Teaching and Trauma Recovery Are Both Fishtanks

Teaching and Trauma Recovery Are Both Fishtanks December 10, 2020

I know the metaphor (a goldfish will grow to fill its tank) is flawed, but boy does it work well for activities like teaching and trying to recover from trauma.

goldfish in a small bowl, in a forest
Photo in public domain; from Unsplash by Ahmed Zayan.

I’m sure we’ve all heard something like this: a goldfish will grow to the size of its tank (not quite true, but as ubiquitous an understanding of nature as the notion that frogs will acclimate to water that begins to boil without realizing it’ll kill them).

Due to how common this notion is, it makes for a great metaphor, and that’s how I’ll be using it today: to explain both teaching prep and trauma/burnout recovery, which have both loomed rather large in my life lately.

For teachers, there is an unfortunate ambivalence around spending time working on our teaching…unfortunate because of the lack of value, pay, and prestige this job receives, making the topic into a contentious one for us. We mostly enter the profession because we love it, but due to unreasonable demands from our employers without adequate compensation, we need to carefully manage how much time we spend on the job. However, we can’t risk appearing like we’re slacking off, and obviously I’m not suggesting letting students languish without help or neglecting our jobs.

Like the metaphorical goldfish in a fishtank, teaching is a job that will fill every ounce of free time if you let it…and trust me, we are encouraged to let it.

Dr. Monique Dufour explains this brilliantly in her blog post “Teachers Are Not Inexhaustible Resources (Part 1)“:

Let me tell you an open secret about teaching: all time is potential work time. Teachers are often haunted by the sense that they can be doing more, doing better. You could always add one more comment to students’ drafts. Refine your assignment. Redesign your class. Learn a new technological tool. Read the new book. Add another slide to a lecture. Collect and respond to more student work. Create public platforms for student projects. Hold more office hours. Spend a little more time replying to an email, or turn around your response a little quicker. And when the assignment or the lecture or the semester is done, then you think about what more you could have done, what you might have done better, and what problems you will fix the next time. We don’t see our students as burdens, but this work can feel heavy.

As Dr. Dufour later points out, we are trapped by two overlapping ideologies: that teaching is a labor of love, not actual labor, and that pedagogical overwork is normal and desirable and proof of excellence. As she puts it: ” a professional commonplace to assert the value of good teaching by disguising the fact that it is labor.”

Nobody expects a lawyer or plumber to do their job and put in unpaid overtime for the love of it. Applying this standard only to teachers is messed up and unfair.

And so teachers are put into the double bind of simultaneously putting on a happy face and exclaiming how much we love our work (because seriously, why else would one put up with the long hours and low pay?) while also erecting boundaries and barriers to preserve our little free time and ensure that we don’t burn out too quickly. Because obviously, we’re worse teachers when we’re burned out, that’s gotta be our main motivation for self-care, right???

I noticed a parallel to this phenomenon when dealing with my own trauma and burnout lately: recovery will also take as much time as you allot, and damn if that’s not a mental and emotional sticking point for those of us who feel like we don’t deserve healing time precisely because of our trauma/burnout.

As I wrote here, “We can’t choose what traumatizes us, but we can choose what heals us.” Choosing to heal – choosing to engage with community, to tune in to one’s body, to breathe easily, to go to therapy, whatever it looks like for you – is acknowledging the validity of one’s trauma, burnout, or chronic stress, and acknowledging that your healing deserves space, time, energy, and empathy.

But as I tried to decompress at the end of this semester, I realized with growing horror that it was taking a long time to try to recalibrate and reset. Did I even have that kind of time? I mean, I was done teaching classes (yay, no more lesson plan prep!) but then I still had final grades. And a cluttered house from a semester’s worth of put-off-til-later mess. Could I justify a day spent doing nothing but puttering around and trying to relax? Did I have the time to use that meditation app I’d installed on my phone and mostly ignored?

Bizarrely, I realized that trauma/burnout recovery is likely to expand and take up space (like the metaphorical goldfish) precisely because tamping it down to keep going and surviving day-to-day denies those experiences their validity, whereas teaching expands like the metaphorical goldfish because we deem teachers’ life/work boundaries and human needs invalid. In the one case, I am forced to let my guard down to let my inner self breathe and heal and recover a bit; in the other case, I must keep my guard up lest teaching take over every spare moment as we’re told it should because we’re incentivized to keep doing it out of love (and the performativity of looking busy in a culture of capitalist overwork is also a valuable social investment).

According to this Cosmos article, a goldfish’s stunted growth is less likely to be due to tank size than to “stressors such as changes in temperature, poor diet, confinement, overcrowding or polluted water.” Which, both sadly and hilariously, just seems to make my use of the metaphor all the more appropriate: perhaps toxic environments impact our teaching and our trauma recovery more than the time or space allotted to them.

Maybe we should ditch the metaphor since it’s not wholly accurate, but I have yet to find a better way to explain why I’m trying to set boundaries around my teaching time (it’s laughably nowhere near a 40-hour work week; if I tried to calculate my pay per hour I’d probably have another breakdown). And, as I struggle to reset and recover after burnout and some lingering trauma, I am also reaching for language to explain why recovery seems unbearably slow, as though it’s taking all the time I can spare for it. But then, perhaps the lesson in both cases is that I’m worth it…my teaching career deserves time and love, but not all my time and love since I’m a whole human with other things worthy of time and love in my life, such as prioritizing my mental, emotional, and physical health.

(and if any of this sounds at all bizarre, trust me, every teacher you know is over-worked, especially in 2020, and we have guilt-ridden voices inside us urging us to work harder for the sake of our students, plus there is the social pressure where no one wants to look like they’re working less hard than any of their peers since yeah we are probably being judged externally too)

(yes, the increasing number of parenthetical asides shows how stressed and burned out I am, but winter break is around the corner, huzzah! and hopefully I will manage to decompress some more without guilting myself out of the recovery time I no doubt need…here’s hoping my fellow educators can do the same!)

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