Teacher Self Care

More than a Warm Body: You Are Not Replaceable

There have been many, very important, conversations about teacher self-care lately. I am so glad this is happening, because I know I am one who suffers from spreading myself too thin while burning the candle at both ends! However, there is a constant refrain I hear from teachers who are trying to help people who are burning out, and I find it really troubling:
“Relax. If you died today, they would have a sub in for you tomorrow and things would move on like you were never there.”
Every time I read this comment on an online forum where a teacher is asking for help with burnout or other stressors, it feels like a punch in the stomach because, frankly, it is an insult to what we do and to who these individuals asking for help are. We are human beings who matter, not just to our own families and friends, but to our kids and their communities.
To be more precise here is why you should find a different piece of advice:
Someone who is feeling burnt out, which often comes with a certain amount of depression, should not be told that what they are doing doesn’t matter or that they are replaceable as a person.
It undermines the idea that we, as individuals, have an impact on our students. We talk all the time about how what we do matters both academically and socio-emotionally, how the kids will always remember how we made them feel, and we frequently happily reminisce upon times we know we positively changed a kid’s life. AN INDIVIDUAL did that, not a warm body in front of a classroom.
If this was true, anyone could do our jobs. It wouldn’t matter if they had a teaching background or even liked kids. When I was a kid, for a few years, I lived in a state where subs didn’t need ANY training; their inappropriate behavior (including a detailed account of murder, animal killings, and a threat against us if we misbehaved) continues to stand out in my mind. As a teacher, I had a student literally get arrested during my class when I was unexpectedly absent—he was wonderful for me, and MY absence threw him off; the warm body did not matter. (Subs, I love you, I used to be one of you, and it’s CRAZY hard. Also, most of you won’t threaten to murder my kids. Thanks for that!)
Continuing from point 3: it tells OTHERS that anyone could do our jobs. Think of all the politicians who treat us as less than. Think of the parents who say “Well, it must be fun playing with kids all day; I play with my kids AND have a real job!” Think of the districts and admin who try to get us out of the classroom when we become too expensive. If we don’t think we matter as individuals in this career, why should they?
I know about this firsthand. Though my teaching predecessor did not pass, by no fault of his own, he was suddenly unable to teach. His kids, now my kids, did not get to say goodbye; one day he was there, the next we was not. They went through a few subs afterwards, as it is not easy to find a long-term sub (especially for an elective!), which further gave the kids a sense of unsteadiness.
I took over our program the following year, and kids, teachers, and parents frequently said “That’s not how HE did that,” “We really miss HIM,” “Will HE ever come back?” I emphasize the pronoun not because the words hurt (they did not), but because it shows that this specific person was who they missed. There was a warm body in the room—me—but I did not replace him in the hearts and minds of his community. It has taken me three years to fully be accepted by everyone, particularly the kids and the families. It’s not that they didn’t like me; it’s that they missed him. He mattered to them, as a person, not as a warm body.
Please stop telling other educators that their deaths or other sudden absence would not matter. It would. It does.
Please stop telling other educators that their deaths or other sudden absence would not matter. It would. It does. Click To Tweet

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