One of the reasons we're at risk of burning ourselves out this year is that there's a work beneath our work. Here's what I mean.
The work that we're heading into or in the midst of right now is lesson plans and unit designs and classroom set-ups and photocopies and tech checks and learning names and teaching annotation and so on. All of the things I've listed don't necessitate burnout. They can be a lot of things to manage sometimes, especially given all the other demands on our time, but I think that with some constraint–based measures like fixed-schedule productivity and saying no more often, they're doable for you and they're doable for me. At least, they don't require that we burn out.
But you and I are both familiar with the work that lies beneath our work: namely, doing our jobs as a means to prove ourselves, or to make sure we matter, or to demonstrate that teaching is hard, or to make sure people respect us, or to fashion ourselves as some kind of irreplaceable hero. Early on in my career, I think beneath the weekly mentoring trips and the stand-on-my-desk speeches and the let's-make-swords-during-our-Romeo–and–Juliet-unit activities and the first-car-in-the-parking-lot-and-last-car-out habits, beneath all of that work was this insatiable drive:
- to prove that teaching was a worthy career choice for me;
- to be the teacher from Freedom Writers or The Ron Clark Story;
- to win awards and recognition;
- to be the hero of all of my students.
And frankly, all of that work — the work beneath the work — is soul-twisting slavery. All of it is 100% about me, just like your work beneath the work is ultimately just about you. Want to burn yourself out? Submit yourself to the ceaseless striving that such work beneath the work tyrannically calls us to.
Teaching — the real work — is wholly other-centered, totally focused on creating something new in someone else. Teaching's real work turns the teacher into a tool for one of humanity's oldest magics — the passing on of knowledge, skills, and wisdom from one generation to the next.
The teachers who flourish for the duration continually bring themselves back to what the real work is.
Thank you to New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz and author / thinker Tim Keller, both of whom treat these ideas in their work. It was from Tim Keller that I heard the phrase “the work beneath the work.”