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The Work Beneath the Work

By Dave Stuart Jr.

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 constraintbased 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-RomeoandJuliet-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.”

12 Responses to The Work Beneath the Work

  1. Erica Lee Beaton August 5, 2017 at 8:13 am #

    Ooh! Like a glass of cold water in the face, D. Well done. That one would’ve hurt a few years ago. #recoveringperfectionist 😉

    • davestuartjr August 8, 2017 at 7:31 am #

      It would have hurt me, too — but in a good way 🙂

  2. Payal Patel August 5, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    I love the last few lines…when we shift our focus from “me” to “others”, keeping a higher goal in mind, the stress and anxieties naturally begin to melt away. Remembering the work we do is indispensable for progress of humanity is such a powerful message. Thank you for this wonderful post!!!

    • davestuartjr August 8, 2017 at 7:30 am #

      Thank you Payal — and I hope to see you at next year’s Educator Summit! Great work on your blog as well.

  3. Jamie Williams August 6, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    Your comments are well-said and on point! What we do is about students – not about bureaucratic BS and narrow-sightedness of school administrators. I am a 56 year old teacher who has only been in the classroom for six-years. In the short time since I began teaching, I have been shocked and dismayed by the many oppressive expectations of this career…none of which has anything to do with my students. So now, as I take a deep cleansing breath – I will be mindful that teaching is “wholly other-centered, totally focused on creating something new in someone else.” By doing so, I will be keeping my focus where it needs to be – on my kiddos. I know it will be a GREAT school year!

    • davestuartjr August 8, 2017 at 9:32 am #

      Let’s keep it focused this year, Jamie — thank you!

  4. Tracy August 8, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    Nailed it, Dave. When we “know thyself”, we can make it more about them and less about us. This is the simple (just not easy) work that requires us to reflect rather than project. Thank you for your brave, honest reflection.

    • davestuartjr August 8, 2017 at 9:31 am #

      Tracy — hi! Thank you 🙂 Hope to see you soon. Best of luck to you this year in your transition!

  5. samupton82 December 13, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

    Hi Dave,

    I am student-teacher currently studying at the University of Michigan. I really dig your blog. Seems to me that you have a keen sense of how to effect a “work-life balance” while teaching. As a prospective teacher, the work-life balance is of paramount concern to me. I want to do right by the kids I will have the privilege of teaching, but I do not want to work myself to death in the process. Your points about the “work beneath the work” are really striking. We wear ourselves out when we get caught up in teaching to prove something about ourselves. Less stressful but still effective teaching involves an emphasis on the needs of others.

    I am curious about how you establish this focus on others within your own self. Do you practice mindfulness techniques, like meditation? Do you exercise more to raise your spirits? Forgive me for the personal questions, I would love to hear more about your approach.

    Sam Upton

    • davestuartjr December 13, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

      Sam, what a great question — and I would expect nothing less from a fellow Wolverine. Go blue. I have a lot of love for the School of Ed staff there.

      So here are some, Sam — and make sure you subscribe to the blog because I’ll be writing about these more in early 2017:

      –I pray that I’ll love my students — really love them (this one’s obviously tied closely to my Christian faith tradition)
      –I try to practice daily “doubling” at the start of my lunch, where I jot down a brief recap of a positive moment of other-centeredness that I experienced in the past 24 hours
      –I play the gratitude game with my family at the dinner table, sharing people we’re grateful for from our day
      –I try (and these days, seem to mostly fail) to exercise a bit each day.

      Shawn Achor writes about some of these practices in his book Happiness Advantage.

      • davestuartjr December 13, 2017 at 8:54 pm #

        And I almost forgot an important one: I regularly confess my selfishness to likeminded friends. It’s a constant battle for me, Sam.

        Go blue 🙂

        • samupton82 December 19, 2017 at 7:38 pm #

          Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I did not realize you’re also a UMich guy. I confess that Luke Wilcox, another proud alum, pointed me and my classmates to your blog. It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine, as they say.

          The “doubling” activity that you mentioned seems really helpful. Is this part of a broader journal that you keep about your teaching experience?

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