Standing in front of my students, my heart beats with the rhythm of the classroom: clock ticking in strained rotation, papers rustling through thick binder clicks, feet tapping against metal desk legs. Thirty pairs of eyes full of expectation gaze up at me, assessing my body and voice for weakness. I must perform and sustain the Great Magic Trick of teaching and simultaneously inhabit opposing versions of myself: nurturer and authority figure.
I know the script well, the delicate balance on the tightrope, the juggling act. I must still perform when I come home, while I’m texting or tweeting, while I’m ferrying children and preparing lessons and grading papers. I’m not just Mrs. Reynolds by day and evening but also by night and midnight.
Teaching is one of the few careers that occupies the sliver of Venn diagram where gendered expectations for the occupational skills of caring and commanding overlap. The supportive role comes naturally to me, but wielding control is a self-conscious struggle. I’ve never been able to sharpen my voice. It hovers at a softness just above a hum.
In my classroom, I know I’m an easy mark for sob stories. I know sometimes they pull one over on me. But if I can’t find the balance, I’m okay with the beam tipping towards the doting side.
Perhaps my experiences as a student contribute to this. I vividly remember the zeal with which my second grade teacher inflicted her favorite punishment: forcing an offending student to eat her lunch in five minutes in front of the class, while we counted down. I remember the fear on a friend’s face, the speed with which she swallowed slices of an orange whole. In sixth grade, I had a teacher whose body was stitched together with spite, and from whom we were the audience for all manner of dyspeptic tales of lovelorn misery. In middle school, there was the assistant principal who made us kneel in the middle of the hallway to prove our shorts were long enough. In high school, I rode the carousel of antagonizing adults who only gave you credit for what you could recite back in their own words. But those are the years when teenage contempt for authority overflows from the ears. Some of us never grow out of that stage, even if we’ve always kept our voices down.
I’ve long known that the path of least resistance is best traveled with silent obedience. The cost of getting through unscathed is my voice. But I’m still surprised with just how comfortable I’ve become in my own muteness. Perhaps this explains why I find it so hard to challenge institutional villains. Teaching still operates in a pyramid scheme, with teachers sandwiched between students and administrators, and all of us crushed under the heavy foot of bureaucracy.
In the common areas, in the teachers’ lounge, in offices, in other classrooms, my colleagues and I cling to each other. In private moments stolen during brief unscheduled time, we hope to find the strength to voice the truths we know for ourselves and our students. This profession has always been dominated by women, and therefore, we’ve never been given autonomy or control. No one from the top to the bottom truly trusts us to fulfill our duty, and they do not want us to talk about the struggles we and our students face. When you sign your contract, you don’t realize you’re also signing a vow of silence.
Every year I lead my classroom from August to May, hopping over hurdles set along the way. But my students see my defeated posture; they hear my whispered protests. The balancing act is a farce. How can they accept me as a trustworthy guardian when I reveal myself to be a compliant conformist? It’s so much easier to love them than to fight for them.
Maybe my struggle is rooted in fear. Maybe I’m afraid that once I accept my own power, I’ll develop an uncontrollable craving for change. My students deserve better than the bare minimum. They deserve better than being reduced to numbers to be graphed on charts. They deserve better than being reduced to collateral damage, whether the battle benefits test makers or gun manufacturers.
This year, teachers across the country have been using their voices to call for better working conditions and better learning conditions. A united chorus of educators have been holding their elected officials accountable. Perhaps the best model for an authority figure is one who challenges her own.
Katharine Reynolds is a teacher and writer who lives with her family in Nashville, TN.