After having the temerity to outwit the gods and deny them their vengeance, upon his death Sisyphus was condemned in the afterlife to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountainside. In his landmark essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claimed that Sisyphus was superior to his fate in the moments of respite after the boulder crossed the summit and rolled back to the base of the mountain. Camus further suggested that, in those moments of rest before the next bout with his eternal labor, we must imagine Sisyphus as joyful.
The logic of that last proposition can prove elusive, but the fate of Sisyphus effectively demonstrates the existential conundrum of each individual forging meaning out of perceived absurdity of meaninglessness. As Sisyphus purchases a few moments of repose by his grueling labor, he becomes the ultimate existential hero. He conquers the absurd by finding a purpose in a situation that appears hopelessly futile.
The Sisyphus myth is an apt metaphor, albeit an imperfect one, for the fate of teachers today. It is imperfect because Sisyphus discovers purpose in a futile task while teachers often discover futility in work most meaningful.
The latter seems infinitely more cruel.
Teachers, at least those committed to optimizing educational opportunities for children, are the spiritual stepchildren of Sisyphus. Their mountain takes three decades to climb and the boulder seems to grow inexorably by accretion. The constants in the professional life of teachers are requests, directives, and even longings, to do ever more for their students, accompanied by the illogical corollaries that fewer resources will be allocated and less time will be allotted.
At least Sisyphus knew how he had offended Zeus to arrive at his fate.
Teachers scratch their heads and wonder how their neighbors can stand by and silently witness what is happening to those charged with awakening young minds. Teachers also wonder how their neighbors can acquiesce to a community bent on funding conditions in our schools that promote little more than intellectual Darwinism for our children.
At least teachers do not labor for all eternity. Teachers can exercise free choice and walk away from this sublime torture called teaching at any time. Most do just that within five years. But for many, that act of surrender is a worse fate than pushing the boulder could ever be.
To no avail my parents always advised me to be careful when I wished for something. Like many children I did not heed them. All I ever really wanted to do was teach.
Now, it seems that teaching is just about all I do.
My participation in outside interests has declined precipitously across my years in the classroom.
-The martial arts are out. Lobbying in Annapolis and fighting for school funding takes precedence.
-Music is out. Once a constant companion, that old guitar in the corner has not been touched in years while my computer keyboard has nearly become an added appendage.
-Sustained Silent Reading for pleasure is out. That never-ending pile of papers always beckons for correction.
-Astronomy is out. Stargazing on distant mountaintops unfortunately involves remaining awake well past sunset after somewhere between eleven and fourteen hours have been devoted to my livelihood.
How has it come to this? That is a simple question. Teaching is a to-do list that grows by twelve items a day with only sufficient time to eliminate five, and three of those five items have nothing to do with actual instruction.
According to Camus, the gods “…quite reasonably thought that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Sisyphus, however, still has some small chance at hope. He can accomplish his assigned task and earn a momentary reprieve from his punishment. Sisyphus can still put his shoulder to the boulder, gain purchase, and achieve the summit. It would be a far worse punishment if the boulder never moved.
Compare that to the lot of teachers. Ideally, our goal is to make a scholar of every child. Failing that, the teacher’s mission is to inspire children to make maximum use of their talents. Not having the means to accomplish these noble goals leads to feelings of frustration and futility.
A normal day for a typical teacher comprises more than 9,000 teacher/student minutes. Nearly three-dozen children arrive periodically for a daily total of 270 minutes of instruction. If the instruction is to be dynamic, tack on 4 ½ hours of planning time. If teachers are to hold students accountable for their learning, marathon sessions of correcting papers must occur. The daily grind is interminable.
The non-instructional time of the contracted day is largely consumed by other-duties-as-assigned. Do not forget to be at your door before the school day begins and between classes. Do not neglect to be at your duty station. Prepare to stand in a long line at the photocopier as colleagues deforest the planet to cope with textbook shortages and obsolete materials. Watch those “quick” phone calls to parents become 45 minute planning-period-killers. During lunch, students come with résumés in search of letters of recommendation, or to make-up a quiz, or to seek help. It never ends.
Teachers are systematically denied the necessary time, resources and circumstances to achieve the desired goal of preparing children for this new century.
To paraphrase some homespun southern wisdom: sorry, but that rock just don’t roll.
[This is a slightly revised reposting of a 2001 Commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. Things have changed for the worse in the intervening years thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top. ]