Once upon a time ago, I promised that I would write an updated Teacher Feature on Obi-Wan Kenobi after the release of the Disney show. However, after watching the show, I decided to take a different route. There were some ideas and themes that met my expectations for the show, but there were others that only hit me several weeks after I finished the show. This reflection is a bit more personal than analytical, but my hope is that it speaks to a wider issue that many teachers experience and a choice that many contend with.
Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi takes place in the interim period between the downfall of the Galactic Republic and the events of Episode 4: A New Hope. In my last post, I explored how his exile on Tatooine informed his practices when mentoring Luke, and what he might have learned about the Living Force from his long-dead Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. As the show begins, the audience learns that while Obi-Wan has been watching over young Luke, he has not been successful in connecting with his old Master. His memories, anxieties, and guilt over losing Anakin to the Dark Side prevent him from making that connection. He is reluctant, therefore, to return to the wider galaxy because he feels that he has failed Anakin and has nothing to offer. In truth, the burden does not fall to Obi-Wan alone- the Republic, the Sith, and the Jedi Order all had a collective part to play in the disaster. However, Obi-Wan still feels a personal responsibility for losing Anakin Skywalker to the Sith.
This despair and depression that Obi-Wan feels reminded me of my personal experience with burnout. As a highly sensitive person, I have a bad habit of taking things personally. In the first three years of my teaching career, I taught in three different schools- one private, one public, and one charter. Moving from one school to the next meant that I had to start from scratch for three consecutive years. I had to relearn the school’s culture, its students, their parents, and the various levels of accountability (meetings, PDs, emails, and oh so much more). To say that it was exhausting would be a serious understatement. Every mistake, every slip-up, every tense moment, I took as a personal failure. I knew that the first five years of teaching would be hard, but I had a hard time discerning which mistakes were within my control, and which ones were beyond my scope as an individual. There were some situations that were simply endemic to the population and the systemic issues with the Department of Education, and that holds true with any teaching position out there.
By the time I received notice from my third job that I was not getting a contract for the following year, I was done. I was angry and tired of starting over, and, frankly, I was tired of the politics and hierarchy issues that came with teaching. It was then that I decided that I was done with traditional schooling, that it simply was not a career that I was made for, and that I had failed at it. I took a break for a few months to enjoy my wedding and my honeymoon rather than panic (once again!) over job applications. Once I returned home, I took my time looking and found a job teaching part-time in an early childhood literacy center. The center offered extracurricular activities for young children, and my job was simply to use the program and teach the students (and have fun!). I didn’t have to spend countless hours writing lesson plans, sitting in a dull professional development session, grading, or fighting with irate parents or administrators. All I needed to do was focus on my own teaching practice and on how to help my students.
As I watched Obi-Wan Kenobi, I couldn’t help but see my own experiences reflected in Obi-Wan’s journey. I vividly recalled the self-doubt and doubt in the system. While none of my schools were run by an Empire manned by Stormtroopers, the systems that were in place often made it difficult for me to make meaningful connections with my students and the other teachers. In one of the three schools, my students fought me every single day for one simple reason- they didn’t trust me. And why should they? Most of the adults in their lives were not worthy of their trust. Why should I have been any different? Gaining their trust was impossible because they were used to a system that failed them from the minute they were born. Similarly, Anakin Skywalker’s journey was doomed from the moment Qui-Gon died. While he made his own choices (as he later explained to Obi-Wan), all of the systems around him, including the system that was supposed to teach him and give him a home, failed him from the start. The Jedi /Order failed Anakin because they could not find the faith needed in order to trust him or the prophecy. They did not have the skills to teach him how to master his fears- they could only tell him that his fear needed to be eradicated, or else.
Obi-Wan’s final battle with Darth Vader was the scene that touched me the most. Not only was this a battle between the Dark Side and the Jedi, but it was also a battle that helped Obi-Wan to master his guilt. But when Darth Vader’s helmet cracks, Obi-Wan finally sees what he couldn’t before- that Anakin is ultimately responsible for his own choices, not Obi-Wan. Indeed, Darth Vader says to him,
“I AM NOT YOUR FAILURE, OBI-WAN. YOU DIDN’T KILL ANAKIN SKYWALKER. I DID IT. JUST LIKE I’LL KILL YOU.”Obi-Wan Kenobi Episode 6
Like Obi-Wan, I had to learn to let go of my guilt over the systemic issues within education. There were some moments in my teaching, as with Obi-Wan’s, that needed improvement, but I was not the cause of many of the issues in the schools where I worked. Overall, the education systems, as well as many other systems, within the United States are rife with problems that are beyond any one teacher’s control. Teachers are asked to complete monumental tasks for minimal wages. The media glorifies teachers that can “do it all” and teach “for the kids,” and there are very few systems that support teachers in their efforts, especially for those who teach behaviorally challenged students.
My experiences aside, teacher burnout is a very real problem. In a recent study by Gallup, 44% of K-12 teachers in the US experience burnout, with college and university workers following at 35%, “making educators among the most burned out groups in the U.S. workforce.” The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already existing issues within the national school systems, and teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. If national policies, testing mandates, and the way we view and treat teachers do not change, then there will certainly be dire consequences.
For teachers nationally, a focus on alleviating that burnout has never been more important.Marken and Agrawal