Burning Bright Without Burning Out

When my wife and I were going through childbirth classes, the instructor said something fascinating.

“There are two kinds of pain. The first is objective: the amount of pain your nerve receptors will receive. The second is subjective—the way you experience the pain. The two variables that most impact the experience of pain are isolation and lack of control.”

There’s a powerful lesson for teachers in those words.

At our district back-to-school meeting, one of the speakers paid teachers a ghastly compliment.

“It is said that teachers are like candles. They consume themselves to give light to others.”

I like the “giving light” bit. The problem is that candles are a nonrenewable resource. Once they’re gone, baby, they’re gone.

The metaphor is more accurate than the speaker knew. Pick a moment and day at random and ask a teacher how she’s feeling. Odds are high that the honest answer will be, “Overwhelmed.”

Teacher burnout reflects this reality. About half of teachers leave the profession within five years, and 10% leave before completing their first year.

How do we burn bright without burning out? How do we put in the diligence, creativity, curiosity, and time that teaching demands, while renewing and sustaining ourselves as human beings?

Teachers and former teachers, I’d love to hear your thoughts. For my part, I think the key has to do with the nature of pain.

 

Two Kinds of Pain

When my wife and I were going through childbirth classes, the instructor said something fascinating.

There are two kinds of pain. The first is objective: the amount of pain your nerve receptors will receive. The second is subjective—the way you experience the pain. The two variables that most impact the experience of pain are isolation and lack of control.”

The same thing that many of us love about teaching can contribute to isolation: within those four classroom walls is an entire kingdom of ideas, emotions, personalities, experiences, conflicts, and moments of pure poetry.

That sense of a world contained within itself can be wondrous. But it can also become stifling.

Teachers at my school have exceptionally high job satisfaction (despite a student population that is 99% poverty, our turnover each year is virtually zero), yet we also work incredibly hard, even by the standards of this demanding profession.

Part of the reason we love our jobs is that we have a culture of collaboration rather than isolation. We observe one another teaching, we support each other, and we innovate together.

To go back to that childbirth class, the “pain” component of teaching (long hours, exhausting work) is inevitable. But camaraderie and autonomy shift the perception of that work load. It’s not a burden imposed from outside and shouldered alone, but work we choose that is shared with talented colleagues.

The second variable—a sense of control—is critical, too. The article Why Do Teachers Quit? quotes researcher Richard Ingersoll:

“One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible, but it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”

I teach in a school that pairs autonomy with accountability, so we have a relatively high degree of control over professional choices. We’re responsible for certain outcomes in terms of student learning, but the way we achieve those outcomes is not micro-managed.

Choosing to work hard on behalf of your students is very different from being forced to do a set of tasks in a prescribed way. It’s the difference between jumping into a cold river for a bracing swim, and being pushed.

 

So What?

What matters, of course, is not just teachers’ feelings but outcomes for kids. Students benefit from a stable community of professionals working in collaboration to became increasingly effective teachers. Students suffer from high turnover, depleted teachers, and school cultures that stifle professional autonomy and collaboration.

In schools where collaboration and autonomy are the norm, teachers tend to put collaboration and autonomy at the heart of their classrooms. In schools where isolation and top-down mandates are more common, you see more desks in rows and heavy-handed use of the behavior chart.

Teaching is hard. There’s no way around that. But the ways in which we collaborate, innovate, and make professional decisions can determine the difference between the teacher who leaves after three years and the teacher who continues teaching for decades, burning brighter every year.