Toast of Professions

While it was interesting and chilling to read about “doctor burnout” recently in The New York Times, I found myself wondering why the Times doesn’t run a prominent article on “teacher burnout.” The problem is serious: Diane Ravitch reports that 1) most teachers don’t last five years in the profession and 2) the “modal year” of teaching—the year of experience with the highest number of teachers—is, amazingly, year one. When I was in high school, the modal year was year fifteen. Something bad has happened, and not enough people have noticed.

Who can explain these things? Orwell tried, in his travel essay “Marrakech,” to identify and discuss the phenomenon he called “invisibility”: conditions of work or life offensive to decent people overlooked through a kind of blindness among onlookers—including those with an interest in not changing the offensive conditions, but also among those who simply want to get on and not bother themselves. The current anger aimed at unionized teachers is an opposite phenomenon. These teachers, who through unionizing have ensured that they cannot be dismissed without due process, cannot be assigned extra duties without receiving extra pay, must receive good medical treatment if sick, and must work in physically decent conditions, arouse the resentment of their fellow-citizens who are not unionized and do not have those protections. A third cause would be “educational leaders” who like Chairman Mao are always off on a Great Leap Forward or a Cultural Revolution, leaving ruins and widespread demoralization in their wake. Reading Edgar Snow’s biographical chapters of the young Mao suggests that he—and, I think, people like him—have a psychological predilection for chasing schemes: young Mao went from one questionable educational plan to the next, taking each one up enthusiastically in turn, and then dropping it like a bad habit. The child was father of the man. A fourth, evident by contrast with the working conditions of Finnish teachers, is a culture and bureaucracy of mistrust and contempt that asks continual proof, justification, verification—a bit like those doctors who, after years of professional preparation and guidance under the care of mentors are nipped at by office terriers whose job is to mistrust and second-guess their professional judgment, keeping them “in line.” What line?

But those years of a doctor’s training suggest two big differences between him and many teachers: the teachers are often inadequately prepared and then mistrusted for the work they have not been trained to do. Look again at Finland, where teacher education courses are competitive and extremely thorough, and whose graduates receive the trust of their administrators and their politicians. The fifth cause of burnout must then be poor training and poor administrative support.

Anyone who has read these postings knows that Value Added Metrics are a bizarre, counterproductive system of unreal mechanisms that result in throwing out babies with bathwater. Even their supporters in “research” admit that there are no visible, verifiable things teachers can learn to do in order to influence their value-added ratings. We have seen the goofiness of judging physical education students’ “value added” by giving them English tests, leading their teachers to have them play English games, just what they entered physical education to do. Imagine the demoralization in knowing that without any recourse, training, or counseling, you might be judged “ineffective” and fired. Some of my readers probably don’t need to imagine it.

Finally, it must be said that at many schools in the U. S., combative, assaultive, and rebellious conduct by students and parents is protected, often by the same administrators who regret having to protect teachers from arbitrary treatment. Under all these conditions, who would not feel ground down or burned out?

Do a Google search for “teacher burnout” and you will find not a single thing about most of the conditions I have just summarized, but you will find a lot of “research” about how to treat it. The problem is that this shovel-load of solutions is doing nothing to solve the problem. One website gives five ways to reduce burnout. One of them is “push out content in different ways.” This is not helpful to someone who is swamped by the imperative to present content but whose poor training and development keeps him from doing so. Another is “go home!” How helpful, just like those “desiderata” of the sixties advising us to “go placidly amid the noise and haste.” And how futile if the school menaces teachers who do not “give 110%.” A third is “know what you are assessing.” This is a kind of advice easier to give than to take; indeed, it is not advice at all. In a good undergraduate course followed by graduate work in education a teacher would already have learned what he would be assessing. What good can this advice be to a teacher who has been badly prepared? But my favorite is “establish boundaries for your time.” Try that one on your principal and see how far you get.

Actually, any ways that will really avoid burnout will also require a thoroughgoing change in thinking about education in much of the U.S. (not all, thank God). Here are six, all of which I have “done” or experienced at one time or another. Though they may be applicable outside high school, that is where my experience lies.

1.     Receive professional training from practically oriented education programs and master teachers in the field, not in the lab.

2.     Work at a school that limits your load of students to 75.

3.     Work at a school that shows students and parents the door if they are obnoxious, combative, or assaultive.

4.     Avoid a school that is undergoing a Great Leap Forward or espouses Jargon of the Day.

5.     Choose a school whose administrators admire the “business model” of Edwards Deming rather than that of Marshall Stalin. Better yet, choose a school that entirely rejects a business model of education, which is not a business.

6.     Work within school, political, and national cultures that respect teachers.

If that seems like a tall order, then something needs changing.


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