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.