Is Teaching a Sustainable Profession?
After spending a weekend at a retreat with a group of other teachers, I came away worried about whether teaching can be a sustainable profession—whether it can be done over the course of decades, with vigor, love, and increasing excellence. So many teachers I know feel utterly exhausted and burnt out, and it made me wonder if there’s something specific about teaching that causes these feelings.
As teachers, we’re asked to be responsible for the minds of a large number of people. At the community college where I teach, most full-time faculty members teach 100-150 students per semester. There’s a belief that if we’re good enough at our jobs, we can successfully teach all of these students specific “student learning outcomes” and move them along (like an assembly line) to the next class. If we can’t teach the students, then we feel we failed (and sometimes we’re told by others that we failed). We didn’t have the right lesson, or the right way of presenting it. We didn’t reach out early enough to the struggling student. We weren’t creative enough, or we were too creative and didn’t drill down into the required skills. Maybe we used the wrong book, or we taught the right book in the wrong way. Or hell, maybe it was all the students’ fault. Why were they so lazy? Why didn’t they just do what we told them?
I hope I’m not the only one whose mind runs amuck when my students do poorly. But as you might imagine, this mental spiral is huge psychological weight. Most teachers chose this profession because we care, and most of us care too much. We take on the burdens of failing students, or we engage in blame as a way to try not to take on these burdens. Either choice is an exhausting one.
And then there’s the sheer overwhelm from engaging with over a hundred human beings every week. Teacher know this: Relationships matter. I might even argue that the effectiveness of our teaching correlates with the quality of our relationships with our students. Recently, I conducted one-hour interviews with 15 college students, asking them about motivation. A common theme arose in these interviews. All of these students said, without my prompting, that what motivates them most is when they feel that the teacher cares about them. They said that a teacher who cares makes them care. Many of my students spoke with emotion about teachers who reached out to them, who noticed them, who spent extra time helping them.
But how do we do this when we have so many students? A few years ago, I remember a class where my students were revising their drafts of an essay about a poem. As they worked with a partner, I came around and talked with each of them—all 30 of them. For each student, I tried to listen. I reread parts of the poem with them and asked questions. I read parts of their essay and offered some feedback. Somehow, in a 2-hour session, I managed to check in with all of them. I know that this helped them. The students did well on their essays, and I know they felt seen and heard. However, driving home that day, I was so tired I was practically blind. I remember thinking, I don’t know how long I can keep this up. And I couldn’t. Eventually, I stopped this highly fruitful practice simply because I lacked the mental and emotional energy to do it.
Being truly present for our students requires enormous energy. We could probably manage it if we had half as many students. But with over a hundred students, it’s easy for empathy fatigue to set in. Empathy fatigue is when you show up at your classroom to teach a class, and there’s a student standing outside crying, and you think, I just can’t deal with this right now instead of thinking, Oh no, I wonder why he’s crying? Once empathy fatigue sets in, it’s nearly impossible throw it off. Stress, overwork, and exhaustion are the enemies of empathy. At some point in the semester, nearly all teachers are in expediency mode, doing whatever we can just to get done all that we need to get done. And students become obstacles to that; their human problems and foibles become things to dispense with, as quickly as possible.
This is not to suggest that teachers should act as therapists to their students. But imagine if you only had 15 students to help. You could afford a few minutes at the beginning of class to hear out the crying student. Your calmness would be contagious, and the student would most likely settle down. You could enter the classroom and greet every student by name. You would have the mental energy to be there fully when a student asked a question or needed extra help. You could give better, more useful feedback to 15 students than to 30.
I imagine this sounds impossibly idealistic. But why are we spending so much money on the flavor-of-the-year in education, and not investing in our teachers? Teaching could be a sustainable profession, if we lightened the load for our teachers, if we supported them more, and if we paid them a wage that signaled respect.
Teaching is a sustainable profession for me, but that’s only because I chose not to have kids. It’s only because I teach in the community college system, where I don’t have to teach classes every weekday. It’s only because of the summers. It’s only because I set limits on how much I can give, limits I wish I didn’t have to set. I’ve been a teacher now for 18 years. I wish I could say I have another 18 in me. But I just don’t know.