When we lived in New Hampshire, the middle school our daughters attended was down the hill from our house. We often drove by the school late in the evening on our way home from a meeting or a visit to friends. No matter how late the hour the lights were always on in Mr. B’s room which our daughters could identify because at different times he was their English teacher
That was a worrisome sight. No matter how hard working and dedicated a teacher was, there was no reason for him to be in his classroom at such ungodly hours. And from the reports my daughters brought home, these long hours were not producing instructional results worthy of the superhuman effort.
Mr. B didn’t make it through the year. Rumor had it that he had suffered a “breakdown.” I can imagine him sitting at his desk completely paralyzed as the hours passed with him no closer to a plan for the next day’s teaching. After a while, Mr. B took a job with a local real estate agency where he stayed through a long and apparently successful career.
I was thinking about Mr. B when I read an article posted on Facebook by Dave Stieber entitled “It’s Time to Stop Wearing Teacher Burnout as a Badge of Honor,” in which he argues quite sensibly for better work/life balance for teachers, disrupting a dark narrative about the virtues of arriving the earliest, staying up the latest, always skating close to the edge of endurance. I fear that Mr. B’s unfortunate plight may conform to the popular image of burnout, but it bears no relationship to what Dave is talking about which is not a manifestation of individual pathology but rather a problem of how the profession is structured and how teachers are (de)valued by the society. Nor is Dave talking about a pandemic-related problem when, God knows, teachers have been tried as never before. The specter of burnout has hung over the profession forever and will still be in the conversation when we return to in- person teaching. Let me be clear that I’ve felt those moments of paralysis where the proverbial clock is ticking loudly in the background and the work is frozen, but eventually there’s a thaw and the work is completed. Whatever burnout is, this isn’t it.
What followed on the FB thread were responses from current and former teachers whose dedication to the profession I respect. Our friend Sarah Cohen added an interesting cultural perspective on teacher work in other countries and cultures. In those settings, the workday of teachers involves less teaching time and more time for planning and, presumably, grading. This arrangement would ease the burden of what teachers need to carry home to complete. This idea will be immediately dismissed by many readers as impractical because of its costs but it is the norm in countries less wealthy than ours.
Several teachers responded that their impression is that this problem of impending burnout eases as the number of years in the classroom increases. The first five years are hell, but as the toolbox of activities, lesson plans and units is stocked and you learn what you can get away with in the lesson plans you submit, there’s more room to breathe. I applaud these teachers who have fought their way through to a work/life balance that will surely keep them sane and in the classroom for years to come. But the response that drew me into the conversation was from Greg Michie, a teacher and writer whose words always speak to me. Greg chimed in to say that although he agrees completely about the intolerable way the work of teachers is structured, he’s been at it for a few decades and the load has never eased up.
What Greg says was true for me as well. Through my many years in the classroom, I accepted the fact that my personal life was destined to shrink to a mere nub come September and would not reinflate till June. Dave worries that this schedule is maintained at the cost of family neglect. That should concern us, but I would contest its inevitability. I don’t think either of my daughters felt one bit shortchanged. From the time they returned from school till the time they went to bed they had my fullest attention. The price I paid was working right up to bedtime at least four nights a week, but there were those sugarplum visions of travel-rich summers — those ten glorious weeks that critics who claim that teachers have it easy and are overpaid to boot always point to. I never took a summer teaching assignment because I knew what I had to do to refuel for another run.
There were also weekly pit stops in the form of Sabbath days when no work was allowed to intrude on the sanctity of the day. It matters not whether you’re a believer, the enforced suspension of work-related activities is especially tonic for workaholics like me and, I’m guessing, like Greg. I have to add one important detail here which surely colors my perspective. I am a pre-NCLB teacher. I left the classroom just as the tidal wave of testing and other curricular requirements swept over teachers. Very little of my late night hours were given over to paperwork demands that didn’t, in my opinion, add any value to what I was bringing to my students (e.g. plugging numbers of standards that would be covered by a lesson or activity. Teachers will recognize the odious task I’m referring to.) No matter what grade level I was teaching, the work might involve making materials for the day’s or week’s lessons, rereading the literature we would be discussing in class, framing the questions that would drive our discussions the next day.
And then there was reading and commenting on student work, the one part of my job as a teacher that brought me closest to the edge of the abyss that Dave describes. At every grade level I taught, my students wrote and wrote. If you set your students to writing, you have an obligation to read and respond to what they produce in a timely manner. I once saw the calculations that someone had done about how much time a high school English teacher with a not unusual load of 140 students would have to devote to reading and responding to just one writing assignment each week. It’s inhuman. I never had to deal with more than 70 students at a time, but even at that level, it made me wish I had chosen to be a phys ed teacher with no papers to carry home each night. I had fantasies of what it would be like to go to the movies on a weekday night or hang out with friends or watch a basketball game, but I knew in my heart that there was no way to trim the fat because it wasn’t fat. It was what was required to meet the standards I had set for myself and my students and skimping on them would compromise the whole enterprise.
Teachers like Greg and the ghost of my former teaching self are going to continue to devote ridiculous hours, sometimes joining the chorus of those who bitch about burnout, but in their personal equation the rewards continue to outweigh the burdens. It is not a model that works for everyone. It’s how some of us are wired, for better or worse, and can be carried to ridiculous extremes. Once in Houston I invited a group of teacher colleagues to join me at a lecture by the previous year’s National Teacher of the Year who described his work week as so sleepless and intense that on some Friday afternoons he would return home so exhausted that he would unlock the door to his apartment and fall face forward into the room and sleep right there till the next morning. At this point people in my group were poised to flee the auditorium. That was not the life they had signed up for.
I miss the intensity of my teaching life when, as athletes like to say, I was leaving it all on the field, but I’ll also admit to relief that it’s behind me. Now I can watch the occasional basketball game, confident that there isn’t a pile of papers on the dining room table waiting to be graded, but I’m grateful to have had the experience of doing a job that required my whole self to do it right.