If you want to continue in this job (without suffering a breakdown, or even with one) it becomes imperative to avoid teacher burnout. Teaching writing may not be hazardous physically, but it’s a spiritual challenge like almost no other. Composition teachers face underprepared students, high dropout rates, long hours, and low pay. Is it any wonder we're all looking for a way to avoid teacher burnout?
Sure, stress management techniques will work in the short term, but to continue to be an effective teacher year after long, arduous year, you need a more permanent fix. To avoid teacher burnout ultimately requires a spiritual solution, a change in the way you look at your job, your world, and yourself.
There is a passage in the Bhagavad Gita that says, “Your concern is alone the action of duty, not the fruit of that action. Cast then aside all doubt and fear for the fruit, and perform your duty.”
As teachers, we have to realize that whether students pass, fail, or drop out isn’t our concern. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care what happens to them; it simply means we aren’t responsible for it. Our duty is to teach. What they do with that teaching is their business, not ours.
Several years ago, I opened the student newspaper at the community college where I’d been teaching for two years. A two-page spread in the middle of the paper listed all the students who were about to graduate – two full pages of names in small type. I eagerly scanned the list for students I had taught.
I found one.
What happened to the rest, I wondered. So I experienced first-hand the Bhagavad Gita quote. I realized that what happened to my students, the “fruit” of my labor, was not my concern. My duty was to stand in the classroom every day and teach. I couldn’t be bogged down by considering what the results of that teaching would be. It might be transformational for some and completely ineffectual for others, but that wasn’t my concern.
When we “cast then aside all doubt and fear for the fruit,” we are better able to do our job. We aren’t slowed down by questioning or stopped by despair. We forge ahead, day after day, in the spirit of service to something greater than ourselves, something we can’t even see or know.
The fact is: we can’t ever know the outcomes of our teaching. If we can embrace this idea, it becomes much easier to avoid teacher burnout.
One day after I had dismissed a composition class, I must have had a very frustrated expression on my face. A bright student in the first row, somewhat older than his peers, saw this and remarked on it. I replied that I really didn’t feel his classmates were “getting it.”
“Don’t worry,” this consistent A student said. “I didn’t at first either.” He explained that he had tried college a few years earlier but had repeatedly failed his classes, including composition. “I just wasn’t ready,” he said. “But I’m back, and now I know why I’m here. Maybe they will one day too.”
Have you ever been the teacher who meets the student on their second or third attempt to pass a course or earn a degree? Sometimes years have elapsed in between. Usually their former teachers have no idea they’re trying again, succeeding this time, and that their teaching may have helped. We don’t get postcards in the mail years later saying, “I’m back in college, passing composition this time, and it’s partly because of one positive comment you made on my essay ten years ago.” Often students themselves aren’t even aware of the influence we’ve had on them till many years later, if at all.
That’s why we can’t measure our success by the fruits. We don’t see the fruits, and we aren’t meant to. The results of our teaching aren’t our concern; only the teaching is. If you can fix that idea firmly in your mind, you can avoid teacher burnout for good.
If you're feeling frustrated, fed up, discouraged and just plain burnt out, post your story here. Go ahead, rant and rave (just delete the expletives, before you post, please:) Tell us your woes; we're here to listen and respond with encouragement and support. Most important, when you're feeling better, come back and pay it forward by responding kindly to someone else's post.
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