarity - Eddie Malone
We work the system, steal taxpayer dollars, and are incompetent to boot. We don’t deserve what we have earned, and we certainly don’t deserve a voice in our working conditions. Our years if not decades of preparation and training do not make us worthy to earn what many of our students will make within a few years of leaving our schools and colleges. Rather than providing an essential service that keeps the economic engines going, educating future workers and good citizens, we are portrayed as manipulating and mooching off the system.

These are the messages about educators lately, in the newspaper/in the air, and even though we have been labeled a social problem, we are supposed to solve social problems – with chins up! We are not supposed to become cynical, because after all, they are overpaying us to inspire. We must stand proudly and confidently in front of our classes as indefatigable super-teachers after taking a good bashing in the morning paper.

I’m a third-generation educator on both sides of my family, honored to continue the tradition with my own twist and emphasis on communication, writing, and creativity, but sometimes I feel like I’ve landed myself in a fine mess. Did my grandmother have it harder or easier in her one-room Kentucky schoolhouse? Did she have such a difficult time keeping her head above water and staying strong, proud, and focused on teaching and learning?

I have felt so demoralized lately, trying to sort out the high demands on and expectations of educators along with the assault on our rights and the blaming of teachers for societal problems that, in my opinion, have almost everything to do with poverty, economic inequality, and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in our country.

At first, I thought it was just me. My overly sensitive psyche and body were just not handling the stress well; surely the math, econ, and trades instructors were of hardier stock and doing just fine after the passing of the “budget repair bill” in Wisconsin. I figured it must be the long winter, because surely no teacher in her right mind would let Governor Walker affect her sleep patterns and appetite. But then we started sharing stories and I found out my colleagues were breaking out in hives, experiencing jags of sorrow and rage, and feeling powerless and incompetent. And these are talented, stable people.

One colleague told me that a feeling of helplessness is the greatest cause of stress, and some research led me to this description of burnout: “exhaustion and passive responses within a work environment. . . [which occur] after prolonged uncontrollable events [that] cause the worker to think more narrowly about the options they have for responding” (Beaumont, 2009). Part of helplessness is not only feeling that “outcomes no longer depend on actions,” but also a sense of personal incompetence (2009). So here we are, three weeks after we lost our collective bargaining rights, an 8% pay cut coming down the line, difficult retirement decisions for some, and employment uncertainty for all. We fought the bill with all we had, and it passed anyway.

What can possibly come next? According to Beaumont, “The opposite of learned helplessness is learned mastery, learned optimism, and hardiness. Control—the ability to change things through voluntary action—is the opposite of helplessness” (2009).

I’m a longtime fan of the serenity prayer, and it’s a simple fact that there’s a heck of a lot I simply can’t control right now. Our country is in a fair amount of economic and political turmoil, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. But I can set aside time each week to send emails to legislators, support the union, and work toward longer-term change. (To maintain my sanity, I probably cannot keep checking the WisPolitics Budget Blog every hour.) I can take good care of myself physically and emotionally, and I can rededicate myself to my work. My professional focus can stay on the classroom, where I can continue to be an enthusiastic and effective teacher.

Our students need us now more than ever, because even – especially – in difficult times, there is much to learn and teach.

Beaumont, L. (2009). Learned Helplessness. Retrieved March 23, 2011, from Emotional Competency:
Malone, Eddie. 4 Colours of Solidarity (photo). Retrieved March 23, 2011 from flickr: