Perhaps the guiltiest culprit for our burnout each year is not the latest policy from on high, the newest cumbersome teacher eval rubric, or the fact that “this year’s group is a really rough one.” In my experience, these things create challenging circumstances (and many times the challenge lies not in the things but in the ignoring of them), but they don’t burn me out. Really, what burns me out is my unrealistic expectations.
In June I decompress. In July I start to dream. And so in August, I tend to bring larger than life expectations to the classroom as I prepare for the year.
Some expectations are important, and we have to cling to them:
- Even the smallest lesson can have a trajectory-shifting impact in the life of a student;
- We’ll keep our work oriented toward Everest, and our job is ultimately to invest in the long-term flourishing of our students;
- We’ll improve this year.
A better word for these kinds of worthy, big picture expectations would be ideals. I’m eleven years into my career, and I can’t conceptualize doing this work without the above ideals. “Essential” isn’t a strong enough words. This kind of idealism doesn’t lead to burnout; rather, it acts as a charm for keeping burnout at bay.
But then there’s this other set of expectations that just has to die right out of the gate if I’m going to avoid burnout. These are the unrealistic expectations:
- Everything is going to go as planned (when, in fact, Marly will attack);
- I have to grade everything, and all of that grading has to be done the same way (when, in fact, some of the best teachers grade very pragmatically);
- I have to read everything that my students write (when really, there are types of writing we should rarely read — use the Pyramid of Writing Priorities for that);
- I have to give individualized feedback after pop-up debates (when the guy who made up PUD practically never does that, opting instead for brief, whole-class feedback and reflection);
- I have to do everything on my list (when instead, we ought to be brutally clear-sighted in handling the most pointless things we’re asked to do).
What I’ve briefly painted here is what many of the best career teachers possess: realistic idealism. That first set of bullet points is about as high-minded as it comes. It is hugely idealistic. To hold to that list, we need to ignore the pessimistic voices that surround us. But that bottom list is interesting because, to hold to it, we need to ignore the overly optimistic voices that surround us — those who believe that we can somehow do All The Things.
You can’t climb up Mount Everest with your kitchen sink. You can bring only what is required.