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Time to Retire

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If you, like me, hope to put an entire career's worth of effort, care, improvement, and service into teaching — in other words, if you want to invest the bulk of your adult life, day by day, into this work — then there's a job you've got to quit, right now. If you don't stop working at this one job, then you'll almost certainly burn out, getting crankier and crankier as the years progress.

That job is proving yourself — to others, to yourself, to your students, and so on.

When we teach to prove ourselves — when that's what animates us, what gives us power through the long hours — we have chained ourselves to an unrelenting master. There will always be more to do when this “work beneath the work” dynamic is at play in our hearts. If we don't stop this, then even the best of days will be torpedoed by slights, by someone else getting attention or recognition that we feel we deserve.

I once met a teacher at a conference who was incredibly hard-working and easily 100 times smarter than me. He was one of those people who excels at several fields — engineering and medicine were his, I think — before they enter teaching. Yet teaching was crushing him. You could see that this young man had been told his whole life that he was exceptional, that he was going to do great things, that the sky was the limit for him. And as I conversed with him, that “I've got to prove myself” dynamic just yelled out from his eyes. He needed to prove himself — to all of those people who thought he was capable of “more than teaching,” to all the people in his school who didn't appreciate how great he was.

And this work beneath the work was so intense that, when combined with his considerable gifts, it had come to rule his life. He kept a cot in the back room of his classroom because there were some nights when he didn't go home.* He put painstaking care into creating the best lessons, the most relevant units, the finest labs. But when he started hearing from students that he wasn't their favorite teacher, and when he heard the praises of his colleagues sang in staff meetings rather than his own, he was crushed. Like a dying star, he was collapsing in on himself.

Do you see it? Do you see why this job of proving ourselves, of seeking praise or recognition or prizes, is one we must flee as if our career depends on it? It's not that praise or success is bad — being driven by them is. This drivenness to prove undermines our work and retards our growth.

We must retire from this today if we seek to retire on fire in five or ten or twenty years. There's not another way.

*On a much lighter side note, I do think a hammock in the classroom would be excellent. Dan Pink, in his recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, says that naps are essential for productivity. Twenty-minute power nap during 5th hour prep? Yes please (#goals). I'll let you know if I ever try this.

2 Responses to Time to Retire

  1. Teresa March 6, 2018 at 9:36 am #

    Thanks for this post. Working to prove myself is something I’ve known isn’t healthy. Reading your post confirms it.
    As for napping during the day, I did do that when I was a student teacher! My roommates and I had very different schedules. I had to be on my first bus by 6:00 a.m. to make the second bus and get to the school on time. Needless to say, I was tired. Each day when there was a break, I would rest my head on my hand (careful not to leave a red mark) and sleep for 10minutes. I’m not sure how I managed since there were no cell phones to use as timers, but I trained myself. Anyway, the short nap helped immensely! I was able to speak coherently for the rest of the school day!

  2. Alex Ross March 6, 2018 at 11:37 am #

    I love this Dave! By chance have you ever read David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water?” (originally a commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College). Your whole sense of what “master” you bow down to in the pursuit of ego or proving oneself or being better than colleagues really resonates with his whole idea. If you’ve never read it, or heard the audio on YouTube, it’s worth checking out. Thanks for all your insightful posts… 🙂

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