As those of us in the United States approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to use today's post to remind you of some of the practical and professional arguments for resting seriously and earnestly.
Human beings can only take so much pressure before their performance declines. Psychologists Yerkes and Dodson codified this idea over 100 years ago with what I call the Yerkes-Dodson Curve.
In a job like teaching, where the life trajectories of our students are at stake in every day's lesson, getting down into the rightmost side of that curve is as common as breathing. When you add the stakes to the dehumanizing nature of so many of our policies and systems, it's a mundane observation to say that over-pressure is the default. When you teach without attending seriously to the level of pressure inside your soul, you'll always end up on the bottom right.
This is why resting well is such an important professional practice. I doubt we'll see the day when rest is included on our evaluation rubrics — and actually, that prospect is horrifying, so let's please not — but no matter what, honing our ability to rest is just as important as honing our ability to design a lesson or to manage a classroom full of students.
There's another problem that comes with being bad at rest, and it has to do with identity. A major cause of teacher attrition, by my observation, is when we as teachers allow our jobs to become our source of identity. If you can't look in the mirror and see more than a teacher, more than a person with all these job responsibilities and all these student problems to handle, you're on the path to burnout.
There are two terrible things that can happen to a person who too closely enmeshes their identity as a person with their identity as an educator:
- You can fail.
- You can succeed.
When an identity-enmeshed teacher fails, their whole soul writhes in agony. The bad day in the classroom becomes so much more than just that; it becomes an indictment of our human value, a spiritual judgment that we are lacking and inadequate as a human being. The only responses to such a circumstance are dejection, hiding, and pain. There is no escape.
On the other hand, when an identity-enmeshed teacher succeeds — when they win an award, when their students outperform the average on tests, when they get compliments in the grocery store from students or their parents — it is as if they've taken a hit of a spiritual cocaine. They become inflated in their ego. They become giddy with the high. And like all addictions, they become desperate for more and more and more.
In both cases, the end result is losing your sense of self, losing the kind of rootedness that is required for a flourishing life.
Thankfully, the best medicine for such dilemmas is often as simple as rest.
So, this break, for at least one 24-hour period:
- Turn your work emails off — refuse to check them.
- Leave your work laptop at school.
- Lock the stacks of papers to grade or lessons to plan in a safe and throw them into a lake.
And in replacement of these things, do the kinds of self-nourishing things that you did before you became a teacher.
- Think on your friends and send a few of them messages to let them know you appreciate them.
- Take walks.
- Take a nap.
- Play a game with your children (in the Stuart house right now, that would probably be Trouble — we are professionals).
And in all of it, reconnect with the joy that comes from just you being you.