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You Actually Can, and Should, Shut if Off

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

— Tim Kreider for The New York Times

“You know, teaching is one of those jobs that you just can’t turn off. When you’re called to it, it’s who you are. There’s no getting away.”

I think there are a lot of problems with this sentiment, which you can find easily enough on teacher message boards and blogs, or in motivational keynotes for teachers, or conference sessions, or books. The problem isn't small, either. Basically, I think this idea of being unable to turn teaching off is a recipe for being a mediocre (and unhappy) teacher and person.

I sort of cringe with that previous line because it sounds really harsh. But I’m just trying to be direct and clear. Let me explain what I mean.

When you don't turn it off, it makes you worse at the external work of teaching (i.e., it produces mediocre performance)

When we don’t turn teaching off — when we truly do let it and its papers, concerns, stresses, emails, etc. come home with us every night and weekend and vacation — we set ourselves up for decreased performance. There’s all kinds of science behind this, but, briefly, consider:

  • The Yerkes-Dodson Law holds that too much pressure decreases human performance. (Please note: Nonstop engagement with the stresses of teaching is too much pressure.)
  • Unconscious Thought Theory holds that, when we distract our minds from the pressing issues that face us — particularly the big and hairy problems that require solutions despite conflicting constraints (i.e., teaching) — our unconscious mind goes to work on solving the problem. If you never turn teaching off, you don’t get the benefits of Unconscious Thought Theory.
  • Attention (or Ego) Depletion Theory holds that we’re better able to concentrate after periods in which we engage in leisure activities that don’t require intense and constant decision-making. These are things like casual conversation with a spouse or friend, jumping in the sprinkler with your children, reading a book for fun, taking a jog, and so on.

And so it turns out that the best way to be the best teacher you're capable of being is to, indeed, turn it off. If you're like me, you love your students. So: learn to turn it off. Engage in leisure. Find purpose beyond the classroom. And then, from the constraints that this places on your time, become a student of efficient, effective teaching. (This book helps.)

When you don't turn it off, it makes you worse at the internal work of teaching (i.e., it produces unhappiness, pride, stress)

Not turning teaching off doesn’t just affect our performance — it affects our quality of life, too. That's the double whammy of the Yerkes-Dodson curve — you don't just perform worse when you're overly stressed; you tend to hate your life, too. Lose-lose.

Or consider the role that identity plays in thinking clearly. I've written before about how one of the top ways to combat burn-out is to detach your sense of self from your job performance. There's a full treatment in this article (starting at Jedi Mind Trick #1), but the gist is that when I don't distance my sense of self from my work as a teacher, then I can get unsustainably driven to succeed at any cost — after all, I've got to protect my identity, my sense of self. Everything is on the line for me.

But this enmeshment of my identity with my work as a teacher produces deadly consequences down the line. When I fail at something — say a lesson goes badly, or fourth hour has been hard for me to manage, or a parent complains about me to the principal — I'll take it all the way into my heart. It'll crush me, posing so much of a threat to my sense of self that I'll be sure to avoid or hide or pretend away that kind of failure in the future.

But success will ruin me, too. A good assessment outcome or winning a teacher award or getting praised at the staff meeting will puff me up, making me think I'm more important than I am. This will make me insufferable to be around, and I'll find down the line that I've got less friends and a slippery grip on reality.

Essayist and entrepreneur Paul Graham argues that one of the best ways to think better about anything is to remove your identity from it:

 If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

(Here's Graham's essay, “Keep Your Identity Small.”)

I know that a lot of these points link back to performance, too, but I guess that's a central part of my strategy for teaching as best I can for as long as possible: the internal work enables the external work. It's the engine beneath the hood of the car.

The Gist

Stop telling yourself that you can't turn the work off. It's not a good way to serve the kids that you love so much. We've got to think harder, for the sake of our kids and for ourselves and for the people in our lives outside of education who we love and owe our lives to.

2 Responses to You Actually Can, and Should, Shut if Off

  1. Kim December 24, 2018 at 1:26 pm #

    Perhaps admin and politicians and the general public push the “you can’t turn it off” so teachers continue to stay late, take home grading, and do our planning during our evenings and weekends. It’s a good way to play on teacher’s guilt feelings that there’s always SOMETHING MORE we could be doing.

    • Buffy J. Hamilton January 1, 2019 at 9:14 pm #

      I agree–this is a narrative I didn’t really see or feel until the last five years of my teaching (this is year 26 for me). The role of martyr is not one I want to play.

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