Recently, I epigraphed a blog post with a line from David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It (paperback | audio). Graeber's title isn't exactly a Mr. Rogers riff, but his heart in the book is for folks like you and me — teachers who sometimes feel like we're on a hamster wheel, always doing more and more work, always getting further and further behind.
In response to that post, our colleague Sarah in CA wrote in about an encounter she had recently with a nurse. (I promise, Sarah connects this beautifully to teaching.)
Here's Sarah's story
“[Recently, I took a trip to the ER in Long Beach.] I remarked on how efficient the hospital was. I was in the ER for just a few minutes to register before they did intake with my temperature, vitals, etc. The entire ER visit, which included a CT scan, had me in and out in 90 minutes…. The nurse said that the hospital had undergone the “Honda Lean Program” which streamlined every area of the hospital to make it run smoother and more efficiently. It was clear. Everything went well. The paperwork was color coded with boxes and shapes. It was impressive.“
Now: here comes the turn. The efficiency wasn't so glamourous for the hospital's professionals.
“The nurse said that unfortunately, now instead of seeing 50 patients, they see 80 patients in the same time frame. It has made work faster, and simpler, but they have not eased up the workload at all. So rather than giving hardworking doctors and nurses fewer patients, and some relief, they now work almost double the caseload they did before.
“It just made me so sad. The patient experience was great, but I felt sooo awful for those poor hospital staff. And that's exactly what happens to teachers too. Rather than helping, all the technology and processes just mean we can handle MORE students, MORE IEPs, more accommodations, more sections, more homework assignments. Our district uses Nearpod, and when I use it, I have to spend MORE time on the computer to build, prep, review and then comb through the responses than if I used slides and a paper handout.”
The longer we work, the more work there is to do
(Pssst! This post might seem doomed for downer territory, but I promise it'll end with empowerment. Because there's tons of power in understanding reality.)
As it turns out, this phenomenon — the more efficient we get, the more work we end up doing — is one of the surprise twists of the twentieth century.
- “In 1930, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted a two-day workweek. ‘The human being can consume so much and no more… [The next] great problem [of humanity will be figuring out] what to do with our new leisure.”
- “John Maynard Keynes was similarly concerned by what all this leisure would mean: ‘Man will be faced with… how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him.'”
- “Dwight D. Eisenhower described a future where ‘leisure… will be abundant, so that all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world.”
- “A 1965 US Senate subcommittee predicted that by the year 2000 Americans would be working 14 hours a week, with at least seven weeks of vacation time annually.”
(All quotations are from p. 100 of Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb's delightfully playful The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More.)
When reading the predictions above and comparing them to your ungodly-long workweek, my recommendation is to add laughter to your crying — it helps. 😉
A world of the (avoidably!) overstretched
In the weeks to come, I want to write intelligently and simply about what we can do about burnout. Burnout is the most widespread side effect of working in a workaholic, more=better world that wants it all. And burnout is especially prevalent in education, especially twenty months into the disruptions of COVID. Teaching was already a super-hard job; now it's gotten harder.
But the good news is that burnout isn't inevitable. A job that's impossible to do on paper doesn't negate a calling like teaching, one wrought with deep nobility and wondrous meaning. This is still the best work in the world, in my view. But to experience it as such, we've got to get smarter and wiser. That's why, next time, we'll unpack the Workload-Pressure Cycle and the great success we can have in disrupting it over time.
Hang in there, colleague. Help is coming!
Lisa Coyne says
THANK YOU!! When people ask me how the year is going, I want to tell them that it is the worst year ever! But I don’t know why I feel that way. I can’t put my finger on what is different. You have nailed it down right here!! I am completely overstretched. I often feel like I am doing 2-3 jobs, and I am physically and mentally depleted when I get home. I cry A LOT. I have enlisted the help of a therapist. How long can we keep this up??? I am going to add The Art of Frugal Hedonism to my stack of books to read — a stack that just keeps growing, because who has time or energy to read???! I don’t know how you keep doing it all, Dave, but I am grateful!
Jason Allen says
Echoes of Faber from Fahrenheit 451–Bradbury warned us that technology should free up time for leisure and self-reflection, but instead we’ve managed to cram 25 hours of work (or lack of peaceful down time) into a 24-hour day. Thanks for the thoughts, and I’m looking forward to the next post.
Claire McLaughlin says
I really appreciate the honesty and reality that is in this post. As I am entering the profession, burnout is common problem that I hear about consistently in my classes. We often address how to avoid burnout through means of reliving stress or being balanced, but I think there are more systemic values at play here. With the increase in burnout in COVID, we need to stop expecting the world of teachers and as they grow through the profession, stop making them stretch thin when teachers cannot handle it. For instance, stop making teachers be both full time admin and full time teachers, limit responsibilities for better outcomes. Again, I appreciate the reality of what it is like the be a teacher, especially now!
Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) says
Amen, Claire 🙂