FIELD STORIES: NEITHER FIGHT NOR FLIGHT
In this series, we present narrative case studies drawn from our professional and personal experiences. These vignettes give a snapshot view of research in action, articulating with some dilemma of organizational intervention.
“I’m just so over it.” Melanie was exhausted. She had just finished animatedly listing off the worries that dominated her working life. “Let’s be honest, it’s my whole life,” she said sardonically; teachers didn’t enjoy things like work-life balance. Waving her beer for emphasis, she counted her grievances on her off-hand:
One – Administration’s insistence on institutional transparency, despite being the least transparent members of the institution (especially in terms of implementing and enforcing new protocols).
Two – Being caught between parent and school fights over vaccine and mask mandates. (“I just want everyone to be safe!”)
Three – Having to constantly interrupt class to tell students, “Pull up your mask.”
Four - Wondering if she was sick.
Five - Having kids in her class ask her if they were sick and worrying that they were. (“They’re all vectors!”)
Six - Worrying that her own kids were sick.
Seven – Having to buy masks for her students. (“Add it to the list of other supplies!”)
Eight – Creating sub plans for her inevitable sick days. (“It's just a matter of time…”)
Nine – Being told to practice “Self-care.” (“What does that even mean?”)
Ten – Feeling traumatized, and not really knowing what to do with that feeling.
Eleven - Colleagues leaving for private industry and making six figures. (“Maybe I should get out too?”)
Now, sitting at the bar, half-way through a third pint and scrolling through social media on her phone, she felt defeated. Having her own second-grade class had been her dream. It was, for a while. Sure, managing thirty easily distracted kids came with its challenges, difficulties only exacerbated by the switch to remote teaching almost two years ago. She didn’t expect the transition back to in-person teaching to be easy, but she anticipated at least a spirit of camaraderie, that everyone would be in it together trying to make the best of a bad situation. What she didn’t anticipate was to be effectively left to sink or swim by other teachers, to have her concerns about curriculum or ideas about implementation met with a shrug by the administration, to be ghosted by the principal. Her dream had become a nightmare.
Melanie ordered another pint. “To be honest,” she said, “I don’t really think the pandemic did anything new. I think it just highlighted the issues that were already there.” Melanie wanted to be a teacher. She had wanted to be a teacher for as long as she could remember. Her friends had wanted to be teachers, too. Many of them had. But now she was considering a career change, something she had never imagined wanting before. A friend at another school had resigned last semester and was now working successfully in HR. “Maybe that’s what I should do,” she sighed.
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it,” I offered.
Melanie just shrugged. She wasn’t, but the present path didn’t feel sustainable anymore. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t love to teach. Rather, it was that teaching didn’t love her.
Reflecting on Melanie’s dilemma, I’m struck by the theme of fight or flight that runs through hers and the experiences of so many other teachers I’ve spoken with. Idealistic as it may be, I would like to think that research can make an appreciable impact in people’s lives. As care-centered researchers, I think our goal should be not to prevent flight by helping vulnerable populations fight, but to develop interventions that remove the need to fight altogether. Work, and especially the vital work of teaching, shouldn’t be a harrowing struggle for those with the passion to pursue it. The first step toward this, I’d argue, is to systematically and seriously listen to the stories of those trying to live and persevere on the frontlines.