Getting Stuck on Self-Care: Why Community Care is Important for Educators
“Social security and public education are based on an extremely dangerous principle, namely that you care about other people.” Noam Chomsky
“The author and intellectual Cornel West has said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ I often think that neoliberalism is what lovelessness looks like as policy.” Naomi Klein
Finding ways to save time and practice self-care are important as we move away from grades. After all, tallying points on a multiple-choice quiz takes less energy than giving feedback on a piece of writing or conferencing with students about their work. Better assessments—ones that make room for student thought and voice—demand more of students and demand more of teachers.
One way of coping with increasing labor is to search for ‘hacks’ or tips to streamline the feedback process. In my own practice, I’ve learned to give more focused feedback, which can make the process more ‘efficient.’ However, this logic of efficiency can also be used by governments and institutions to increase both class sizes and labor demands on teachers.
In other words, there’s a fine line between developing our professional competencies by getting better at giving feedback, and the deprofessionalizing demands to cope with cutbacks that teachers increasingly face. It’s in this context that we also need to question the prevailing push for self-care which centers around making us more efficient workers. Here are two examples from the popular press:
In Forbes: “Yes, you have a lot of responsibilities—fixing the dryer, mowing the lawn, paying bills. But it’s important to remember that taking care of yourself is also your responsibility. Little things like sipping tea while looking at the raindrops racing down the window glass, enjoying a bubble bath, or reading a book are essential for your daily happiness.”
In Lifehacker: “The point is, it’s easy to take the “hard work pays off” adage too far, to the point that it becomes counterproductive. Your abilities are worn. Your skills aren’t as sharp. You lose focus. You might think you’re working hard, and maybe you are in some ways, but you’re not working efficiently.”
Self-care then becomes another demand to put on our to-do-list, part of our ongoing responsibilities to become optimal workers. This quickly slides into a kind of deficit thinking about teachers who are unable to ‘keep up,’ especially when combined with the idea that the best teachers run on pure passion. I’ve called this the ‘mindset mindset,’ as it fails to acknowledge very real constraints that fall out of our control.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of taking time for ourselves, but as Yashna Padamsee, says, “let’s not get stuck here.” Pasamsee works with the National Domestic Workers Allianceand in 2011 she initiated a powerful conversation about “communities of care.” While self-care is important, it doesn’t fundamentally interrupt and challenge the larger structural injustices in the system. And so, “We need to move the self-care conversation into community care. We need to move the conversation from individual to collective. From independent to interdependent.”
If being ‘gradeless’ is about challenging a whole system—one that reduces students to numbers and scores—then it’s also important to take another step back from our practice and ask further questions about the changes we need struggle for. Students of color face gross structural injustices (in the US and globally), these injustices are compounded when they intersect with high-levels of child poverty, and teachers are increasingly treated as disposable labor. According to The Guardian, “In England 43% of the state school teachers polled said they were planning to leave the profession in the next five years. The survey shows that the staff recruitment and retention crisis, described by ministers as “scaremongering,” is a reality: 79% of schools say they are struggling to recruit or retain teachers and 88% predict things are going to get worse and that this will severely affect students.”
I don’t have all the answers about what the shift towards community care might look like, but at the least, the shift should come in the form of an interruption that stops us from ‘getting stuck’ on self-care. One of the most prominent examples of community care that I have seen in education comes from Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris who run the Digital Pedagogy Lab. In response to Trump’s Muslim ban, they quickly organized an alternative institute outside of the United States at Kwantlen Polytechnic in British Columbia with the help of Rajiv Jhangiani.
Padamsee emphasizes that we are in danger of becoming isolated in “our struggle and our healing.” Isolation of yet another person, another injustice, is a notch in the belt of Oppression. A liberatory care practice is one in which we move beyond self-care into caring for each other.” In response to her article, B. Loewe articulates some ways to put community at the forefront of our actions: “So then don’t ask the single mother if she’s taking care of herself unless you’re also offering to do childcare. Don’t ask the striking teacher how they’re fairing unless you’re also picking up a picket sign.”
There is a real and important sense in which public education is itself a kind of community care. Thus, as Noam Chomsky argues, attacks on public education are really attacks on an ideal that we care for each other. We should never underestimate how dangerous acts of caring and solidarity are to neoliberalism’s drive to privatize our struggles.