“Well, first off, we wanted to check in and make sure you’re doing okay.”
“Yes. How’s it going?”
My admin’s voices crackled through the laptop’s speaker. Their disembodied heads floated on my screen, random chunks of their faces pixelating in and out of focus. “Uhm, I mean, yea,” I stuttered, surprised by their concern. “It’s been pretty tough, to be honest. My anxiety, which is never that great, has skyrocketed lately.”
For a moment I felt like we were about to embark on a conversation focused on my wellness and our larger community. They hadn’t “checked in” with me before, but it’s never too late to start, I thought.
“Oh, okay, yes,” admin1 stuttered, “uhm, well, this is obviously a very tough time for all. I’m asking because we read your blog and we were … troubled by the feelings of anxiety you wrote about.”
My body immediately began backpedaling. My brain and heart retreated back into their bone caves, scampering away from the clearing they had been cautiously preparing since the conversation’s promising beginning. I wanted to end the Zoom call and get away from whatever was about to happen.
Instead of being seen, now I wanted to hide. I felt embarrassed about who I am and how I am. I felt ashamed.
“Oh, yes,” I said stiffly, my voice immediately modulating into an overly formal register, “I am fine.”
“Okay, good,” admin1 replied, the three bodies exhaling in parallel. “Well, I’m required to ask you if you would like me to arrange a meeting with EMPS,” admin3 offered quietly.
EMPS stands for Employee Mental Performance Services, the department tasked with the daunting job of watching over the mental health of everyone working in the school district.
I say daunting because teachers always rank high on various lists of the most stressed out professions. There’s a good reason for this. Most of us labor in over-crowded classrooms with students desperately in need consistent social services. We teach curriculum that might not reflect us or our students and we must prepare kids to take punishing high stakes tests.
Whether from decision fatigue, physical exhaustion, or a professional tenure characterized by utopian demands and draconian accountability measures, every teacher I know is always on the verge of losing it. That’s just how it is. Or, that’s always how it’s been where I’ve worked, at least. There’s no use complaining about it because what’s going to happen?
The EMPS question threw me. I knew whatever I said next had to be 100% above the board and universally understandable.
“I am completely and totally fine,” I replied with as much affability as I could muster. “I’m getting everything done and I am working at 100% capacity.” A little over the top, I know.
“Okay, so when you wrote that you …” admin2 proceeded to read off a couple lines from my latest blog post. The blog focused on the anxiety I’d been feeling since the shutdown started.
I’ve never been ashamed of my expressive style of writing. In fact, one of the reasons I love writing so much is that I get to take my time and craft every word of every sentence. I have complete control over what I’m saying and how I’m going to say it. (This is a rare feeling for someone with atrocious ADHD)
So I wasn’t prepared for the intense feelings of shame that began to crawl through me as I listened to my administrator begin reading my blog out loud. As soon as my words had been pushed out into the open, they turned tail and hid behind me. In that instant, in my home surrounded by my family and on a conference call with people I’d worked with for years, I felt weirdly alone and nervous. Much more so than I did when I actually wrote the blog post.
It felt strange and alienating, as if my words were being conjured up in bad faith. Instead of acting as my shield, my phrases and sentences were now being used against me. My blog had turned into an impromptu litmus test, a way to cast doubt on my previous assertions that everything was okay.
At that point I realized that honesty wasn’t an option. Because I am most emphatically not okay. That’s why I wrote the post in the first place. The global pandemic has thrown my job into complete disarray. The routines I have relied on to give my life meaning and shape its direction have collapsed. I spend hours trying to figure out what to do only to pick the hardest task at the last minute and then get flustered when I run out of time. I’m stuck in a weird liminal phase somewhere between the established patterns of classroom teaching and the off-the-grid activities that characterize my “summers off.”
My body began to crumple as I moved to end the unnerving conversation. “I am 100% fine. I am completing every task obligated by my contract,” I said. I plastered a look of vacuous serenity on my face and repeated variations of “Everything is great” until admin mercifully decided they had had enough and ended the call.
Later I found out that the superintendent’s staff is hammering central office folks and school administrators to “check in with your teachers.” Taken at face value, this is obviously a good thing. Administrators and higher ups SHOULD be checking in with their teachers. They should know how folks are doing and what folks need as we all hurtle towards an unknown fall. It’s the implementation that falls short.
This point bears repeating: I know my admin’s intentions were good, as were the superintendent’s office’s. But the impact was the antithesis to what they were going for.
Checking in with me functioned the same as checking off a task on a list of chores. The school district’s attempt to make sure I was “seen” ended up pushing me farther way.
Here I want to state that professionally speaking, I am “fine.” I’m getting everything done that I’m supposed to. This is because my mental health and my job performance aren’t some sort of either/or binary. The two are interrelated; the better I feel, the better I teach, of course. My persistent anxiety doesn’t render me useless in the classroom. Like most high functioning anxious depressives, I have a lifetime of experience keeping up my various public personas.
Systems influence relationships and our ways of being together. The ties that bind a community struggle to thrive in an environment of rationality and standardization. When people and relationships are reduced to check-marks and flow charts, organic connections break down. The messiness of human experience and the art of raising children cannot be routed through decision trees.
My anxiety, my work performance, and my community are bonded together, for better and for worse.
Without honest and sustained discourse about the relationship between the demands of our profession, the resulting wear and tear on our physical and mental bodies, and the stressors of the “outside world,” there’s only so much good a virtual check-in can do. We deserve more.