They can be found in any school building: the “old buffalo” who have been there for years and know how to navigate the system. These buffalo keep their heads down: They know how to be left alone, have made it clear to many that they will not be pushed around and railroaded, and more often than not choose to stay out of the limelight and keep to themselves… not for any other reason than to avoid the drama which pervades most school buildings.
Don’t mistake these buffalo for other teachers who have been around for years; buffalo keep their head down unless given a reason to charge and defend—they are always aware of what is best for the herd, both students and colleagues. Other teachers who have been around for a few years may feel entitled and superior, so they are the opposite of the buffalo: Like a squeaky wagon wheel, they whine and push to get their way and tend to charge into a situation to make changes for their own benefit, with no clear indication of care for anyone else.
As a new teacher, I had the task of picking out the old buffalo and staying away from the squeaky wheels. Several years into teaching, now I believe I have finally figured out who the actual buffalo are and who the squeaky wheels are—those masquerading as buffalo but are actually rogue strays who are only out for themselves.
One of my buffalo left at the end of last year, and she gave me some advice: Seek out the old buffalo in the building and stay close to them. They are the ones who matter. These buffalo have seen leadership change, teachers come and go, and the educational pendulum swing back and forth. They know how to affect change and when to let things go… valuable lessons for someone like me who tends to be reactionary.
These old buffalo know how to survive, but at what cost? What is the cost for teachers, in any building, to affect change and do what’s right, especially when met with contrary forces, like obstinate leadership.
Here are some costs I’ve noted over the last few years:
- Substance abuse problems: While I am a fan (and a regular) of happy hour, why is that such a common place to be able to “vent” frustrations and gain some perspective from like-minded friends? Are there no other venues that may offer some release? Perhaps an occasional happy hour is nothing to be frowned upon, but where do you draw the line? Is a daily happy hour on your own at home—with a fresh bottle of wine, frosty mug of beer, or stiffly mixed drink—any different? How many of us cope with our work stresses and frustrations from the classroom by having a drink or two… or more?
- Health problems: To my knowledge, no firm link can be found between a person’s work environment and their overall health. There are certainly studies out there that document the health issues of a variety of professions, and we all know stress causes health problems. However, over the last few years the instances of major health problems among my co-workers (and even some students), such as cancer, tumors, diabetes, depression, anxiety, etc., have seemed to be significantly higher than in any other profession I’ve had experience with. How much is our working environment affecting our health?
- Relationship problems: Maybe a spouse or significant other doesn’t understand the amount of time spent on grading, planning, etc. Maybe each time they turn the corner at the grocery store with you, they are confronted with another co-worker or students, and they feel that there is nowhere they can just BE with you without you being a teacher or surrogate parent. Maybe your children are tired of you always spending your time and energy benefiting other people’s kids… Whatever the issue may be, loved ones will often have a hard time sharing your attention and love with who they perceive to be complete strangers.
Teaching is a stressful occupation—many are—but there are very few other professions (nurses come to mind) that demand giving so much of yourself away to other people.
Let me get to the point and the question that’s been vexing me for a while: What will be my cost? How much will be enough?
I find myself in this predicament—it’s been growing for a couple of years now. I honestly believe all (or at least most) educators go into education for noble reasons: for the students, to change the world, to make an impact, to change something. Then these bright-eyed new teachers meet THE SYSTEM. The system is designed to reward complacency and conformism and shuns things that are different and innovative; while this is happening, the system is claiming to reward innovation and creativity. These bright-eyed educators hit their first wall—or their first several—and they are shaken but not deterred. I can change this, they think. I can make this better. So they dig in and keep trying…
The cycle progresses, and with each defeat these bright-eyed educators lose a little more of their vigor, lose a little more of their hopefulness and resolve, lose a little more of themselves. Eventually they close their doors and do what’s best for kids in the only medium they have some control over: their own teaching. The fact remains that even their own teaching is not safe, and at this point in their careers, these once starry-eyed educators have to make a choice: to stay or to leave.
To stay means to continue to fight or to conform; the questions will continue to come: Are they looking for a way to get rid of me? Why does it feel like I have a target on my back? Why don’t they see what is best for kids? Is it worth the fight to keep going? What are the consequences of just shutting my door and doing my own thing? Am I still being effective for my students?
Why did I begin teaching in the first place?
To leave means walking away from a labor of love and the possibility of defeat; questions will continue to come: Am I doing the right thing? Does this mean I’m a quitter? Can I still make a difference? Who will take care of these kids? How do we even begin to make education what it should be? Is there such a thing as equality for kids? For teachers?
I don’t know the answers, but I know the questions… I’ve been asking myself for a while, and the question that continues to plague me is what is the cost?
What is the cost? When do we walk away from something we care deeply about, from something that could make all the difference in the world? When did leadership stop caring about supporting teachers? Weren’t they teachers at one point also? When will this community see the writing on the wall for what’s happening to the good teachers, the great teachers?
What will the cost be for me? For my family? When will enough be enough?
It was suggested to me recently that leadership would like to see me move on… that I should have left with all of my friends. I’m not sure what to say to that, but I know I’m not ready to leave yet. I still have some fight left in me. I will leave on my terms.
Maybe I’ll never make it to be an old buffalo… maybe I will… Figuring out the happy medium between shutting my door to do my own thing and staying out in the hallway to be visible to my students is where I find myself today. One thing I know is that I refuse to be a squeaky wheel, determined to whine and push my way through rough patches to get exactly what I want with no regard for the larger community I am a part of.
Like the old buffalo, I just want to protect and be a part of the herd.