Who Takes Care of the Teachers? Institutions Make the Biggest Difference

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: The following is the second part of an essay that was originally posted on Maha Bali’s blog.

In the first part of this essay—“Teachers Are Carers—But Who Takes Care of the Teachers?”—I discussed two types of care that teachers need and can get: care from fellow teachers, and care from their own students. Here, I explore a third area: equitable caring policies at institutions.

This is the most difficult type of care but the most important one. As bell books wrote: “Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein we teach” (bell hooks, Teaching Community, p. 91)

The first two types of care (teachers and students caring for teachers) are like Band-Aid solutions for temporary situations. But of course no matter what happens, we may need them, because situations where we need emergency care always exist, and it helps to have a sustained and sustainable community to fall back on. It’s good to have a caring community of educators you can lean on, internal or external to your work environment, and to be able to occasionally be vulnerable with students. As Mays Imad reminds us, “nurture is our nature.”

But the real issue is institutional demands on our time that can burn us out, no matter what we do in terms of self-care and community care. These systemic issues will reproduce a cycle of exploitation unless we resist and interrupt them.

So if you are in a position of power in your institution, make sure you are giving people proper time off and not asking them to work on weekends or when they are sick (my boss is really good at that). When I had Covid, I worked about one or two hours a day, and only because I wanted to, it was my choice. I also knew I had people to talk to and there was a culture of care within my department, people offering to take over for me in workshops, etc., because my boss instituted this culture. And whenever any of us was sick, the others took over smoothly and naturally, with gentle nudges from her, and recognition of the importance of these actions for the overall health and well-being of the department.

Recognizing and Rewarding Affective Labor

If you are not in a position of power but you are in a position of advocacy, try to take collective action to ensure you and your colleagues are not exploited and that their affective labor does not go unrewarded. (For more on affective labor for faculty developers, start with the work of Lee Skallerup Bessette, such as this article.)

If you are not in a position of power but you are in a position of advocacy, try to take collective action to ensure you and your colleagues are not exploited and that their affective labor does not go unrewarded.

Faculty who are great mentors for students tend to be asked to take on more graduate theses, for example, but in some institutions, there is no time release or additional pay. This has to stop. I don’t think the answer is to equally distribute this kind of work. It is not unreasonable to assert that “humans vary in their abilities to give and receive care” (White & Tronto, “Political Practices of Care: Needs and Rights,” Ratio Juris, 2004, p. 450), just as they vary in other areas. It is just that those who do more care work and do it well have not been historically rewarded for it, not by money, release time, or even moral recognition. It gets taken for granted.

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There also need to be equitable work policies that don’t demand the same degree of research output for every person regardless of how much effort and time they put into other things like teaching and service. Again, I see it so often that people who care get an unequal load of service work, which takes effort and time but is not as rewarded as highly as research.

Advocate for at least recognizing affective labor. In my institution, for example, I helped write the documentation to apply for my department’s staff getting an “excellence award” for their work in 2020. As a faculty member, I didn’t get any of the financial fruits of this, but I made the effort with so much passion because they deserved it so much, and I was advocating for them. I also enjoyed finding quotes from faculty members giving us glowing reviews for our work. Part of our advocacy for my department is keeping track of these when unsolicited but also constantly surveying so we keep getting feedback.

We also need to recognize the ways in which this pandemic affects us unequally. We are all juggling, but some of us are juggling with fire. Women especially have the additional burdens of family care as well which is heavier when working from home. Ethnic minorities in the United States have a heavier economic burden, as well as the additional

We also need to recognize the ways in which this pandemic affects us unequally. We are all juggling, but some of us are juggling with fire.

burden of ongoing violence and injustice against their people and the trauma of that. In the Arab world, Palestinians and refugees carry a similar additional psychological toll from living with violence and instability, or knowing their relatives are suffering back home. And people with pre-existing mental health challenges have been harder hit by this pandemic that is affecting us all mentally to varying degrees.

Advocating for Empathy in Institutional Policies

We also need to advocate for empathetic institutional policies that enable us to care for our students in smoother ways. Like flexible grading policies. Like removing surveillance technologies from our classrooms. Like allowing alternative grading policies that reduce anxiety and promote learner autonomy. Like anything removing any barriers that make it difficult for neurodivergent and minority students to thrive! Like more collaboration between different departments on campus to support students with disabilities and mental health challenges, so that the burden is shared equitably with those who have expertise. That faculty should have access to mental health support as well as students. That female instructors should be paid on par with their male counterparts. That maternity leave policies are fair (in Egypt they’re quite good, but I still had to include this as a general point).

And yet, even as we advocate for more equitable systems in our institutions, those of us who care come from a different place, where our care and service act as a form of political resistance:

“Service as a form of political resistance is vital because it is a practice of giving that eschews the notion of reward. The satisfaction is in the act of giving itself, of creating the context where students can learn freely. When as teachers we commit ourselves to service, we are able to resist participation in forms of domination that reinforce autocratic rule. The teacher who serves continually affirms by his or her practice that educating students is really the primary agenda, not self-aggrandizement or assertion of personal power.”
(hooks, 2003, p. 91)

And that’s why it is particularly exhausting. But that’s also why having a supportive community of teachers with similar values matters. And this is also why student support matters—even if it is just the reciprocity of showing they have learned or appreciate our efforts. This is what keeps us going. It’s not like caring people can stop caring on a whim. We care because this is who we are and we cannot go against who we are. But we will be exploited and burned out if we do not take this to a level of advocacy so that we are not always in a struggle.

Do you have other suggestions? Please share them in the comments field below.

Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice in the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is a co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and a co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.


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