Teachers Are Told to Ignore Their Bodies, But Chronic Pain Made Me Listen to Mine
I have never been as vulnerable with students as I was then, having to tell the fifth graders I was in pain.
Teaching to TransgressTeaching to Transgress
Once you begin looking for it, you can see this division and repression everywhere: School schedules often include no breaks for teachers or students and require teaching “bell to bell.” Maternity leave policies in this women-dominated profession are so meager that American teachers bank or borrow their sick days to have a bit more time (or sometimes any time at all) to recover and bond with their newborns. Meanwhile, male teachers with unused sick days can cash them out at retirement. Upon return to work, lactating parents have to advocate for both time and space to pump milk. In New York, lactation spaces have only been required by law since 2018. A former colleague of mine pumped in a bathroom for months until that school rearranged closet spaces to create a lactation room. And I don’t know that I’ve ever worked in a school building of any type or age that was fully, conveniently ADA accessible. In fact, only 17 percent of New York City schools are.
Each of these policies is a statement. Collectively, they say that teachers are important, but their bodies and selfhood are not. Needing to pee is inconvenient, as is choosing to start a family or breastfeed, or twisting an ankle and needing an elevator that can get you to your next class on time. Even the perennial articles about how “teachers will be replaced by robots” carry the implicit message that our bodies don’t matter. A brain in a jar doesn’t need a pension plan.
Even teachers themselves try to find ways to divorce themselves from their bodies in the classroom; I recently saw a crowdsourced Twitter thread of new teacher advice that featured a mortifying example: Erase your whiteboard or chalkboard with up-and-down motions, not side to side, to “reduce backside jiggle.” This “pro tip” shows just how ingrained the idea of body-as-inconvenience truly is in the minds of teachers.
In my late twenties, I landed my first head teaching job as a fifth-grade homeroom teacher. Around the same time, I started having chronic lower back pain. My symptoms were perfect for a workaholic teacher: I could stand, I could squat, I could even touch my toes. I just couldn’t sit. When I tried, I got shooting pains down both legs. Lifting one foot to put on pants in the morning was agony. But because I could dance that little diagnostic ballet of stand-squat-touch-your-toes without feeling pain, two different spine doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The physical therapy they prescribed helped enough to help me muddle through between major episodes.
During the worst of these episodes, I went to school when I should have taken the day off. Any teacher reading this knows that it’s more work for us to call in sick than to power through if we can. By midmorning, I truly could not move. I called the dean to say I had to see a doctor. But coverage for my class wasn’t available until after lunch. I felt my stomach drop. I could make it, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. I realized that if I wanted to make it through the remaining couple of hours, I would have to tell my students what was wrong. “I’m in a lot of pain.” I remember saying. “You might see me move in some funny ways. I might ask you to get things for me or for each other.” Translation: I was in full spasm, holding edges of tables for support as I moved around the room, and tilting my body to one side like the letter C, on an entirely wrong axis for spines to curve.
I have never been as vulnerable with students as I was then, having to tell the fifth graders I was in pain. Some kids were wide-eyed, as if I had just told a secret or said a bad word. That was probably the first time they had heard a teacher say anything so straightforward about her own adult body. But after my announcement, they sprang into action. “Here you go, Chiara,” said one child who brought me my coffee mug from across the room. I had never heard them coordinate so much as they cleaned up materials from math class. “Here, don’t forget these.” “There’s some pieces under that table.” Even the tone of their voices was gentler as they put fraction tiles and pencils back where they belonged. Sharing my pain with them became a lesson: This is what we do when someone in the class is hurting. This is how we take care of each other. In fact, I thought afterward, maybe we should practice that care more often.
Those were the students I taught from home in spring 2020, hoping against hope that it would all be only temporary, that I’d be hugging them hello before the end of the year. When the pandemic forced educators to teach remotely, parents had to recognize, perhaps for the first time, the physical nature of our work. In person, I could see when a student was tired, sad, or daydreaming, and quietly check in—sometimes all it took was a hand gesture, a tap on the shoulder, or the proverbial teacher look. I could tag along to recess and join a dodgeball game to make sure girls were getting included in games. I could wake up a tired class with stretches and vocal warm-ups I learned as a high school theater nerd. On Zoom, blank muted squares replaced the chatter of the classroom. I uploaded recorded math lessons and asynchronous homework—but recreating the sweet, wacky energy of our classroom community felt impossible.
Educators were the first to admit that remote learning wasn’t ideal. But the more the world figured out about Covid-19, the more obvious it was to many educators that schools were in no way prepared to operate in the face of an airborne virus. New York City educators shared online about their windowless classrooms, or sealed windows they couldn’t or weren’t allowed to open. With photos and diagrams, they demonstrated the impossibility of keeping six feet of space between each of the twenty- or thirty-odd students in their regular classrooms. Even more damning, they pointed out preexisting health hazards like unventilated bathrooms and cockroaches in school buildings—these spaces weren’t safe before the pandemic.
In summer 2020, that’s about where the citywide conversation hit its limit. Enough was enough; it was time to come back in person: Parents needed it, which was code for businesses and the economy needing it. Teachers and their unions pushed back against a reopening plan that left laundry lists of health and safety questions unanswered, asserting that there was still a viable and safe way to do our jobs without putting our bodies on the line. The response turned nasty. Suddenly, teachers were no longer heroes who deserved a million-dollar raise. For wanting adequate testing, tracing, and PPE, we were alarmist. For not wanting to risk ourselves or our loved ones getting sick, we were lazy. Never mind that online teaching is harder, not easier, or the joys of in-person learning it takes away. I’m sure the debate over a safe reopening could only become so vitriolic because the city and country as a whole are so used to disregarding our well-being. So many prepandemic policies already cast teacher bodies as an inconvenience. To assert our embodiedness when society most needed us to get “back to normal” was intolerable.
hooks wrote in 1994 that “to call attention to the body is to betray the legacy of repression and denial that has been handed down to us.” She knew that teachers and professors can be complicit in that repression, but we don’t have to be. So many of the harms in schools today—some new, some made worse by the pandemic—spring from trying to treat teachers, and, by extension, our students, as disembodied minds in the classroom. It’s the mentality behind everything from attempts at book banning to our country’s shamefully low teacher salaries. These policies try to insist we must be neutral (our lived experiences are not valid and shouldn’t affect our teaching), expendable (if we don’t like the pay, we can work elsewhere or get a second job), and interchangeable. It explains how some towns didn’t think twice about having cops fill the teacher shortages during the omicron wave, as if a uniformed stranger with a deadly weapon wouldn’t impact the learning of the children in the room.
One unexpected gift of teaching with chronic pain, and then in a pandemic, is feeling the mind-body divide so much less. In a way, I think the choice was made for me: If I didn’t bring my whole self to school, I don’t think I’d be able to keep showing up. I was working so hard to nurture my students, but if I wanted to keep teaching, I had to nurture my own self too. That meant body and mind, teacher self and writer self. In more than one way, I have had to bridge the gap.
If I didn’t bring my whole self to school, I don’t think I’d be able to keep showing up.
In the end, I got a correct diagnosis for my low-back pain from a sports medicine doctor. It was not lost on me that his job is to keep athletes moving, people for whom a functioning body is a professional tool. It wasn’t my spine at all, it turns out. It was sacroiliac joint dysfunction—hips, not spine. My sacrum and hip bones were out of alignment with each other, and even physical therapy couldn’t keep them in place.
To be fair, my life was seriously unbalanced at the time. Two years out of my master’s program, a new head teacher: Of course I was grinding, with ten-hour days plus weekend work. I was ignoring pain, exhaustion, and that mysterious thing called fun. I was ignoring things I loved to do before I entered the classroom: namely art and writing. Even with all my effort, my first year as a head teacher came with almost enough self-doubt to send me running from the profession. I don’t think I felt like I could afford to take my eye off the professional ball for one second. But the ragged shape my body was in mirrored the grief I felt without a creative practice. My pain was a lesson I couldn’t ignore, telling me loud and clear that my body needed and deserved care. I realized my writing mind needed that same care and deserved any time I could give to it. After about a decade disengaged from almost all public forms of writing, I started sending out poems again. Slowly, over months of submissions, the yeses came. Teacher self and writer self came into a bit more alignment. And slowly but surely, physical therapists helped me realign my stubborn bones and build the muscle strength that would keep them working.
Just as I had to stop ignoring my creative self at work, I had to stop ignoring my body. I used to be one of those teachers who stayed until 6 p.m. to plan lessons, prepare materials, and grade piles of work while the sky slowly went dark outside the classroom windows. To some extent, that’s a new-teacher rite of passage, but after that first spring of lockdown and remote school I couldn’t do it anymore. I could not ignore my health needs. I was an as yet unvaccinated teacher in a building full of unvaccinated kids: Any extra time spent breathing inside that building was a hazard. Now even in winter, I try to make it home in daylight, at least enough for a long walk in the park with my dog.
I try to bridge the mind-body divide for my students too. Sometimes, that literally means using our whole bodies to learn, like when I have them create movement tableaus to go with a written passage about the geography of ancient Mesopotamia. In small groups, they make up their own movements and present at the front of the room. Different kids stand tall like mountains or lie down on the floor and wiggle like flowing rivers. They roar like the lions that inhabited the ancient land or lunge on the word inundation to show the rivers’ dramatic floods. That might be the closest I’ve ever come to classroom yoga. Now that we can get within six feet of each other again, my current students love to put on Just Dance videos from YouTube and do the moves in front of the smartboard. And yes, I join in.
It has been a hard couple of years to be a student, or a teacher, or pretty much anyone with a body. If I’ve learned anything from bell hooks or the pandemic, it’s that if we want to heal that mind-body rift, we must practice showing up as whole people in the classroom. We will need to learn to be with each other in our full messy, embodied humanness: our joys and fears, our pains and desires, our griefs and passions. That wholeness is the opposite of repression. If I can model one thing for my students every day, let it be that. It’s what I want most for them, and also for myself.
Chiara is a writer and teacher. She delights in public art, public libraries, and biking through New York City. You can find her poems in Crab Creek Review, Yes Poetry, and Best New Poets, among others.