Monday, July 22, 2013

Mr. Fitz Gets Depressed: a graphic novella with commentary

There is an epidemic of teacher depression, demoralization, and stress in this country, and for a while I was part of it. 

The series of comic strips I have assembled below, is, at least for me, the most important series I have ever done. Drawing it meant I was past the events that inspired it. More importantly, I think drawing it may have helped some other teachers who have felt the same way I did know they were not alone. 

When I began talking to people about the series I had planned, I called it "Mr. Fitz Gets Depressed." I wondered if I could pull it off, because, of course, depression isn't really funny. Yet I took comfort in the fact that my cartoonist hero, Charles Schulz, had made depression and anxiety funny for nearly 50 years. Maybe I could find the lighter side, too. Doing so would actually mean I was over mine. 

Before I ran this series, I asked a question on my Mr. Fitz Facebook pageThis sounds like a downer, and you don't have to give away who, but how many of you know a teacher who has suffered or is suffering from, a bout of depression because of what is happening to our profession? I'm curious. I have, and I'm addressing it in the strip soon.That question resulted in 98 responses, unprecedented for my little Facebook page. Every single one of them was affirmative-- yes they knew depressed, stressed teachers. Many of them admitted it was them. And most of them knew people who had thought about leaving the profession. 

This series is based on actual events, but underplays and compresses them. My depression lasted, on and off, for nearly five years. Did I think about leaving the teaching profession? Very seriously. What caused me to be so depressed? Well, if you have ever felt a calling to a particular job, have ever held that job and been allowed the autonomy to work hard, be creative, and see the results of your work changing lives for the better, then you may have a good idea what I'm talking about. 

My teaching career didn't begin easily-- I had a rocky start with an extremely challenging group of students. But once I was up and running, teaching became my bliss. But while things were fine in my class room as I developed my craft, changed schools, began writing a comic strip, won county teacher of the year, got book deals to write books for teachers with Scholastic, and generally had my teaching validated several different ways, things outside the class room began to sour. 

Standardized testing became the sole focus of education. Then came standardized teaching. Curriculum maps were written. Workbooks were distributed. All the things that had made me a great teacher-- creativity, coming up with my own lessons and assignments, finding just the right resources to teach what needed to be taught-- became liabilities. It was like having the rug pulled out from under me. Meanwhile, we were having our evaluations tied to our test scores. But if I had no autonomy over how or what I taught-- how was I responsible for the results? Pretty much every single reform scheme designed to improve schools and teachers instead interfered with my ability to teach. They didn't encourage me to teach better. They depressed me.

A number of specific events, events I won't relate to here, sent me into spiral after spiral of depression. It seemed that the powers that be wanted to take my calling and turn it into a job. I didn't see any way out of the situation. I didn't want to stop teaching, but teaching was no longer a source of joy for me. I would be up at all hours of the night worrying about it. Newspaper stories and editorials slamming teachers and touting reforms would make my stomach turn. I began to have physical symptoms of stress. I have always been a "good kid" who did what was expected of me. Only now what was expected of me no longer seemed right. What seemed right ran counter to what was expected of me. It was kind of a nightmare.

In the comic strip, Mr. Fitz has a nightmare about the possible future of schools (which I have posted here as well), and wakes up depressed. The plot resumes here on the day after his nightmare.

























All of the symptoms Mr. Fitz has in this series, I had. The heart attack scare happened pretty much exactly as written. My wife, the real Mrs. Fitz, was endlessly supportive in the midst of all my angst. I can draw cartoons about it now, but make no mistake-- I was not in a good place. Having the series run in the newspaper was interesting; I had people asking after my health at church and at school functions. Our next door neighbor and one of my college professors said they were afraid I was going to kill off Mr. Fitz and end the strip. I told the neighbor that she could have come over to our house and ask how it was going to end, and she said she preferred to read about it in the paper to see how it unfolded, to live with the suspense. 

The final sequence, about Mr. Fitz meeting former students, didn't all happen in one place, but it is all based on real encounters with former students, and they did indeed help me realize what really matters about my teaching. My former students rescued me, and helped me to find my "Sweet Spot" again. My wife rescued me, too, by reminding me that I should listen to those students. My own children, in fact, were also my students for all three years of middle school, and they reminded me of what I'd done for them as well. And, it should be noted, I am blessed with an administration that values real teaching and encourages me. Not everyone has that. For a while I didn't appreciate their support enough. Now I do. 

In the end, Mr. Fitz's decision is my decision, and drawing the ending to this series help me firm that decision up in my mind. If I allow the reformers' agenda to drive me from being a public school teacher or ruin what is best in my teaching, I let them win. Enough teachers have left in disgust, and I can't blame them. For the time being, though, I have decided to keep teaching the way I know best, and to speak up about why these reforms are so wrong. Any agenda for public schools that can send a teacher like me into a tailspin of depression has some very serious flaws, and that's an understatement.

I followed up on the series with this strip just a while ago, and it was the perfect epilogue to the series. 



16 comments:

  1. Great thoughts, and nice to read this storyline again! Hope you get it nationally syndicated...but I'll read it wherever you are!
    Jean M.

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  2. Sitting here with tears in my eyes. Teach happy indeed. *huge hug from another English major*

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  3. All that you mention that led to your stress & depression has happened to teachers across the nation, me included. It is part of the reason I couldn't wait to retire this June after 36 years of teaching. Teaching was my passion, my life - not all of it, but I think you know what I mean. All the testing and standards have taken creativity out of the teacher & replaced them with robots, except robots don't build the relationships with students that are needed to be successful. Also, there is the push to get rid of the more experienced teachers because the newbies can do the job "just as well." Keep up the good work "Mr. Fitz".

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    1. Thanks, Eileen. I do know what you mean.

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  4. I am in tears. Wow! Thank you for sharing this with another depressed teacher.

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    1. I hope it was cathartic for you... Writing it was for me!

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  5. It is always good to know that people feel the way you do, and that there is hope. As a new teacher I work 70-80 hours a week, get low pay, have high student loan payments, am upside-down in my house, get nearly constant negativity from the media, politicians, and administration. Parents can be adversarial, thoughtless and/or mean. To be honest, my students might be the only ones that are reliably positive about the job I do.

    And then there is the constant BS that gets added on, seemingly every week. The next set of standards, rule, evaluation system, law, mission statement, or other arbitrary non-sense that comes from above, without rhyme or reason, and without the slightest thought to how it actually affects the teachers and students that are actually involved with learning.

    But in the end, I remember that none of that stuff matters. It's my students and me in it together, and the more you can ignore the outside noise, the more you realize it's a fantastic job, that just happens to be physically impossible to do as well as you want to do it.

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  6. "But if I had no autonomy over how or what I taught-- how was I responsible for the results?" My favorite quote about standardization and test scores being used for evaluation and 'accountability'.

    I'm not a teacher yet, but I'm not going to let the warnings of aggravation, stress and depression (from BATs and even from my own teachers) keep me from my dream. And I'm too stubborn to let the reformers win! :)

    - Hannah M.

    P.S. Absolutely love the comic!

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    1. Thanks! I'm hoping people like you won't be driven away. I think a big change is coming-- teachers are starting to find their voices!

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  7. I am so glad to read your blog. You and some other writers have truly helped me anticipate entering my 33rd year of teaching ready to teach students and to resist mindless authority.

    I think this quote accurately expresses my attitude: Teach happy. Teach right. Speak up." May I have your permission to use it as my signature on my school email and to create a t-shirt for me to wear the first day back?

    Also I loved your story about the galvanic bracelets.

    Thank you for expressing balance between mere negativity and informed resistance.

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  9. I forgot to write 2 more things:
    1) I'm also in Florida
    2) I would certainly include your name as the originator i the quote in my sig and on the shirt.

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  10. I hope that your graphic novel will motivate teachers to teach according to their hopes, dreams, and love for students and subject matter. I also hope it will inspire students to contact their former teachers and give them encouragement and thanks for what they have done and meant to the youth. In the past few years, many of my former students have found me on facebook and have told me of the difference I have made in their lives. The most amazing testimonies have come from my first class in 1970; I had 40 sixth graders in a rural school with no help and no support, few materials and supplies, and no cumulative records to enlighten me on their strengths and weaknesses. Because my classroom discipline was weak, I didn't have my contract renewed, which is the equivalent of being fired. I saw that year as a total failure, yet the students have good memories and have written of how I made a difference in their lives. Even thinking I was a failure that year, I found another job, and continued to teach in four different districts in two states, for a total of 34 years. Thank you!

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    1. I love your story! My first full year of teaching was at a rural school where I taught 9th grade English. I, too, was week with discipline, and it was a rough group. I was kept on, fortunately, because of the fact that it was so hard to get teachers to teach there. This past year, the daughter of one of those students was at my current school (though not in my class) and the former student came to visit me at Open House. Just like you, I found that her memories of my class were very positive, and she still remembers what we did-- even though I remember that year as miserable. I have to wonder if, in today's climate, I would have been let go as ineffective and my career cut short before it even began. Thanks for your message-- It helps me know that I'm not alone, too!

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  11. This is great. I love the fact that you pulled your story out of your own life in a way that is captivating and engaging with us, your readers.

    I'm not a teacher, and as I read through this I felt connected with the same struggles which you faced.

    Great job. Looking forward to seeing what you do next - Bryan

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