Before I came to teaching, I held lots of different jobs, and most had an air of “secretary” to them whether that was the title of the role or not. My mother was a secretary her entire life so it was a job that came pretty easily to me–I had a wonderful teacher from the time I expressed an interest in learning to write. She organized paperwork, typed letters, made phone calls, scheduled appointments, followed up on sales calls, created contracts, and basically did just about everything that her boss required of her to make his or her life easier at work. Often, she had several bosses at once: the business park property manager, the therapist whose office was across from her desk, the accountant, the lawyer, the optical shop owners, the guy who owned the cleaning company, my dad and his multiple iterations of his sales rep business…and others who came and went over the years.
The majority of the work I did prior to teaching involved some aspect of the things my mother spent her life doing. I typed contracts and took phone calls. I scheduled sales appointments and greeted customers. I handled paperwork, follow up with vendors, and took on projects that would make my bosses’ lives easier. When I moved into insurance sales, things got more complicated. I not only had to do all the things that I did as a secretary, but also handle all the sales of things you can’t touch that people don’t want to have to have. One of the words that came up weekly during our staff meeting, if not daily as my boss walked by my cube, was Productivity.
Right now, the ghosts of bosses past are haunting me and that word, Productivity, echos constantly. The one who told me that because I was single and without children of my own, it was my job to make sure that I was available to cover shifts when others had things come up–even if it meant canceling my own plans or appointments. The one who told me that personal time off was only in my employment contract because the law required it be there because I was technically a full-time employee–taking it was grounds for being fired if it wasn’t an emergency as defined by the company. The one who told me that if I didn’t complete everything that was handed me to do, my job was on the line. The one who reminded me daily that a pink slip was imminent if the goals set for me weren’t met. The one who noted that if I wasn’t giving my entire life to the work, I wasn’t truly dedicated to the success of the organization.
My Facebook memories, which began during my first year of teaching, remind me every day of these ghosts. The notation of 15-20 hour work days, either self-imposed in the hope of finally getting ahead or required because someone had to fall on the sword and take the late shift, in addition to all the early ones no one else signed up for, are many. The posts about overwhelm, mistakes, long discussions with myself in the hopes of figuring out how to make “work-life balance” actually happen seem to be a yearly event around this time. Memories of the exhaustion-fueled meltdowns after finally getting home at night, so tired that putting on pajamas was an effort and bread and butter was dinner because a microwave meal was just too much. People think that teachers don’t know what the kids go through all day, having to hold in all the emotions so that we don’t get into trouble, but we do–we often melt as soon as we’re in a safe space, too….and sometimes we lose it in the dairy department of the grocery store with the 5pm post-work crowd in between meetings and evening events. Productivity continued to be elusive.
We’ve been reading a book about how to manage your bosses as part of our professional development. It’s timely, really, as any role within a school doesn’t have just ONE boss–we have several, and for those of us with multiple hats to wear, sometimes there’s more than one boss for every hat worn. As I read this summer, I started naming the bosses I have and their expectations of me in the work I do–everything from the kids themselves, to their parents, to my colleagues, all the way up to people working at the state level. I made a spreadsheet, at the suggestion of one chapter in the book, of how I would track and demonstrate my progress on a variety of projects to essentially justify my paycheck and position. I made lists of ways I could reach out to each boss and tried to determine how to get a “meeting” in with them to check in. I tried to schedule the hell out of my day to ensure maximum productivity to ensure each bosses’ tasks get met. The one thing that the book doesn’t discuss is how to manage the ghosts of bosses past.
What do we do when the voice in your head is that of a ghost telling you that you are likely to be replaced or eliminated entirely if you can’t take care of <insert one-more-thing here>?
What do we do when the ghosts are so ingrained in our psyche that we hear ourselves saying them out loud when discussing the pile of things, both real and virtual, that need to get done on the left side of our desks?
What do we do when we buy a new planner in the hopes that the organizational support it is supposed to provide will help fix the overwhelm, helping us decide what’s most important–though we know that what we feel is most important isn’t what the ghosts are telling us is most important?
What do we do when new bosses take a cue from the ghosts and jump the queue and begin making requests, adding to the left-side-of-desk pile with the best of intentions but the expectation that you’ll take on yet another thing?
What do we do when new bosses seem to have spoken to the ghosts and suggest that we aren’t doing enough…nothing we do is enough, and our request for support, shared responsibility, or creative problem solving is effectively denied?
What do we do when the boundaries we try to set around our time and our priorities, based on our experiences with the ghosts of bosses past, are blown to smithereens before we can even put our handbag down? Or before we’ve even left the house? The ghosts bosses past remind us that unless we handle it right that second, we’ve lost their trust…
What do we do when the voice of a ghost wakes us up at 2am barking about all the things we failed to do the day before, the week before, the month before, the year before, threatening to demote or fire us or cut our pay because we put our need for sleep ahead of one-more-thing?
What do we do when we feel guilt over becoming a boss for someone else, making requests because it’s necessary or because delegation is the only option that is logical, but the ghosts remind us that doing so is tantamount to failure to do the job we’ve been hired to do?
The ghosts of bosses past don’t ever really leave us, no matter how we try to get them to go away. Some days their voices are louder than any of those that exist in real life, adding snide comments about our abilities and threatening pink slips, and some days they lie in wait for a moment of insecurity to show up in our dreams fueled by exhaustion and overwhelm and remind us of past mistakes, past lack of capacity, past lack of productivity, and past inability to simply make things happen when it’s demanded.
Sadly, I don’t have answers for what to do yet. (Perhaps that’s a follow up book to the one we’re reading now: “How to Manage Ghosts of Bosses Past.”) The reminders that we are hired to do a particular job are frequent, but not everyone can see what that job actually entails daily. And they don’t know about our ghosts and what they continue to whisper (or scream, in some cases) to us long after they’re gone, leaving us exhausted from fighting them all day and into the night.