monday mess: body of work

Sometimes it puzzles me that teachers don’t wear scrubs. It’s odd that there isn’t a default uniform of the profession that reflects the level of physicality and mess that are woven into the work day to day.

Yes, I’ve been in stores that do a pitch-perfect trade in the slightly-preppy sweater, slacks or pencil skirt look and have heard them offer me the Teacher Discount. I’ll happily take it, I’m just bewildered as to how such a neat (and costly) outfit would fit in with my day to day routine in a classroom. I mean things like: flights of stairs, coffee sloshing onto me, sitting in a circle on the floor for morning meeting, kneeling down next to a desk for a math check-in, watercoloring with students during choice time, joining a recess dodgeball game… the list goes on.

The risks posed to clothing are one thing. Then there’s the teacher’s actual body. My first year of full time classroom teaching took a physical toll on me: aching feet were just the first sign. I was lucky to be in a room with a colleague who kept himself aggressively well-hydrated, otherwise that would have gotten me too.

We’re a tired, dehydrated, under-exercised, occasionally underfed bunch. And yet the body of a teacher, our embodied experience, our relationship to physicality, rarely if ever enter into our practice. This is especially interesting considering the time and energy spent in most classrooms focusing on how students are using/disposing of their bodies — but that’s a separate post.

I started noticing the un-embodiedness of discourses about teaching in the moments when my experiences so deeply belied it.

Sometimes, teaching is wonderfully, appropriately tactile: piggyback rides for tired kids after field day. Letting a student actually stand on my hands in order to successfully go across the monkey bar rings at the playground for the first time. The glee and disbelief on a student’s face when s/he hits her own teacher with a good strong dodgeball throw.

Other times, teaching has been tactile out of necessity. I’ve had a third grader who seemed motorized unless he sat in a teacher’s lap. Sometimes he’d ask me to squeeze his shoulders, and it noticeably grounded him every time. When he was in the throes of an upset (usually from an argument or physical fight with a friend), no words could reach him. Instead, I’d hold out both hands and he knew to come take them. It was the only way I could tell him at the same time, “what you just did was not safe or okay,” and also “I’m still here to take care of you and help you solve the problem.”

I have also had a student who sometimes went into rages. One day, she got so angry at the boy teasing her that she stormed across the classroom to get in his face, and knocked me over in the process.

First of all, it was a shock to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been thrown off balance to a point of impact. I scrambled back to my feet and left the room to get my own reaction under control while other adults followed up with the student.

Later in the day, the class took time to process what had happened at our closing meeting. It became clear from students’ comments that more scary for them than their classmate’s anger was the moment I fell down. I realized how destabilizing it must be to see a caregiving adult be vulnerable like that.

When I think back, I still have a vivid memory of one of my preschool teachers falling and hurting herself in the classroom. She couldn’t get up, so I watched terrified from my naptime cot as EMTs came, lifted her onto a stretcher, and wheeled her out of the classroom. There’s a reason it’s scary as a young person to see a teacher’s body under threat.

As teachers, when we keep our pains, our fatigue, and our physical tribulations out of the discourse of teaching, one thing we’re doing is putting up a strong front as caregivers. Like parents, we want to project an image of security and dependability. Still, we’re only human. What would it mean to put our embodied selves as teachers back into the conversation about teaching?

It can be tricky ground to navigate, for several reasons. Teaching already gets over-identified, now and historically, as “women’s work.” While there are parallels, especially for teachers of very young students, between parenting and teaching, I don’t mean to conflate those. But at the other extreme, teaching gets over-rationalized, quantified, and turned into a question of mechanical implementation, not professional mastery. This end of the spectrum is where you find headlines claiming that robots will replace teachers within the next however many years. How do arguments like these ever see the light of day, except by categorically ignoring the embodied and affective roles of the oh-so-human teacher?

To approach teaching as an embodied practice and to be explicit about that entails risk, and vulnerability. It would mean keeping up less of an illusion with our students: we, too, are people who can get headaches and colds, who undersleep, who feel pain and fear and sadness. This may not be an idea that most teachers I know would jump to implement. But I think it has deep implications for strong teacher-student relationships, for trust, and for a classroom community where students learn to fully see each other’s humanity.

So give those piggyback rides. Take time to tie those errant shoelaces for a kid. It’s not “wasted instructional time.” It’s part of the work.

photo credit: Elizabeth Albert via flickr


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