Workload and pressure work together deviously to demoralize and demotivate even the best teachers. Here's how it works.
First, workload. The default circumstance of teaching in the twenty-first century is that as time goes on, the teacher's workload increases. Each year there is more of all the things we're tasked with doing:
- More email to read and respond to
- More students to teach
- More digital content to create
- More digital content to curate
- More assignments to grade
- More feedback to give
- More documentation to maintain
- More things to organize (LMS's, Drives)
- More tech to learn or troubleshoot
- More questions to answer
- More variables to lesson plan for
- More student learning needs
- More student social-emotional needs
- More student motivation obstacles
The best way to solve this is to develop expertise because expertise is what gives you the clarity you need to focus, reduce, simplify, skip, and satisfice — all the moves expert educators make in order to turn the default workload setting (which is impossible) into something that is productive and manageable (which is what we got into teaching for). The trouble, of course, is that building expertise requires time and clarity. So, you need clarity and time in order to produce the expertise that will enable you to have clarity and time… that's one paradox.
Then we bring in pressure.
We've known for a long time that in all areas of life, humans are capable of withstanding only so much pressure. You need some pressure if you're to perform optimally — but too much wipes you out. Both you and your performance suffer when you're over-pressured.
Pressure is solved in two ways:
- You've got to habituate the kinds of things that depressurize a human being.
- You've got to de-habituate the kinds of things that pressurize a human being.
In order to do this, it's best to understand what a human being is, which is, at least, a kind of being with:
- An intellectual or thinking life
- An emotional or feeling life
- A physical or bodily life
- A social or communal life
- A motivational life (a will)
(I see a sixth element of the human being as well — a spiritual life, a soul — but I don't want to push you too far. After all, much of the talk in the educational literature makes it seem like all we are as humans are brains on sticks. But it's best not to get me started on the incoherence of our professional literature's view of what a human is. I'd best stick to our point.)
To live as a properly depressurized person in a world that is insanely and inhumanely pressurized, you've got to enter the schools (or disciplines) of these different parts of the human being — the schools of the intellectual and emotional and physical and social and motivational lives.
Or in other words, you've got to become good at intelligent self-care. Zero faddishness, zero fluff. Instead, what work matters most for depressurizing these facets of who and what I am?
But here's the second paradox: since our default condition is hyper-pressurization, and since hyper-pressurization makes us worse at our jobs, we end up managing our default teacher workloads (which you'll remember are impossibly large) extra poorly, and so our workload contributes to the hyper-pressurization we already experience as members of the twenty-first century world.
It's messed up.
But — there's hope.
First of all, naming it helps. I call it the workload-pressure paradox. Having this language is important to me because I'm turning chaos into concepts. Chaos is hard to deal with. Concepts are less hard. Concepts help us see.
Second, I don't know of a better move for starting toward mastery of the workload-pressure paradox than constraining the work. You limit the time you'll spend on work. You set up some rules or a schedule. (I've been iterating on my schedule for years, even here on the blog.) These force you to make decisions (like Kelly Gallagher's on grading articles of the week in mere seconds apiece); decisions force you to ask questions (e.g., “Why am I grading this?”); questions help you arrive at principles which enable better decisions down the road. All of this contributes to the development of your expertise — you start using less nails. This begins to solve the first paradox we looked at.
And then when you're not working, you try to do more of the good things and less of the bad things. More stuff that depressurizes you — intellectually, emotionally, physically, socially — and less stuff that keeps you (and the world) crazy. These are lifelong pursuits — but, gosh, are there quick ways to start experiencing improvement, too.
Listen — 2020 has been the pits for most of us. The reviews are in: 2020, would not recommend.
But 2021 doesn't need to be, no matter how things go. Solving the workload-pressure paradox is less about our circumstances than it is about the people we're in the process of becoming. It's about meeting the defaults — of our work, of our lives — with clearer heads, lighter hearts, fuller selves, and settled wills. So that those defaults don't have to be our settings.
I'm making a course to help us do that. It'll release at the start of 2021, with limited spots. Be the first to hear by signing up here.
Somehow you always seems to send just the right message just at the time that I most need it. THANK YOU for sharing your wisdom and your insights into our work and our world.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Sheryl, I do pray that my posts will do more good than I could possibly engineer or plan for. I’m so thankful to hear that they find you at just the right time 🙂
Dave, I am too tired to leave a proper comment, but want you to know I appreciate you and even actually quoted you this week to my team!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Lena, I’m honored. My wish for you is a wonderful and restful weekend. Best wishes.