My first year as a teacher I lived and taught with a wonderful roommate and teacher. For the first several months I would stay up late every single night trying to perfect my lesson plans and by November I was miserable because I wasn’t doing anything else but working. My roommate gave me some great advice: “You can always do more with a lesson, at some point just stop. It will never be perfect.”
This was the beginning of trying to balance a compelling and demanding profession with a personal life. Over the years I have known many teachers who have sacrificed so much for their students including their physical health, relationships, bank accounts, and mental well-being. I do not believe in a burn-out model of teaching and I do not believe this is what is required to be an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, many of the charter school systems I have worked with as well as TFA have spot-lighted teachers who put in 70+ hour weeks and inadvertently encouraged, or at times outright advocated with purposeful messaging (“Work Hard. Be Nice.” and “Whatever it takes” and “Relentless Pursuit”), personal life martyrdom for the achievement gap. Although this kind of all consuming teaching, which Wendy Kopp calls “heroic teaching,” may result in student academic growth within a single school year and/or subject – what happens the next year? Will the students sustain their growth with a new teacher? Will the teacher be able to sustain a career in the classroom? Kopp writes . . .
heroic teaching like theirs does not offer a likely path to educational opportunity for all. It is impossible to imagine a force of hundreds of thousands of teachers as rare in their abilities and commitment as [these teachers] are, and it is impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of them sustaining the requisite level of energy and devoting the requisite amount of time not just for two years but for many years, and on a teacher’s salary to boot. We can’t expect all of our teachers to shoulder the responsibility of creating transformational classrooms within schools that often don’t have the mission or capacity to change students’ trajectories, let alone provide teachers with the training and professional development necessary to teach this way.
Although Kopp admits self-sacrificial teaching is unsustainable she certainly admires it – it is “heroic” – but I would argue the opposite. This kind of teaching is both unsustainable and ultimately destructive for teachers, students and schools.
One teacher does not close the achievement gap in one year in one class. Research shows students need at least three years of excellent teaching in order to make up performance differences (although some argue even three years with a great teacher isn’t enough). If a good teacher burns herself out after 2 or 3 years although her students might have had one great year the cost is high: her school looses a veteran teacher and potential leader, hundreds of other children will have to settle for a weakened school experience and that promising young teacher will never reach her full potential as an educator. Additionally, what kind of example for her students is a teacher who is not eating well or exercising or maintaining healthy relationships or improving her mind and soul through reading and non-education related activities like spirituality or hiking outdoors?
Rigorous and challenging professions with sustainable career paths exist (ex. doctors, lawyers, etc.) however making this possible for teachers requires systemic changes. In the meantime, fellow teachers, let us commit to balance and help lessen the burden by sharing resources and supporting each other. Set a timer when you write lesson plans and when the timer goes off put it aside and call it done. Use or modify resources from other teachers – don’t “reinvent the wheel.” Spend time on what is important (giving useful feedback to students, backwards planning to strong assessments, getting to know your students as people and learners) and less time on the small stuff (formatting documents, finding the perfect picture for that power point, obsessively tracking small knowledge bits instead of larger skills or themes). Breakdown the walls of isolation in your building and collaborate with your colleagues.
And if your colleague next door is burning herself out please stage an intervention like my roommate did with me 10 years ago. Let’s not call what is tragic heroic.