A Superhero Teacher's Lament

Chris McNutt
July 5, 2018
Every passionate teacher enters the classroom with boundless, optimistic energy. They never think they’ll become the sarcastic, aloof, dismissive type. But, when push comes to shove — it seems like it happens to everybody.

You’re tired, stressed, and most of all — done with it all. You thought you’d never hit this point. Every passionate teacher enters the classroom with boundless, optimistic energy. They never think they’ll become the sarcastic, aloof, dismissive type. But, when push comes to shove — it seems like it happens to everybody. Teacher burnout isn’t just a concern, it’s a disease. It goes beyond the administrative question, “How are you going to take time for yourself?” Rather, the question should be, “Why are you not taking time for yourself?”

It’s interesting that surrounding the teacher mythos is one must constantly be working for students. “It’s all about the kids!” “All I care about is helping others!” “I do all this because I truly value their futures.” No matter the heroic statement, educators have developed a rationale for constantly working. Perhaps it’s to balance out the emotional distress, low respect, and the fairly low paying career — but there’s a deeper problem: educators have trapped themselves in the false premise that any time spent on oneself will be to the detriment of students.

There’s almost a competitive edge to the workaholic mindset of a teacher — an endless fight to be the “best” at devoting oneself to the field. I specifically recall my high school math teacher boasting about taking papers to grade at a family member’s funeral — he was “so dedicated” to the field — he always “put students first.” Of course, this is nonsensical — there are few (at least, ones that would be considered non-exploitative) careers that encompass all of life itself. Teachers are subjected to the same issue that persists in the corporate world: the lack of work/life balance, or the seemingly blending of the two. Alarmingly, job-related stress leads to death more so than rates of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza (White, 2015).

However, the element that sets education apart from the capitalist notion of “always working” is the glorification of it. Instead of finding ways to relax and step-away from the field for a moment, educators often decry their love for students and double down. With this, it isn’t surprising to find that almost half of all teachers feel highly stressed — the same rates as nurses and physicians (Turner, 2016). The unclear assertion that warrants investigation is whether or not this stress is manufactured or realistic with the job.

There’s many reasons to be stressed as an educator. Anything from a school’s pressure to pass certain students, a new meeting to ensure that one knows how to bust open a window if a student brings in a weapon, or simply the trauma that students exhibit to you — it’s gut wrenching. Coping with daily struggles becomes more and more difficult to manage, especially when one wants to push the edge of the field.

And this eats teachers up inside, they want to help as many as they can. Many (hopefully, most) go into the field to do so. But it’s unrealistic that one person (let alone a team of educators) can solve the drastic problems that face each and every student. And try as we might, it eventually can encompass our lives to the point that we face our own issues as well. The real trouble arises when teachers can no longer separate their professional life from their personal one — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having drive or passion or love — but there is a problem with letting one’s life suffer as a result. If a teacher spends all this time for others, they will eventually muster up so many personal issues that their original intent will indeed harm themselves.

While the emotional, administrative, and general educational system hurdles aren’t going away anytime soon — there is something to be said of manufactured problems that lead to a work-life imbalance. It’s not realistic to constantly plan, to grade, to develop an entirely new framework to teaching. What’s wrong with letting students assess themselves? Why not just put on a movie for a few days? The emphasis of placing all burden on a teacher to solve a classroom’s problems demonstrates a confounding lie educators place on themselves: that it’s all about them. Yes, teachers will believe that they’re helping students, but if they place every single facet on their back, it becomes more about them.

There are plenty of misconceptions that blanket this issue:

Watching a movie, playing a game, or doing anything “non-academic” will harm students because they won’t learn anything!

Of course, almost anyone not involved with writing standards on a board each day to “prove they’re teaching something” would find this statement ridiculous. Pressure from all sides have made instructors prone to thinking that anything not related to their content area, or anytime they’re not teaching “bell to bell”, or seemingly their room is in “chaos” — that they’re doing something wrong. There’s nothing further from the truth: students learn through play, they want authentic relationships that go beyond a traditional classroom, they’re okay with a movie every once in a while (students are stressed themselves!) Sometimes, a break is all anyone needs. People need to recharge their batteries — life is about more than reaching every single standard.

Grading constantly is a sign of fantastic teaching. Students benefit from all of my feedback and grow as a result.

There’s nothing wrong with giving feedback, but so many educators spend hours each day trying to save the world through notes on a paper. It’s not only an unsustainable practice, but takes away from the joy of the human experience — doing things that are fun — unwinding — spending time with family and friends. By substituting grades with feedback from self-reflection (or peer-assessment), letting students take more ownership of their learning and critically think — a teacher has more time to themselves. And this is incredibly important, teachers will be better off in the classroom with that time: they will be more human: not over encumbered, free to connect with students, and in general — more happy to be at work.

I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?

In general, the fascination with teachers having supernatural abilities to work with students hurts us. It’s not that teachers don’t do important work — of course they do. But the societal expectation that teachers are somehow beyond human have caused so many educators to leave the field. They’re always second-guessing if any time they’re not doing something that’s teaching-related, that someone else is working twice as hard (and is therefore, “better than them.”) This damages the psyche — a manufactured rat-race of teachers trying to outdo the artificial workload that’s expected of them. Somehow, if you’re not working at least two hours a day after school — planning, grading, reading up on the latest research — you’re failing students — you’re a disgrace to the industry. But again, the more time an educator spends doing all these things themselves — the less their students benefit. They are not involved in planning, there’s less student voice. They’re not understanding how to critically assess themselves.

All in all, it’s not that teachers should never work outside the classroom: being informed about best practice and working for students is a lofty and needed goal. But importantly, teachers must not equate constantly working with constant success. Hashing out a few hours in the week to work while spending the majority for themselves will make one a happier, better teacher. We mustn’t get caught up in thinking that we’re the only thing saving students. Our students are already talented, creative, complex individuals — our goal is to support them, not build them. Take some time for yourself — the guilt that you feel isn’t real.


Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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