All things considered, “burnout” isn’t a terribly old term. One doesn’t read of “burnout” in the works of Plato or Dante—or even Steinbeck, for that matter, though it’s amusing to think of Jim Casey complaining to Ma Joad, “You don’ know how lousy with burnout I am.” The fact that burnout is sort of a fashionable disorder isn’t going to stop teachers at classical Christian schools from worrying about it, though. As such, I would like to offer a few exhortations on how to avoid burnout.
One. Get a little perspective. I do intend to offer some actual advice on avoiding burnout but let me begin by pointing out something which your lawyer friends, doctor friends, first responder friends, and line cook friends probably think when they hear you complain about burnout: Teachers get a lot of time off. Ten weeks every summer. Two weeks every Christmas. Thanksgiving. Easter. President’s Day. While teaching is tough work and the pay isn’t great, if we’re going to talk about burnout, let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many professions out there which have much greater claim on the burnout complaint than teachers.
Two. Take your summers off. Many teachers have opportunities to keep working during the summer, either by offering additional classes, tutoring, or giving remedial help to students who failed this or that class. While you could make an extra $600 by going to campus every day (for a few hours) during the month of July, there might be better ways to make extra money that don’t involve returning to the classroom quite so soon. Honestly, I find doing something other than teaching over the summer gives me space to think about the classroom from a cool, objective standpoint. This invariably turns into some fresh ideas on what to do differently in the classroom, which makes me all the more zealous to return to work when the summer is over. If you have to work over the summer, you might be better off waiting tables than teaching remedial Latin.
Three. Go to a summer conference. Attending a conference over the summer gives me a few ideas to chew on that ultimately bear fruit in September. If you’re a high school teacher at a conference, go to a few lectures given by elementary school teachers. By and large, there’s more common sense than theory in the way elementary school teachers approach pedagogy, and high school teachers already lean too hard on theory.
Four. Switch up the curriculum. Take a book out of your curriculum. Put a new one in. And schedule yourself to teach that new book in March or April, when your enthusiasm for school is lowest. It’ll keep you on your toes.
Five. Switch up the translations. If you’re not allowed to switch out books in the curriculum, try switching out translations. Change Lattimore for Fagles. Get a different set of notes than you have been using. I had plateaued with the Comedy for a couple years, but switching out Sayers for Musa breathed new life in my classroom.
Six. Delight your students. There’s probably nothing more likely to give a teacher zeal for coming to class quite like knowing the students are zealous to get to class. And teenagers are relatively easy to delight. Quit trying to sell them on “the feast of ideas” and move them a step closer to an actual feast. Let them bring tea to class on Tuesdays. They’ll look forward to it. They’ll remember it for the next twenty years every time they have a mug of tea on a Tuesday.
Seven. Rock the boat. Young teachers have a disproportionate fear of “getting in trouble,” which means they are loathe to do anything which will upset parents or administrators—some are even intimidated at the thought of upsetting their students. Some of this fear is born of inexperience, but some also comes from the fact that the role of teacher has come down in the world over the last seventy-five years. I recently listened to a lecture from Keith McCurdy wherein he stated that back in the 1930s or 40s, parents who wanted to hear from someone who was knowledgeable about child development would either talk to a grandparent, a clergyman, or a teacher. These days, he lamented, most parents begin with a psychologist. Teachers are no longer thought experts. Like Olive Garden waiters, their primary responsibility is to “keep parents happy,” and the primary responsibility of parents is to “keep their children happy.”
While burnout comes from being overworked or doing the same thing over and over again, it also comes from a feeling that one’s work is simply not all that important. Keeping people happy really isn’t an important and lofty goal, but teaching virtue is, which means that teachers who go to work every day with the goal of not getting in trouble are far more apt to tire of their work than teachers who go to work to “raise up a child in the way he should go.” Often enough, courage is going to mean a royal headache—it’s far more often a headache than teamwork is, at any rate.
All this to say, getting in trouble isn’t the end of the world. Some trouble is just plain worth it. Some trouble is necessary. I’m not suggesting you pick a fight just to keep things interesting, but I am saying that “choose your battles carefully” means actually choosing a few battles, not just endlessly deferring conflict for some later point when things have gotten entirely out of hand. There are bad reasons to get in trouble, but there are good reasons, too. And getting in trouble for the right reasons can be invigorating.