Of Teachers and Old Sisyphus

In which the Elegant Bastard makes the necessary argument that one cannot buy or bully a rolling stone.

Like the wars of religion, debates regarding the duties of teachers return to plague us time after time. Nowhere is this now more hysterically true than in normally calm Toronto.  Here the usual armies are fighting over whether teachers do or do not have a duty to provide extra-curricular activities. On the extreme Yea side we have those who cite the skills gained by students, the relief offered to working parents and the extraordinarily generous salaries and benefits given those”lazy-overpaid-pension-thieves-who-don’t-even-work-during-summers-like-poor-me-has-to!” The more rabid Nay Sayers are those few teachers and those many teacher union voices who talk incessantly of noble sacrifices, ungrateful parents, self-serving politicians and all the other “take-us-for-granted-and-pay-us-crap ingrates who refuse to genuflect to us even when asked nicely to do so”.

Strangely, issues of this nature are often best understood from a great distance. When forced to see things from a different place and a different time, combatants might achieve a new clarity and a greater wisdom, and if not, they are at least blessedly far away from us and so we may once again sip our lattes in peace and quiet companionship. It is in that spirit that I suggest we use the ancient story of Sisyphus to help us understand the wars now being waged on the shores of Lake Ontario.

The original story involves three main players: Sisyphus the King, the largest rock in the world, and a variety of old Greek Gods who were as usual behaving badly. For whatever reason (and there are several different accounts) poor King Sisypus ticked off either the wrong God or too many Gods and ended up condemned to forever roll the afore-mentioned rock up some mountain somewhere. Sadly, just as he neared the mountain’s summit, his rock would escape his grasp and roll all the way back down to the bottom. Sisyphus would have to start again, and again, and again, and keep doing so for all eternity.

What has all this to do with teachers and extra-curricular activities? Let us assume that the rock represents all those activities – the clubs and sports and trips that teachers labour to provide. The teachers are, of course, a modern day version of King Sisyphus, one who has acquired labour contracts, social networking skills and nice shoes. We will not identify the Gods just yet.

Now consider. Our modern Sisyphus rolls the rock for one of three reasons. The first would be because the old Gods command it. But if this is so, then all our freedoms are mere illusions, debate becomes a charade, and we will have put up with election speeches, hockey wars and telemarketing calls for no valid reason.  Let us all agree not to raise this possibility again.

The other two reasons are more useful. Sisyphus either enjoys the suffering he endures while pushing the rock or he simply enjoys pushing the rock. The first of these is problematic for those arguing the noble selflessness of teachers, a concept that necessarily involves suffering. If teachers did not enjoy suffering, they would stop. And if they do enjoy suffering for its own sake, the rock becomes irrelevant. Other far more creative and less strenuous ways to enjoy the suffering sensation are available. There is no need to hang about in smelly classrooms or on poorly manicured playing fields for days and weeks and months on end while supervising other people’s loud children. They could pierce new body parts daily (or the same one repeatedly). They could shop endlessly at Walmart. The truly masochistic could listen to the collected speeches of Rick Santorum (or in Toronto, Rob Ford) over and over again. What glee club or football team or museum trip could possibly provide so intense a pain as these?

However, the third alternative seems to offer even less support for the teachers’ side. If Sisyphus enjoys pushing his rock, then teachers enjoy the extra-curricular activities they provide. Running all those clubs and teams is therefore a selfish endeavor.  English teachers actually like debate and journalism clubs. Gym teachers truly value the respect and admiration young athletes often bestow on coaches. Arts teachers really relish the opportunity to guide a new Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma to maturity? Whatever the teacher-activity combination may be, if teacher egos get great big wet and sloppy kisses from all the extra-curricular activities they lead, isn’t it time they just shut up and got on with it?

Ah, but it is at this point that the Yea side loses control of its own rock and has to watch it roll down the hill. It is precisely because teachers enjoy pushing their rocks that we need to take the withdrawal of extra-curricular activities seriously. Teachers do not suffer when they perform these tasks; they suffer when they are forced to stop them. This suffering is not enjoyed and is therefore significant.

Examine every club or team that stopped during the recent labour strife in Ontario. Yes, you will see the disappointed young people and hear the angry adult voices, but you will also note the dejection of teachers who created these opportunities out of passion, conviction or personal need. And while you think on this, consider the fact that while parents and teachers experience one academic year of disappointment, the cancellation of an activity can destroy years of prior work by its teacher mentors. No gardener happily destroys the living garden.

What forced the cancellations? The answer to that goes far beyond mere money. The freezing of salaries during a period of restraint is not exactly anyone’s Happy Pill but most teachers would have swallowed that with the Grin-and-Bear-It stoicism we can all occasionally muster. However, when employers start clawing back, when government campaigns question dedication and professionalism and when hate-filled public voices make it all very personal, the insult is not to dollars but to dignity and self-worth.

This is the essential point and fully understanding it requires us to finally identify the Gods who gave our modern Sisyphus that extra-curricular rock. The answer is not the usual set of suspects: governments, taxpayers, children. The Gods at work here are private dieties.

Think of the homemaker who sings operetta, the chartered accountant who runs marathons, the chef who volunteers at the local animal shelter or the CEO who has spent twenty years developing a rose. Each serves two masters. The first we will call Work. The other – the After Work master, the private God – lives in the private Soul. The physics teacher who organizes after-school hockey tournaments is not just a public servant obeying some school board, nor is the English teacher who organizes after-school theatre trips or the mathematics teacher who provides after-school bridge lessons. Do not let the setting fool you. When the 3:30 bell rings, the Public Servants leave the building and in come the Sisyphi and the rocks their Gods have given them! (Oh they may look like hockey sticks and ticket stubs and playing cards, but trust me, it’s the rocks.)

This is why cannot legislate extra-curriculars as a duty. “Extra” is precisely that. We can no more force a teacher to run an after-school Gay Straight Alliance than we can force CEO’s to invent new roses. And when we try to make these after school gifts compulsory, we demean the giver and the gift. We trample down dignity. We insult the Self. We sneer at the Rock.

We can, I suppose, continue to coerce and batter and bruise our teachers if we choose, although to do so seems self-defeating in the long term. And when all the shouting stops, one consequence will immediately be clear. Public servants will remain.

But Sisyphus will have left the building.