'Teacher Burnout': Occupational Hazard or Insult?

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Sometimes we in education talk about an idea so much that, after a while, we begin to think our words refer to something that actually exists. In that regard, we are like children who, after listening to fairy tales, begin to suspect that trolls populate the underside of every bridge and that cloudy mirrors will pronounce judgment on our pulchritude.

I can think of a number of such ideas--all fashionable--to which debate and discussion have attached some sort of reality. "Teacher oversupply" was one. Apparently, there were people who embraced such nonsense throughout the 1970's and into the 80's. Only a moment's thought should reveal the obvious: The schools could have used every one of our unemployed colleagues--to reduce teaching loads, implement a much more varied curriculum, and give many kids the individual attention they needed. There was no "oversupply" of teachers; there was an undersupply of money and imagination.

Educators love to identify and lament the effects of other such "crises in the classroom" (e.g., declining test scores, widespread "functional illiteracy," and galloping teen-age perversion), crises that both alarm and delight the Jeremiahs in our society, but the most recent phenomenon is "teacher burnout."

I submit that there is no such thing. Moreover, the very notion of "burnout" insults career teachers by inappropriately attributing a deterioration of classroom performance to institutional rather than personal failures.

Most of the teachers I know who claim to be burned out were never on fire in the first place. Better words to describe them would be "stagnant" or "putrescent." So set in their ways are they, so affixed--barnacle-like--to their becalmed ships, that they have become bored with their jobs--and with their lives; they commonly react by blaming the profession, the administration, the communities they serve, the kids--everyone, in other words, but the ones directly responsible, and the only ones with any real power to do anything about it.

But let's examine the term burnout a moment and reveal it for what it is: a deceptively appealing metaphor that fails to represent accurately the phenomenon to which it refers. To say that a teacher is burned out is to suggest that he or she possesses a limited supply of energy--like firewood--that can be entirely consumed, leaving behind only cinders or some other residue. To view human beings and human endeavor this way is pessimistic, to be sure, but it is also simplistic and insidiously inaccurate. Except for those persons whose vitality dissipates for physiological or medical reasons, human beings possess a renewable supply of energy coterminous with death.

Those who imagine human beings walking around burning limited lumps of psychic coal are burdened with some uncooperative realities: How does one explain the vigor of such persons as Helen Hayes? Vladimir Horowitz? Or even Ronald Reagan, for that matter. Do some people have larger lumps than others? (Were they better boys and girls at Christmas time?) To claim burnout is to insult the memory of those countless individuals who labored creatively and enthusiastically throughout their lives, right to the moment of death's final insistence.

The notion of burnout also impugns the integrity and dedication of career teachers. If you have not burned out by your 10th year, so the implication goes, perhaps you have not been working hard enough; perhaps you're just going through the motions; perhaps you haven't made a truly serious commitment. Another absurdity. For every stagnant senior faculty member I've known--from middle school to graduate school--I've known dozens more who were dynamos. And those few stagnant senior faculty members I have known were just as stagnant early in their careers. In the words of the old put-down: They did not teach 20 years; they taught one year 20 times.

Finally, discussions of burnout are normally accompanied by familiar choral accusations: Teaching loads are too heavy; class sizes too large; communities demand too much and supply too little; the kids today are ... All of these complaints may be valid, and they all certainly affect morale and disposition. But to blame them for a teacher's poor performance, failure to prepare adequately for class, or lack of humor and equanimity--this is professional dishonesty in its purest form. Adverse conditions must invite and animate us to try harder, not transform us into lotus-eaters or fatuous faculty-room malcontents.

By attacking the concept of burnout, I do not deny, of course, that stagnation is a real threat to our profession and to the quality of public education. And I do not deny that some individuals are more likely than others to form a rut so deep that they soon are unable to see over its edge and can discern no difference between teaching and trench warfare. And I do not deny that something must be done about the problem.

Thus, a few suggestions. Here are a number of methods I have observed my most successful colleagues using to keep themselves alert, creative, and dynamic throughout their careers.

  • Remain a learner yourself. One of the most gifted teachers I have ever seen is Eileen Kutinsky, a recently "retired" middle-school science teacher. She is always doing something new--scuba diving, hot-air ballooning, studying the ecology of Lake Erie, taking graduate courses in guidance. Her example is one we should all follow: If we remain learners, we remain intellectually alive and our curiosity can infuse our classrooms and infect our students.

    And of course, the opposite is also true: Those who have not read a book since college, take classes only for credit or to progress on the salary schedule, or whose only curiosities concern the fate of characters on General Hospital--those are the lousy teachers among us.

  • Get to know your students better. Go to their athletic contests, band and choir concerts, school plays. Sit with them at lunch. Sponsor a school activity. Find out about their hobbies and interests. Surprise them with an unexpected kindness. Once you become involved in their lives, you can no longer go through a day in sort of a mindless haze, treating every class like the one before, every student like every other.
  • At the end of every school year, stuff all your lesson plans in a folder and do not even look at them the next fall until you have completely rethought how you want to spend your year. Even if you're restricted by a very rigid curriculum, you are still generally free to determine how you will teach. Challenge yourself to find new and exciting, or simply different, ways to present old material. My wife, like all superior teachers, makes certain she teaches new units every year--she learns along with her students, and, in the process, shows them how to learn and demonstrates in a way that cannot be duplicated how exciting an active intellectual life can be.
  • Regularly and frequently ask your students to evaluate you and your class. Kids are perceptive; they have a feral ability to identify precisely our faults and our strengths; they have not forgotten how to react emotionally to what they're learning. They know when they're excited, bored, challenged. Asking them how they feel and what they think--and listening to their observations--can provide you with information you can acquire in no other way.
  • Team teach with somebody. It's hard to petrify or to putrefy when you plan your day, your week, your year with a colleague whom you respect. Doing so will force both of you to think about, and have cogent reasons for, what you're doing. To a great extent, teachers are performers, and good performers perform even better before an audience of peers.

There are, of course, countless other ways to ward off the formidable force of inertia--such as, forming reading and discussion groups with our colleagues; traveling; attending plays, concerts, films; taking sabbatical leaves.

But it is not the method that really matters, it is the attitude. If we would make the most of our careers, we must make the most of our lives. As Tennessee Williams wrote, "The time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition."

Vol. 04, Issue 28, Page 24

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