Note: I wrote this months before the COVID closures, and upon rereading it recently, I found it as relevant today as it was back then. The teacher who works in an undisciplined manner — without boundaries, with no constraints — will experience chronic stress. It's like a law of human nature. There is no way around it. Human beings are finite; there is only so much juice in an orange.
And so, the professional arms themself with knowledge about things like “occupational burnout” and adjusts their practice accordingly. If you don't call every single child this week but keep your workweek within 50 hours or so, guess what? The World Health Organization probably approves. If making those calls is the most important thing that you do in a week, then next week rearrange your task list so that the most important work gets done first.
There are enough sick folks in the world right now — be wary of adding yourself to the list. Constraints have always mattered for performance optimization, but now especially.
It looks like the World Health Organization has been following some teachers around. Guess which syndrome the following three symptoms indicate, according to WHO?
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy (source: WHO website)
If you said burnout, you got it. (You sly dog, you.) In their latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), WHO explains that “occupational burnout” is not a disease, but that it is a growing reason that people seek medical attention.
What causes this syndrome? According to WHO, occupational burnout results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
A couple of points present themselves:
First, sometimes we teachers think that we’re unique in the experience of burnout, but we’re not. While there are unique ways in which teaching produces chronic stress (e.g., feeling the weight of the world’s future on your shoulders along with the weight of 38,000 forms of documentation and data and standards and certification you’re supposed to keep track of), the experience of chronic stress in our jobs isn’t unique to teachers.
That word “chronic” is important. One reason chronic occupational stress is on the rise is because, if you let yourself, you can be tied to the job 24/7. You can check and respond to your email 24 times per day rather than twice. You can let your work email be connected to all of your devices. You can browse Twitter for the latest edutalk whenever you’re standing in a line. You can bring work home. You can plan your schedule based on how much work you have to do vs scheduling how much time you have to work and then prioritizing your work from there. (I call this “starting with the constraint;” Cal Newport calls it “fixed-schedule productivity.” It works exceptionally well over the long-term.)
All of these “you cans” yield chronic workplace stress. They squeeze the orange.
Second, the WHO description alludes to an important truth: somehow there are people who successfully manage chronic workplace stress. They turn it off — because they know that great teachers actually can, and should, turn it off. (And yes, I’m giving you permission if that’s what you need, one professional to another.) They cultivate the professional mentality and stop with the savior one.
A beautiful book on this theme is Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership through Solitude, in which authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin describe people like Jane Goodall and Dwight Eisenhower who flourished and innovated despite high amounts of pressure. How did they do it? Was it some inborn ability — some thing that some of us have and others don’t?
No. It was solitude — an ancient discipline that our hyper-connected world has all but forgotten. If you’re feeling the burn of occupational burnout right now, consider the audio version of Lead Yourself First. Listen to it on your commute. I promise you: if Dwight Eisenhower can successfully manage the chronic pressure of leading Allied forces in Europe during World War II, we can learn to do the same. The book yields what all the best ones do: perspective.
Finally, let me say that if you’re experiencing occupational burnout right now, you’re not alone. It’s more common in teaching than its absence is! But what I hope this post helps you see is that we do have options. There are things we can do to get better at managing the stress of teaching.
We do have agency, even amidst the pressure.