October 3rd, 2012

When Teaching Grows Tired: A Wake-up Call for Faculty


Bea Easton, the adjunct English teacher in Glen Chamberlain’s short story, “Conjugations of the Verb ‘To Be’,” is doing a crossword puzzle instead of grading English essays. She hasn’t touched the stack of papers since she read the first page of Staci Cook’s composition in which definitely is spelled defiantly and points are emphasized by using really twice.

Bright and articulate, Bea attaches Staci’s inarticulate phrases to her complex and nuanced feelings about teaching, her marriage and life in general. She doesn’t relate to Staci as an individual with life experiences that may be relevant to her inability to write and you don’t get the sense that Bea thinks Staci can learn to write better. Her role as an adjunct is a source of embarrassment. Her institution supports a student success mission. “Bea understood this to mean that Staci better not flunk the class; the administration, ubiquitous and growing by 10 percent over the course of five years, did not like students (could it be a verb?) attriting. Failing. Dropping out. Transferring. ‘Things like that,’ as Staci might say, ‘defiantly makes them really, really unhappy.” (p.134)

It’s not a bright happy story about teaching, but instead an uncannily accurate portrait of a burned out teacher. How do teachers reach this point?

Teacher burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, in one course or one semester. It starts with getting tired—teaching too many courses, too many students, for too many semesters, and sometimes in environments not supportive of teaching or otherwise organizationally dysfunctional. But this kind of tiredness is easily ignored. Most of us do work too hard. We lead complicated lives and being tired comes with the territory. We confuse physical tiredness with emotional exhaustion and think we’d be fine if we could just get to bed earlier.

Emotional exhaustion isn’t something that jives with the objective, rational academic culture where the focus is on teaching powered by the intellect—how well we have mastered the material. In reality, teaching most of today’s college students requires a great deal of emotional energy. We need to genuinely care about and connect with students, especially those who don’t write well, can’t calculate and seem unable to think critically. We need to believe that students can learn and that our teaching promotes their acquisition of knowledge and development of skills.

How do you know if your tiredness is emotional exhaustion and should be of concern? Are you too tired to make changes? Are you teaching courses the same way because doing things differently seems like too much work? How long has it been since you tried some new instructional strategy? Since you changed books? Since you taught a course you haven’t taught previously? Since you had lunch with a group of students?

Some of the solutions to tired teaching are easy. They start with recognizing that it’s a problem—that teachers get tired gradually, that burnout results from a smoldering fire rather than a blazing conflagration. Like physical health and well-being, others can’t take the actions that will make and keep us instructionally healthy. It’s something we do for ourselves and it may involve making behavior changes. Some of us need to learn how to say no. All of us need to know what keeps us fresh, what sustains and strengthens our commitments to teaching and to students. All of us need to recognize the importance of emotional rejuvenation and make emotional sustenance a priority.

Other solutions aren’t so easy. Many of us teach a lot of courses out of financial necessity. We don’t decide who gets admitted to our institution and we might not be able to move to a place that better fits our priorities. Those kinds of external factors are not easily altered. We have to do what we can to work around them for the time being and start planning for change in the future.

How many teachers are as burned out as Bea Easton? Not many, but I do worry that a lot of us do get emotionally tired. We run on empty and don’t take care of our instructional health with mindful purpose.

What are some things you do when you feel your teaching may be growing “tired.” Please share in the comment box.