Misery?

Stephen King taught high school English for two years:

I wasn’t having much success with my own writing, either. Horror, science fiction, and crime stories in the men’s magazines were being replaced by increasingly graphic tales of sex. That was part of the trouble, but not all of it. The bigger deal was that, for the first time in my life, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching. I liked me coworkers and loved the kids — even the Beavis and Butt-Head types in Living with English could be interesting — but by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then.

“Jumper cables clamped to my brain.” I totally believe and experience this. It’s an obvious fact of my life…but is it true? Why would it be?

My work isn’t as intellectually involved as e.g. being a grad student, researcher, journalist, etc. Teachers don’t have to regularly learn new facts or disciplines. We don’t make our living as readers, writers or thinkers.

We don’t even work especially long hours. Yes, yes, endless grading. But even taking grading into account, it’s unclear to me how many extra hours we actually put in. I know, personally, that I tend to way over-estimate my out-of-work hours. I tend to count all sorts of quasi-work into the bucket, like all that time that I’m thinking about looking at student work but instead I’m writing a blog post on a Sunday night.

Grading and planning are like (to get back to King) little evil vampire children that rap on the window while we’re catching a break after a long day. Let us in, they say, you need to.

(I just finished reading Salem’s Lot which stars Matt Burke, veteran teacher, which is how I ended up down this road.)

The Bureau of Labor Services surveyed teachers and instead of asking how many hours they worked in a week, asked them how many they worked yesterday. (This includes out of school work.) The stunning results: responses amount to just under a forty-hour work week. We even, on average in this survey, work less on the weekends than a comparison groups that contains health care professionals, business and financial operations professionals, architects and engineers, community and social services professionals, managers.

I’m inclined to believe the more modest hour-estimates of the BLS, as they fit what I see in myself and colleagues at the different places I’ve taught. (I’d also say that, in the places I’ve taught, there are outlier teachers who just go nuts with work. If the BLS stuff doesn’t fit your picture, you might be such a teacher.)

But I’m also inclined to think that King’s brain wouldn’t be depleted if he were a journalist or a researcher or a bond-trader who worked till ten every night.

(Speaking of work hours and exhaustion: I read King’s Under the Dome while working fifteen-hour work days as a delivery truck driver in my summer after graduation. I’ve never been as desperate for a book as I was while working that job. That book took over my life while I was working — my wife [then girlfriend] still teases me about it. The job involved driving around campus, picking up and dropping off recycled furniture, which sort of wore me out. I was physically exhausted but mentally starving and I’d collapse in bed with that book for some of the most satisfying hours of reading I’ve experienced in my life.)

What could there be about teaching that makes it mentally exhausting? Or is this just standard working-adult exhaustion?

I can’t think of anything, which makes me wonder if Steve and I are making this up.

One thing I know about teaching, though, is that you rarely know if you’ve taught well. And that fits with what I know about writing — that it’s lonely work, done in a quiet space over long-periods of time. Unlike teaching, there are certain stone-cold ways of knowing that you’ve done good work — the acclaim of readers — but the lead-up to that moment (if it ever arrives) is the ultimate marshmallow test.

Maybe this is it: teaching exhausts us in a way that kills our willingness to write.

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4 thoughts on “Misery?

  1. I’ve read that teachers are in the top four professions for “decisions made per hour” along with air-traffic controllers. Perhaps that is one of the things that causes our mental exhaustion. Also, I am apparently an outlier, because I routinely work 10 – 12 hour days during the week and anywhere from 4 to 12 hours on Saturday. It would help if my teaching assignment didn’t change so often. Developing a new curriculum is exhausting work.

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    1. That’s a lot of hours!

      One thing I never really understood about the “decisions/hour” thing is what counts as a decision. Like say I’m a truck driver, so my job is driving a truck. How do we count how many decisions a truck driver makes? Does she make just one (to drive a truck for that hour)? Does she make like a million because each second she has to make sure that she makes the right driving call?

      Obviously there is something that is more than coasting and less than a full soliloquy that should count as a decision, but I have no idea how you define it in a meaningful way.

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  2. Hey Michael,

    I have a conjecture. I believe our exhaustion and burnout is due to the anxiety produced by negative social interactions we have with students and parents. The exclusive cause of the type of exhaustion and burnout you refer to in your post is stress. And it is well documented that being socially ostracized causes stress levels that are rivaled only by the threat of death. When people are bullied, ganged up on, and repeatedly mocked, they do things like commit suicide or live with deep depression. For many teachers, feeling like they are bullied, ganged up on, and mocked is a regular occurrence. It is strange to realize that this is true, but it is. When you ask a class to engage in a task, and some don’t do it. Or you ask the class to come together as a group and listen to what another classmate has to say, but some students engage in their own side conversation over the speaker even after you’ve asked those exact students directly not to, it feels like you are being socially mocked. And feeling like you are being socially mocked is a very stressful thing, and it happens regularly. That’s why, at the end of the day or week or year, we feel drained.

    I know for a fact this will resonate with virtually all teachers. I am a very well respected teacher, loved by my students, colleagues, parents and community and I work at one of the wealthiest, most well-behaved districts in my state. I have dedicated my life to the profession and I love it. I am definitely one of those teachers you talk about that works constantly. Despite this, I experience this negative social anxiety regularly. It seems to be an unavoidable aspect of the profession, and one that is unique to it. This, I believe, explains the mystery exhaustion you have identified.

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  3. I’m put in mind of the end-of-the school day image of the dismissal bell ringing, the school doors opening, and the kids running out as the exhausted teachers drag themselves to their cars. I’ve thought of this in relation to time of possession in football. When the offense has the ball for long periods of time, we hear things like, “the defense is wearing down.” I once asked a football-playing friend of mine: Why doesn’t the offense get tired? Why don’t we ever hear about the offense wearing down? After all, they’re on the field the same amount of time as the opposing team’s defense. He said it’s about initiating action vs. reacting. The offense initiates and the defense reacts, and reacting takes more out of you mentally and physically. I think one reason teachers are so drained at the end of the day is we spend a lot of time playing defense; in other words, reacting. Reacting here may be equivalent to making those many decisions, both big and small, pedagogical and otherwise, that make up a teacher’s day, as well as trying to prevent or at least mitigate some of the negative social interactions that Harry mentions above.

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