Teaching Profession Q&A

Teaching Is Your Job. Why This Author Says It Shouldn’t Be Your Whole Identity

By Madeline Will — October 11, 2023 9 min read
Digital illustration of a bulletin board covered with post it notes with the word work on them, in the center there is a clearing with one solitary note that reads "Life" with a question mark.
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Teaching is often—controversially—described as a calling, a job that people don’t do for the money. But can it ever just be a “good enough” job?

In his 2023 book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work, journalist Simone Stolzoff explores how work has dominated Americans’ identity and lives, particularly in the “helping professions"—and offers advice for how to build a healthier relationship with one’s job. The stories in the book likely resonate with teachers, who have reported feeling overworked and burned out in recent years.

Education Week spoke to Stolzoff—whose wife is a teacher—about what he learned about the U.S. culture of work, especially in the education field, and how people can reclaim their identities outside of work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You spoke to workers across industries, including teachers. What did you learn about the role work plays in Americans’ lives?

From our country’s origin, the Protestant work ethic and capitalism are really the two strands that intertwine to form our country’s DNA. And then if you think about the last 40 or so years with the decline of other institutions like organized religion, the neighborhood, and community groups, work has really catapulted into a position of prominence for so many Americans across the economy. It’s something that workers don’t just look to for a paycheck, but also for a community, a sense of purpose, a reason for being.

In industries like education, where there often are ulterior motives beyond just making money, that people go into the line of work for passion, for service, the risk is that the love for what you do can become a stand-in for fair pay or for fair workplace protections or for job security.

There’s a concept I talk about called “vocational awe,” which is the idea that in certain industries like education, there’s this perceived righteousness where people feel like the industry in and of itself is morally superior. It can often be a cover-up for workers to not get what they deserve. I think we saw this on full display during the pandemic when teachers were forced to teach over Zoom or teach in risky situations where society and their employers were telling them things like, “You’re doing God’s work.” And then in the same breath, saying things like, “But make do with what you have, you have to put the kids first.”

It can put teachers in particular in a tricky situation where they are genuinely passionate about the work they do—they’re in the line of work because they want to serve—but often that passion can obfuscate the less-than-ideal conditions that they’re forced to teach within.

Many people went into teaching because they considered it a dream job, but you write that there’s some inherent tension in that. How so?

I think there are three main risks of looking for your job to be your source of self-actualization. The first is the idea that when you expect your job to always be a dream, it can create a lot of room for disappointment.

Simone Stolzoff

I think of happiness as the difference between our expectations and our reality. And if we are always expecting our jobs to be perfect or to deliver transcendence or to always be a dream, then in those moments of monotony that exist in any line of work, you can think that it’s some sort of moral failing, or that you aren’t in the right place. It can create a lot of disappointment when we’re putting so much pressure on our jobs to deliver that perfection.

The second is that your job might not always be there. I think this is something that many people learned during the pandemic. If you’re treating your job as your sole source of self-worth or a means of making a difference in the world of identity, and you lose your job, what’s left?

And then the third risk, I think, is that when we overly invest in just one aspect of who we are—just our work identity—it can neglect other parts of who we are. And this is particularly true for teachers who are often expected to do lesson planning and to be at school early and to stay at school late.

Our jobs don’t just take our best time, but they can take our best energy, too. Certainly, we’re all more than just workers—we’re neighbors and friends and citizens and parents. And yet when there is an expectation that we are going above and beyond for the work, always, it can neglect these other aspects of who we are and allow us to not be able to invest in these other identities that live within each of us.

When we are able to show up as well-rested, fully engaged humans, it actually allows us to produce better work, even if it’s not necessarily committing as many hours.

And the research backs this up. It shows that the people who have greater self-complexity, who have been able to invest in other facets of their being, are more resilient in the face of adversity. This makes sense: If you’re rising and falling based on your professional accomplishments, and your boss says something disparaging or you have a bad day in the classroom, it can very easily spill over into all other facets of who you are unless you’ve taken the time to invest in some of those other parts.

But it also shows that people who have greater self-complexity tend to be more innovative, tend to be more creative problem-solvers. Some of the most inspired teachers are the ones who are thinking interdisciplinarily beyond just the core requirements that they’re forced to teach to, and drawing inspiration from the outside world. But in order to do so, you need to be able to have the space not only to recharge and reset, but also to invest and draw inspiration from other aspects of who you are.

Teaching can be a job that really becomes wrapped up in one’s identity. How can teachers maintain a good balance there?

I know this firsthand from my wife—early in her career in the classroom, her whole life revolved around the school. It was something that she was giving an incredible amount of time to. She would go home and think about her students before she went to bed. This is a natural tendency, but I think as she got more experience in her teaching career, she began to set better boundaries. She began to try and do her lesson planning at school, and then leave her school laptop at the school. And you think this might be at the expense of the quality of the lessons or the teaching, but in fact, it was her ability to draw a firm line between when she was on and off the clock that allowed her to show up to school more recharged, more refreshed, and actually be there for her students.

Often, we have this sort of misconception that the more time we put into something always leads to better work. I think it’s a holdover from maybe a more industrial age where maybe there was a more direct relationship between the number of hours that you put in on the assembly line and the number of widgets you got out. But especially in a knowledge economy, in a service economy, it isn’t always the case.

When we are able to show up as well-rested, fully engaged humans, it actually allows us to produce better work, even if it’s not necessarily committing as many hours.

The tagline of your book is “reclaiming life from work.” What is your advice to teachers who want to begin to do so?

When we think about some of these interventions on how to create better work-life balance, we often put the onus on the individual. We say things like, “set a boundary,” or “practice self-care.” And in actuality, the onus really falls on the leaders of the systems themselves, whether that’s the school administrators or the district as a whole.

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Kasia Bogdańska for Education Week

My No. 1 piece of advice for teachers is to try and find systems of solidarity to organize together—there’s teachers’ unions of course, but also just use micro strength-in-numbers that you can get in the context of your own school environment, of banding together to share grievances, to try and brainstorm solutions for developing better ways to do your work. One thing that I was able to see firsthand is how teachers banded together to find time throughout the day to be able to do some of their administrative and planning work during specialist periods or during lunch and recess—these in-between moments.

These are things that every teacher is facing, and therefore, there really is strength in numbers and your ability to advocate for your communal well-being as opposed to just thinking of that as an individual issue.

What do you think are the consequences of teacher burnout and job dissatisfaction, and how can districts address them?

It may seem like it’s a short-term solution to really push teachers to their breaking point, but then they get to a point where they’re leaving the classroom or they’re having to take leave, and it’s not actually serving the students at all. The ramifications are that both teachers and students suffer from a lack of continuity of relationships, a lack of community amongst the faculty, a lack of consistency in terms of the adults that students are interacting with in their lives.

In order to address something like burnout, it requires systemic interventions and [changing] the status quo of where we’re at right now, where we call teachers essential but rarely give them compensation that is commensurate with the [seriousness] of the work that they’re doing.

In certain industries like education, there’s this perceived righteousness where people feel like the industry in and of itself is morally superior. It can often be a cover-up for workers to not get what they deserve.

It’s going to require districts and administration to really think critically about what type of experience they want to have for their students and for their employees. We often think about a line of work like teaching as if it’s this serving, altruistic profession. Yes, there is a level of care and serving that inspires many teachers to get into the work. But I think it’s also important to be clearheaded that it’s a job. And if employers aren’t upholding their end of the bargain, teachers are going to leave, which we’re seeing at unprecedented rates.

There’s something that I advocate for in the book, which is to treat work more transactionally, which might sound crass, especially in an age where we’re told jobs are meant to be passions and callings and vocations. But I think being clearheaded about the transaction of what teachers are giving and what they’re getting can benefit both employees and employers.

See also

Teaching is [a] work [of heart].
Teaching Profession Q&A Why One Teacher Hates the Phrase 'Teaching Is a Calling'
Madeline Will, March 10, 2022
7 min read

Employers can set expectations about what good work looks like and be clear about what the expectations are of doing work in a school environment, whereas employees can, for example, talk about money without thinking that this somehow undermines the best interests of the school. Or they can talk about protections or time off or what it takes to band together and advocate for their needs.

Although it may seem like this dichotomy where either you’re advocating for your own needs and somehow undermining the students, or you’re swallowing your pride but slowly burning out on the inside, it’s actually in students’ best interests that the teachers are getting the support and rest they need to be able to do their best work.

[Understand] that what you do is part of—but not the entirety of—who you are. And by being able to invest in some other identities beyond being an educator, whether that’s in your relationships or in your local community, you can find the fuel that you’ll need in order to build a more stable foundation.

Often we think about work-life balance as being solely about the amount of time we spend at work or doing things outside of work. One of the messages of the book is about the sort of emotional value of diversifying ... the sources of identity and meaning in our lives. Especially among groups like teachers or librarians or nurses, that can lower some of the stakes in what otherwise might be a very high-stakes profession in a way that will allow you to actually put work into perspective and not feel guilty in prioritizing the aspects of who you are—beyond just being an educator.


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