Too many people outside of classrooms spend too much time telling people inside them what to do. Once you leave the classroom, it’s tempting to want to share all of your advice with others.

Trust me, as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, I see the irony in writing this. Much like the overweight track coach sitting in the shade of a blistering Texas afternoon punctuating commands for runners with sips of iced tea, I feel I’ve reached a point where I have to admit that I’m not exactly part of the game I’m trying to coach.

As a grad student at Harvard, I have privilege that insulates me from the repercussions of certain opinions (and even from writing something like this). No district will censor me, “counsel” me, or reassign me for what I say.

This privilege means I have a responsibility to say things that others can’t. The realization hit home for me as I sat across from a teacher friend at lunch recently. I listened as she told me how she really wanted to quit teaching. Everything she said sounded so familiar.

Social media is where teaching starts to feel toxic.

The reasons for her distress ring true for most everyone who teaches. They center on difficulties with other adults, especially those in charge, and with student behaviors.

However, because this person is seen as a leader among her fellow teachers, she feels increasingly isolated in her distress. Part of what fuels that, we both agreed, is the need to be a presence at conferences and on social media, settings where your own problems often take a back seat to educational issues and policies.

But social media — social media is where teaching starts to feel toxic. This is particularly true on Twitter, where some flagship chats have all but devolved into cult-like and clique-y echo chambers.

“Edu-celebs” who dominate the platform are part of the problem. For a place that initially seemed to offer an opportunity for teachers to find each other and share resources, Twitter has devolved into clans of “positivity” grouped around people pushing books and consultancies. Their followers retweet messages that sterilize the humanity of teaching into chirpy cliches (“attitude is everything!”) and flat statements (“teachers change lives”) that are treated as if they are visionary.

Often, this advice comes from people who — like me — are no longer in the classroom. These messages, intended as they are to motivate teachers, often wind up doing the opposite. Seeing hordes of retweets on these kinds of reworked Successories posters can cause shame and guilt in teachers.

They also skirt past the reality that we are seeing a very real and growing mental health crisis in students, which is magnified in the low-income schools a majority of students attend.

Teach Like a Codependent

There’s tremendous pressure on teachers to be up and on, always positive, always “engaging.” When the issues students bring to school with them accumulate to an overwhelming degree — for students and for teachers — there aren’t many places to turn.

This pressure and lack of support can cause what feels like a constant, low-grade emotionally abusive relationship. A dark codependency materializes, with staff told that if they just work harder, give up more hours of their lives, and tutor more, students will “achieve.” Achievement, in this regard, of course means higher scores.

Often, these messages are delivered by a corporate or business partner who sends in a marketing person to hand out baskets of old chocolate while using her most dramatic voice to tearfully tell teachers: “You are all candles. You consume yourself so that you can create light for others.” As my friend Justin says, that’s not only completely unsustainable as a metaphor or policy, it’s also a literal prescription for burnout.

The teaching force is overwhelming female, but its administrators are overwhelmingly male and white.

During back-to-school staff development, I always wished they’d just save us the time and write “Spoiler Alert: It’s All Your Fault!” on the first panel of their Slide Deck of Shame. Those slide decks almost always came from a white man on a stage with a disappointed expression.

Mansplaining School

The teaching force is overwhelming female, but its administrators are overwhelmingly male and white. The majority of speakers at many ed conferences are male and white. As a woman, this always seemed suspicious to me.

I wondered why, for example, men were promoted so rapidly. One of the boldest displays I ever saw of this was during a district professional development institute where a first-year male teacher grinned as he told us he was finishing up his coursework to be a principal.

Worse, some of the men who were promoted seemed to co-opt certain female traits. They were vulnerable, telling staff about their personal problems. They were sensitive in their feelings. Their doors, they assured you, were always open for you to come and talk.

Here’s the truth that fueled those walkouts and will act as gasoline for others: Schools need teachers more than teachers need schools.

Their careful grooming and quirky wardrobe choices (shirts with tiny dragons on them! pants with tiny crab patterns! bow ties stamped with tiny toasters!) were designed for maximum approachability and minimal masculinity. These outward displays were designed to show you they weren’t “old school” types like your own high school principal. They were cool administrators. You should think of them as family.

Many used subtle forms of shame and guilt to suggest that their female staff didn’t care enough about kids. If women didn’t want to volunteer for work meant to polish the men’s images and agendas, what did that say about their dedication? Some convinced female staff to organize their schedules, edit and revise their emails, and act as “mean girl” enforcers of their “mission and vision.” (If you didn’t play along, you’d get reported.)

When I first began teaching high school, I was stunned by the petty indignities, casual sexism, and disrespect shown to my department chair — a woman with two master’s degrees and decades of experience.

“I can’t believe they treat you like this,” I told her one day. “It’s like you’re an abused woman.”

“Am I? I’ve lost the ability to tell the difference,” she said.

Well, that’s not inspirational, I remember thinking.

But I also knew it was real. And I found, as I continued teaching, that the abuse moved from concept to concrete reality when it came to certain men.

These men were protected when they harassed and crossed personal boundaries with female staff. One man stands out in my memory — he was so adept at the kind of tearful but manly confession on display in a recent southern megachurch. He was suspended for his misconduct rather than fired.

What Will Happen When Teachers Stop Being Afraid?

Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

It is not a coincidence that our overwhelmingly female teaching force decided to walk out in some of the reddest states in our country. These are places where they’ve seen their pay slashed, their hours lengthened, their motives questioned, and their commitment to students doubted by their white male governors. And this is where women are finding their voices — and their anger.

Here’s the truth that fueled those walkouts and will act as gasoline for others: Schools need teachers more than teachers need schools.

Education critics act as though there is an unending supply of people standing outside administrative offices waiting to apply for teaching jobs. This self-serving fantasy is giving way to real numbers of teachers retiring and resigning, and to many who are refusing to go into teaching in the first place.

Much like the #MeToo movement forced the culture to see the reality of sexual harassment, teacher walkouts and teacher attrition will finally make us all see the reality of the emotional labor and abuse we’ve heaped upon our teachers for too long.

And no amount of discount door prizes at meetings, banal speakers, or slides dripping with edu-guilt and edu-shame will make that go away.