What's it Like Being a Teacher with Bipolar Disorder?

“Normal” teachers under “normal” conditions face an ungodly amount of stress.  Let’s factor out school shootings.  Let’s factor out tough inner city schools.  I teach in a rural school and can’t imagine what my inner city cousins face.

The 2017 AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Educator Quality of Life Survey reported that 39 percent of teachers say teaching is “often” stressful.  And 23 percent say it’s “always” stressful.

An anonymous comment published in the report said: “There isn’t much support for teachers suffering from mental health issues.  We’re worried that it will be a reason to be given negative evaluations or fired.”

Mental health days are more trouble than they’re worth.  The arrangements for the day must be made, the sub plans laid out. And then you get to face a pile of papers to grade when you get back.  You have to deal with students who are reported to have misbehaved.  They have a propensity to misbehave with subs.  And you have to try to catch your class back up to where it would have been.  Not to mention teacher guilt.  Mental health days mean more stress.

I was told we teachers make 1500 decisions a day on average.  That’s just the ones we communicate with students.  That doesn’t include the planning and the grading.

Normal Demands of Teachers

All schools make tremendous demands of teachers.  Take attendance.  Keep records of everything.  Keep track of when it’s your turn for cafeteria duty.  Or any number of other duties.  Be your students’ teacher, counselor, and parent.   Be accountable.  To parents, administrators, the school board, the state.  To yourself, if you still have your pride.  Teach to all the standards.  Assess them all.   Put the damn learning target on the board.  Because you aren’t much of a teacher if you don’t have a learning target on the board, and you’ll get gigged for it.  Wipe it off and put a new one on for the next class.  And the next.  Take unhelpful education classes for relicensing.  Get the relicensing materials in.  Fill out forms, mostly electronic now, for everything.  Electronic paperwork is still paperwork.  It’s still burdensome. Field trip forms, reimbursement forms, disciplinary referral forms that may never get looked at.

Oh, and motivate your students. 

Engage them.  Make it seem like you’re teaching this material for the first time, not the 50th.  Keep drinking coffee so that your energy level is high enough that you can at least ATTEMPT to bring theirs up.  Those kids who are a third your age but need more sleep — and are inclined to try and get it in the classroom.  As I’ve mentioned, discipline takes up as much as 15 percent of our classroom time. Just the battle with the smartphones consumes enormous time and precious energy.  Maybe teachers should give up on that.  Quite a few have.

Then there’s the stress beyond what you should probably expect.  A shocking 26.4 percent of teachers reported being “threatened, bullied, or harassed” at work.  That’s compared to 7 percent of the general working population.  And 23 percent said it was their educator peers doing it!

Remote teaching provided relief from some of that.  But it had its downsides.  Teachers who were expected to provide live synchronous instruction and also had young children to look after at home had a particularly rough time.  The rest of us were just frazzled from too much computer time.

What's Happening to Teachers?

It’s well documented that in normal times around half of all teachers will leave in the first five years of their would-be careers. Some of the older teachers go ROAD.  They become, as we used to say in the military, retired on active duty.  They hole themselves up in their rooms, don’t get involved in co-curricular activities, join no committees they don’t have to, attend as few meetings as possible, say nothing at those meetings, and collect their paychecks

Gallup did a survey a few years ago that reported 57 percent of teachers being “not engaged” and 13 percent being “actively disengaged.”  I’m not sure how one can be the latter. It seems an oxymoron.  Perhaps they are actively sabotaging our public schools. The survey also showed the less engaged the teachers are, the more they take sick days.   

The statistics are a little better than for the general population of workers.  But it’s surprising, because we assume teaching is a rewarding career.  It’s more than just a job.  Teaching is not just what we do; it’s our identity.
The statistics obviously don’t serve students well.  Teachers who are out a lot.  Or teachers who just aren’t emotionally connected to their jobs or their students when they are there.

Just Showing Up is an Achievement

Those of us who’d keep coming back, day after day, doing our best, we’re courageous.  Even without any sort of disability.  Mary Anne Radmacher once wrote: “Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” 

My circumstances were not normal.  Teaching + managing bipolar = exhausting.  I’d been at teaching a long time.  I still would enjoy teaching when I would be allowed to just teach.  There were two things I loved about it.   What I taught — history.  (I devour historical and political biographies.)  And those whom I taught — the students.  

I would look forward each day to going to school.  If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.  But there are new challenges facing teachers.  Teaching is becoming less valued as an art.  The mandates.  All the latest fads that only give old concepts new names.  And buzzwords like “shared leadership” that are empty and tiresome.  Because it’s never shared.  Decisions are top-down and coercive.  We would tie ourselves up in knots trying to improve what we do just to return to what we were doing two or three years prior. 

Annoyingly there all these perfect little teachers tweeting and facebooking about their wonderful little classrooms — during vacation.  Vacation!  (And I’m the one who is mentally ill.)  These teachers are the first to jump on every reform bandwagon.

Then there are all the pills I’d have to manage and still do.  And the appointments.  And the absolute exhaustion.  I have to call the doctor’s office nearly every day to get a prescription renewed.  I have to visit the pharmacy nearly every day to get prescriptions filled.  After a bigger chain bought out my pharmacy chain the waiting lines were virtually unbearable.  I don’t know if it’s depression, the daily caffeine crash, discouragement, the aging process, or all of the above.  I come home exhausted.

Education Under Assault

There’s much to be concerned about.  Our public education system is under assault from many directions.  And I guess it should be.  Small percentages of students are considered “proficient” in reading and math by the standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  My subject area, historical literacy, isn’t faring any better.  Cicero once said,  “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”

But our system is being pulled in a dozen different directions by reformers who are absolutely convinced they know how it’s broken and what to do to fix it.  They’re legislatures handing down mandates.   And the layers of bureaucracy adding their own requirements.  They’re “reform” gurus who haven’t spent much time in a classroom recently. Or they’re philanthropists, who have no direct experience in education, insisting that their funds go to endeavors that simply don’t work.

And the research always supports the reforms.  The reforms are always successful.  This reminds me of a story. Two education professors are stuck in a tent in the desert.  One of them decides to go for help.  After being gone a few hours, he comes back. “Well? Any luck?” asks the professor who stayed.  “No, there’s no civilization anywhere around,” the other one responds.  The first professor exclaims, “Don’t you know?!  You shouldn’t ever report negative results!”

My illness is not simple, but I am basically a simple man.  I’m a simple teacher. I use simple methods.  I am not a pedagogist. 

The national standards in my academic discipline, however, are dense and complicated.  As a state, we’ve adopted them.  As a school district, we’ve adopted them.  The re-licensing requirements are dense and complicated.  Our district supervision and evaluation criteria are dense and complicated.  I am barely able to navigate them.  They are weighing on me, making me feel old.
Interestingly, our state requires that at least half of our relicensing credits have to be in our content area. Our district supervision and evaluation criteria, however, include not one single criterion for content knowledge.  They are all about us being pedagogists.

The mental health field has all kinds of abbreviations - -- CBT, ECT, DSM, PTSD, SAD.  But the field of education is king of the abbreviations.  PBL, PLC, PLP, IEP, AP, SEL.  It’s mind numbing.

Many of our 1500 decisions are rushed or made under duress.  We are forced to make them, and we know that many are wrong.

Our Whole System is Bipolar

Our education system is ill.  It’s bipolar.  The reformers are manic.  The test scores are depressive. Bipolar disorder is a great metaphor for public schools.  Education “reformers” exhibit the manic symptoms of rapid speech, grandiose ideas, and wild spending sprees. 

The so-called reformers of education have been rapidly and frenetically speaking since I can remember.  TED Talks and TEDx Talks and workshops and podcasts and panels and keynotes and in-service sessions and slide shows.  Many, many slide shows.  It’s a lot of talking.  

Reformers have been writing rapidly and frenetically too.  As of this writing, an Amazon book search for “education reform” reveals over 20,000 titles. Google provides 272 billion results.  That’s articles, blog posts, websites, books, and videos.  “Scholarly articles” for education reform yields 3.1 million sources.  Seemingly everybody’s been published on the subject, many people with little or no experience teaching children.

The grandiose ideas are abundant.  Furious flights of fancy.  They’re not technically reforms, though, because reforms are not revolutionary.  All of the ideas that I list below were supposed to revolutionize teaching and learning.

When I began teaching, some of these ideas were playing out.  Like open space classrooms.  Teachers driven to distraction erected bookshelves and crates, anything to block out other classes.  Dividers went up, and soon rooms were evident.  Whole language was being abandoned as the preferred method of teaching reading, but it left me facing a string of high school students over a span of several years who could not spell.  

Recent fads of education have included cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, flipped classrooms, personalized learning, social and emotional learning, positive behavioral intervention support.  It’s dizzying.  This list may mean little to the non-teacher, but it illustrates the number and frequency of fads we’ve faced.  Teachers may just laugh.  Or cringe.  Because, like a loved one of someone in a manic episode, we’ve been yanked and pulled in many directions.

Albert Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  In this case, it’s our education system changing and remaking itself all the time that is insane.

I’ve seen the pendulum swing from portfolio assessment to standardized tests.  George H.W. Bush promised to be the “Education President,” and the next three presidents enacted major education legislation — Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Every Student Succeeds — built around standardized testing.  Just what we needed.  Politicians getting in the education reform game.

Then there’s the spending.  Wild spending.  Prior to covid, we were devoting some $680 billion to public schools. That’s twice what we did 30 years ago.4   Much of that goes to an ever expanding education bureaucracy.  My home state of Vermont leads the nation in spending over $20,000 per student.  That doesn’t include capital expenditures.

Philanthropists have been scattering their money at our schools.  Bill Gates has spent in the billions.  A RAND report on a $1 billion seven year Gates initiative found that it did little to help students.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously threw $100 million at Cory Booker and his unruly Newark public school system.   Of that, $20 million went to consultants who did very little to actually help students.

Our education technology addiction before covid was costing us $11 billion a year.  Over $8 billion was spent on software, much of which wasn’t even used.  Zuckerberg was backing a personalized learning platform known as Summit Learning, which was overexposing our students to screentime before the pandemic required it.

How have the results been of all this activity been?  Awfully depressing.  On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) prior to covid, only one-third of eighth graders were at proficiency level or above in mathematics.  One third were at proficiency or above in reading — a decline from the previous assessment. Additionally, the achievement gap is widening.  Study after study is showing that technology does not boost meaningful student outcomes.  It may stimulate “engagement” at times, but that’s not the same as achievement.  Our results are sluggish. (Remote schooling only widened the achievement gap more, exacerbated inequities, and set all  students back academically.  It also took a social and emotional toll.)

So what would I prescribe for our public school system?  Easy.  Attract good teachers, then let them do their jobs.  That’s the sane thing to do.