By Monique Dufour
Dr. Monique Dufour is Collegiate Assistant Professor of History and Director of Graduate Student Professional Development in CLAHS at Virginia Tech. She also offers consultations and workshops for graduate students and faculty as writers and teachers. She is currently writing a book, Teaching with TIME in Mind: Why It’s Hard, Why You Should, and How You Can. Learn more at moniquedufour.com.
This is Part 2 of 2
Let’s face it: teacher burnout was rampant before 2020. That Mona Lisa meme I shared in Part 1 of this piece? It’s from 2019.
We seem comfortable acknowledging one half of our burnout dilemma: the denial of teaching as labor. But we’re less willing to address its partner problem: the valorization of pedagogical overwork. Teaching is a lot of work. Teaching is highly skilled work. However, teaching excellence is not synonymous with overwork.
This December, we all could begin doing what we do at the end of every semester: launch into planning what we will do next semester to fix this semester’s problems and letdowns. We can anticipate and adapt to every possible contingency. Collapse. Work. Worry about not working. Try to put the pieces of ourselves back together over winter break.
Or, we can being to figure out how to stop conflating overwork with good work.
Here are some things we can do right now:
1. Don’t equate your exertion with student learning. To put it another way, remember that just because you work harder doesn’t mean that people learn more.
To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t care. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t work hard, or that you should lower your standards.
This point meets with a lot of resistance, because it’s woven into the value system of teaching. Exertion often signifies rigor. Overworking is our love language.
Doing as much as possible all the time, wearing yourself out and beating yourself up and believing that that teaching is perfectible and that doing it well makes you a good person and that is its own reward–all of this has nothing to do with whether or not you are teaching the things that you think matter most, and that students are actually learning them.
2. Let go of the dream that you will someday achieve balance. The dream of balance is alluring and elusive, and it is also a trap. Notice how balance is always just out of reach.
There’s no doubt: our professional lives are sorely out of balance. Faculty have too much to do and too much to keep up with, especially when they teach well. They can’t make it all fit.
Especially if teachers are also the primary caregivers in their homes and families. Especially if they are taking on teaching, service, and administrative responsibilities. Especially if they see emotional and interpersonal labor as real, essential work (which it is). All of which are disproportionately distributed on gendered, class, and racial lines.
If only they could balance it all. As if balance were possible. As if imbalance was the problem.
Balance isn’t a panacea; it’s a myth. Rather than chase it, let’s question the disturbing realities that we must accept to maintain it: we have too much to do, and some people do more than what’s fairly compensated. Important work is insufficiently valued as are the people who do it. The version of balance that’s peddled in our culture of overwork relies on exploitation, disregard, and exhaustion. It’s like the lottery. We place our bets and dream of the big win that is massively against the odds, that actively works against our solidarity, and squanders our present for a future that will never come.
3.Get curious and clear about what matters most in your teaching. Focus your time and effort on those things. We say accessibility matters. We say equity matters. Writing matters. Caring about students matters.
If these things really matter, we must include them in our allocation of labor–of what you can realistically do well with the time you have. You are not an inexhaustible resource. To stop acting like one, you must prioritize what matters most in your teaching, and spend your time and yourself on those things.
I understand that we don’t always have autonomy over establishing our teaching priorities. Just thinking in terms of priorities (even if you can’t set all of them) can help. Your time is limited. Put a reasonable number on it. Now, what’s most worth your limited time?
Try, too, to make those priorities visible: in the way we talk with students, with administrators, and fellow teachers. Stand up for them where we can as the real work of teaching. These essential, undervalued parts of teaching are often the most powerful work we do for and with our students, communities, and disciplines. They are neither superfluous nor optional.
4.Do you still want to do it all? Remember this: You cannot overwork all through the nights and every weekend into getting valued by the system, not in a way that won’t burn you out to the last cinder. And not even then.
And, it doesn’t even guarantee that students have better learning experiences. (See #1.)
5.Remember that we teach people, not subjects. We don’t teach math or history or physics. We teach people math and history and physics. Pedagogy is not synonymous with your course designs. What you do is not the same as what your students do with it. Teaching is what happens when people show up and interact with all those plans. When we accept that, we can get real and get on with teaching what’s possible now, not succumb to ideal visions of teaching, the ones that we dream when students aren’t around, seem always to be set in some not-so-distant and just-out-of-reach future.
6. Treat this as a collective problem with collective solutions, not just a pedagogical problem to be fixed on the level of your courses. Get involved with organizations addressing teaching issues as labor issues, such as New Faculty Majority and PrecariCorps. Learn about and listen to the experiences and issues facing other faculty, especially contingent faculty. If you have power and privilege, use it to support the work of teaching and good teachers.
7.Don’t participate in teaching award systems that valorize overwork. If someone gives you a prize for going “above and beyond,” publicly renounce it. Don’t ask teachers (especially contingent labor) to “share” their assignments and course designs, because you are asking them to give away their writing and research. Look hard at whether or not your units have tangible methods (not just plaques and certificates) for valuing the teachers who do important teaching work, including emotional labor, accessibility efforts, and equity labor.
These are hard times ahead, and we have important work to do. Focus on what matters most, and make what matters count.
The author thanks Ashley Shew, Jim Collier, and Jennifer Ahern-Dodson for reading and responding, and everyone in the Unstuck writing in the pandemic sessions, where much of this was written.