Punctuating This Conversation (and the year, sort of)

Woulda Been: “Chris Is Concerned,” But That Theme’s Played Out

Thanks for the discussion this weekend. I’ve gotta acknowledge straight off how grateful I am and how cool it’s been that a bunch of vets would take the time to wander by and register their concern for my stress level and blood pressure.

Some highlights for me:

Jonathan‘s comment that the more I invest in lessons this year, the harder they’ll be to scrap next year even when experience demands a fresher approach. That’s a new (and consequently invaluable) lesson. I’ll try to stay vigilant but, frankly, if I scrapped half the lessons I made this year (a broad estimate) even that 50% savings would make next year downright lazy.

Jen‘s point that a blogger’s job-hating, stressed-out post quantity oughtta correlate pretty neatly with his actual job-hate and stress, a metric that feels intuitively right to me and by which I seem to be doing fine.

Chris‘ concern for my relationship with my yet-to-be-born-or-conceived kid, concern which reflects kinda sweetly on his relationship with his own boys.

The only lowlight has been the ambiguous and self-fulfilling, though obviously well-intentioned, anti-burnout advice offered. Maxims like “avoid burnout,” “be careful,” “heed the advice you’ve been given,” “listen seriously to their concerns,” and “scale back,” are awfully difficult prescriptions to fill and sometimes only true in hindsight.

Like, is an hour less planning per day enough? How far should I scale back? How does one anticipate burnout? I realize that you’ve all been through it and that the harbingers all seem intuitively obvious to you now, but, I mean, isn’t one of our job’s primary mandates to make clear what’s been intuitively obvious to us for years? As is, you guys put yourselves in a position to cluck balefully over my charred corpse (“We tried to warn him …. “) without offering but a few thimblefuls of practical precursors.

If we flopped positions, I’d ask:

  1. Are you taking care of your health?
  2. Are you keeping up with your friends and family?
  3. If you’ve got a spiritual side to your life, are you keeping that up?
  4. Are you enjoying yourself?

So, to put a period or maybe an ellipsis on this extremely challenging year, I’ve eaten well, slept enough, exercised regularly (ignore the skinny kid in all the photos, please), enjoyed a fun relationship with my girlfriend, dealt with a family crisis, and, finally, my primary reassurance to anyone who equates sixty-hour weeks with burnout, enjoyed my happiest, most satisfying year teaching so far.

But I don’t know. Maybe you all could’ve said the same before you crashed. Maybe you all woke up daily pondering ways to make this or that better, clearer, and more satisfying than the last time they learned it, scribbled notes to yourself while driving, and found every last stupid t.v. show you watched an occasion to improve your practice. Maybe you were likewise obsessed, likewise happy, and still went a little crazy somewhere down the line. If that’s the case then I reckon it’s just a countdown ’til I’m hosed.

I’m just not sure it’s in me to turn this off, though, even if I wanted to. I’ve done things without really understanding why. I taught myself calculus over winter break one year, burned through an undergraduate degree over the next three, and during my student teaching year, broke a Guinness World Record, which all probably sounds egotistical if you’re out looking for egotism. But working hard is hardwired to my identity. It’s what makes me happy. It’s how I justify two working lungs and a brain. Flirting with burnout as I have and do isn’t a lifestyle I would ever recommend, but it seems to be the only way I know how to live.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. My advice — as both a new teacher and a seasoned adult — is to find something you enjoy doing away from work. A hobby. That is a great way to fight burnout. I also recommend that you embrace your workaholic tendancies and find a way to make them work for your life. My husband is a workaholic and once the kids came, commuting 2 hours a day and working 10 hour days didn’t work for him (or us) anymore. So, he found a way to work at home. He still puts in crazy long hours but he gets the benefits of having a great relationship with his kids too. So, find a way to make it work in a way that still respects your need for a private life away from school.

  2. More from Sweden.

    I se it likes this. To be a good teacher is my job, to be a great teacher is my hobby. To spend one more hour to go from a good presentation to a little better makes me feel good but to do that is normally not my job, if a have to limit myself to what I am being paid for I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time on most lessons as I do but instead of reading a SF novel I can find a few cooler pictures for my problems and interesting applications on the straight line formula. To do that makes my job more fun, makes me feel better.

    But for me it is important to remember that that is just my hobby, I don’t have to do that. I can choose to take a walk with my girlfriend instead, to be lazy in bed, watch half a season of Battlestar Galactica on the same weekend and not feel guilty.

    As long as I don’t feel guilty for “just doing my job” when I don’t have time or feel for my hobby I don’t think I am going to burn out… and if I read you right Dan (thru the language barrier) I think you at least in part feel and think the same…


  3. I can only hope that I am seeing a glimpse of my future. Keep up the good work, Dan. DEal with burnout when and if it comes.

  4. Lizalee‘s advice to find a way to keep a private life and Per‘s recommendation to drop the excessive off-contract work when something more fun comes along both seem right on.

    Adaptation (to having a spouse, to having kids, to moving somewhere, to anything) seems like one of those fundamental human skills, total proficiency in which I’m sure I’ll keep chasing ’til I die. Just as Per notes, there have been moments when mental health seemed less of a guarantee than others, moments when I had to cut planning short, schedule a review worksheet, assign problems 1-30 odd, and catch a movie. No shame there.

  5. (Sadly?) 60 hours a week sounds good to me. More than that is when I think the warning bells should ring.

    And the best thing I read in this post is that this is about you, which is fine. I sustain myself at 60 hours a week too, and I never felt burned out on being a classroom teacher — in fact, I miss it a lot.

    But, and here is the thing to remember, you may just be special. (And I hated when folks said this to me.) So, given that most folks can’t sustain 60-70 hours a week, how do we build a public school system that doesn’t require Herculean effort?

  6. Chris, 60 sounds about right to me as well.

    I can’t get on board with your last paragraph, because plenty of people can do the 60 hour thing, but here’s the rub: They don’t work in education. They work in law, and medicine, and government (if the West Wing taught me a-right). They don’t work in schools.

    So my question is: What can we do to reshape the profession so it is attractive and fulfilling to those people who possess that stamina and drive?

    Why dumb it down (for lack of a better term)?

  7. If I had really pursued the whole “Chris Is Concerned” angle, I was going to address your valid reservation with making this lifestyle a public policy expectation.

    And to suss out your sub-rosa point here, Chris, it seems like you’re saying that, well, TMAO and Dan are both fans of the standardized model. Both of them feel comfortable putting in a bunch of off-contract hours, which is fine, but what about the teachers who don’t feel like jacking their hourly rate so close to minimum wage.

    Which is a fine point, really, and it’d be pretty lame and smug of me to trumpet the standardized model if I thought it meant every teacher in America had to up their hourly contribution to 60+ per week (barring any enticements you or TMAO can concoct).

    But I don’t.

    I think to make the standardized model work, teachers need to work smarter more than harder. Teachers need to change how they work inside their classrooms more than they need to increase their contribution outside.

    If I could be confident that 50% of America’s teachers …

    1. … didn’t waste hours on the week and days on the year with lousy class- and time-management …
    2. … gave more than an afterthought to what their state board asked them to teach … (i.e. if they checked out their state’s framework, standards, or released questions at the start of the year rather than five days before testing) …

    … and the nation’s students didn’t show gains across the board, I’d vote to toss testing.

    But there are a lot of teachers who waste a lot of time. Students know it and feel it and it annoys them. The California math standards assume you are teaching 180 days out of the year but, once time-sucks are considered, we’re somewhere south of 150. If we’re after a model that lets us dawdle and pick and choose the times we want to respect our students’ compulsory time commitment, then yeah, let’s scrap standardized testing. I just maintain a lot of hope that we can get this thing right.

  8. Dan – You have already answered your own burn-out question. If you were feeling consistently stressed and exhausted and if other areas of your life were being neglected or abandoned because of your obsession with teaching, then you would be heading for burn-out. It sounds to me as if you are simply an intense individual who nevertheless manages to balance all the aspects of your life in a way that keeps you healthy. Bravo! I admire your dedication and drive.

    As for TMAO’s comment: “Why dumb it down (for lack of a better term)?” um, excuse me but when did working efficently become dumb? Time management, classroom management, and lesson planning are all skills. They can be learned and improved.
    Standing on a soapbox and declaring “my way or the highway” doesn’t create a valuable discussion nor does it help your collegues or the profession in general.

  9. Hi Rebecca,

    I don’t think I made either-or declarations.

    I don’t think working efficently is dumb.

    I don’t think I stood on a soapbox.

    My overall point is that teaching, especially teaching in those much-vaunted “high-need, at-risk” communities, is a job that is damn near impossible to do well if you put in 40 hours a week. After your time in front of kids, you’ve spent about 32 hours a week on the job, give or take. To work a 40-hour week, we’re talking about 8 hours or so of lesson planning, assessing, tracking achievement, communicating with families, offering additional assistance or heaven forbid enrichment, and/ or participating in any school-based events. My point was, rather than alter expectations such that folks can keep Starbucks hours and still feel good, we should alter the way our profession is structured, communicated, marketed, qualified for, and compensated, such that the (basically) required 60 hours seems about right on to the folks who are seeking the job.

  10. Just sticking my two cents in which is exactly what it’s worth. Dan, I think that if you were in any other profession you would approach it with the same intensity. It’s who you are I think – not what you do.
    Life comes at all of in cycles and it seems like I remember a post just a short while ago where you were at a bit of a low cycle. You give the most energy to whatever you are the most passionate about at any given time in your life and right now for you that is teaching.
    It’s a fortunate person that finds themselves able to do something they are passionate about and get PAID for it! It’s an even more fortunate person who is able to adjust with the cycles and be passionate about the new things that enter their lives.
    Be passionate – put the time in and enjoy it. It sounds to me like you are having a blast. When it’s time to back off and rest you will know it. If it becomes time to spend some of that passion on something else you will know that too. That’s life – it changes and so do we.
    Okay, off my soapbox now – goodnight folks!

  11. If we’re going to change anything about our profession, it needs to be in the way things are run on school campuses, not public perception of our job. There are times I can work more and times when I work too much. Both ends of the spectrum are equally damaging.

    Now, let’s get to the real problems that exist within our system: tenure, tracking, credential requirements, accountability, school start time, electives, observations, salary, course offerings, testing, communication, etc. That’s where we need to spend our time.

    And Dan, your earlier comment is fairly right on. I try really hard to fit into that 50% you describe. It doesn’t take 60 hours every week to make that happen, but there are quite a few weeks where that’s the case.