Reliable studies indicate that somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent of new teachers will leave the profession after only five years, and one of the reasons for this is the rather broad term burnout. I suppose that word covers the roughly 423 reasons I felt compelled to give up teaching forever (I thought) after 15 years as a professor at a liberal-arts college.
Roughly two years after that decision I found in Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach a fairly accurate description – much better than “burnout” – of what happened to me there. Palmer believes most teachers choose the profession for reasons of the heart, but after a few years they begin to lose heart. That sounds right to me, and my next few posts will address some reasons for this process, especially the problem of taking our work too personally.
I hope what I say will help new teachers keep their hearts a little longer, and help experienced ones understand why their hearts may be beginning to feel heavy and hardened.
Sometimes it happens that a student who is clearly a good, decent, kind, lovable human being writes a paper with little support or focus and plenty of lousy sentences and a small sprinkling of major grammatical errors. I have to give the paper a low grade, but I want to tell the student not to take it personally, it’s not about her, it’s just, you know, we have these standards that have been around for a few centuries and you’re not quite meeting them right now, so here’s a D, even though you’re certainly not a D person.
The student is likely to respond with a weak smile and leave the classroom to melt into the bedlam of the hall. But how can she not be thinking, “I wrote that essay. I used my own personal brain and my personal imagination and used the words and syntactical structures that are accessible to a person such as I. How can I not take this D personally?”
Should the student have the nerve to ask me that question, I’d be tempted to respond, “Now you know how I feel all the time!” Teachers frequently take student responses personally, especially, I’d think, English teachers, especially when they’re teaching literature.
Take me, for example. Well before I grew up to be an English major, one of my personal hobbies was reading great books. Not that I knew they were great, or would have known why they were great if I did – I just knew they spoke to me, taught me stuff, made me feel as if my reading them was transforming me into a better human being. When I was very young, I became friends with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations and William Faulkner’s Light in August.
I was a college dropout and a reluctant member of the United States Air Force when I read and fell in love with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5.
I do not use “became friends” and “fell in love” loosely. Before I knew how to analyze or interpret literature (and by extension, I guess, appreciate it), I pal’d around with Huck on the Mississippi and laughed at his observations; I pulled for and was embarrassed by Pip and his awkward and misguided reaching for respectability; I feared Boo Radley, and was much relieved to find him not only harmless but courageous.
By the time I read Catch-22, I was amazed that Heller could write something so absurd, convoluted and outrageous while still mirroring exactly what I was experiencing in the Air Force; and by the time I got to Vonnegut, my cold and distant father had passed away, and Vonnegut became my mentor, my literary dad. He seemed to speak directly into my ear and in so doing helped turn me into the frustrated subversive I am today. Thanks, Kurt!
Obviously, all of these works, and many more after them, have been integrated into my being. Put another way, they are the materials from which I’ve constructed a soul. They have shaped my values and my language and become the lens through which I observe and interpret my fellow human beings.
And now, as a teacher of AP Literature, I have the honor to introduce these beloved literary friends to my beloved students.
Have you ever had two close friends who were so different you were afraid to introduce one to the other, afraid even to see them try to coexist in the same room? Have you ever had one close friend express contempt for another close friend? If so, you know what it’s like for me all the time!
So when students don’t like the books I’ve chosen or refuse to read them or resort to the Anti-Christ (Spark Notes), how can I not take that personally and eventually tell one old friend (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for example), “Sorry, Bud. I gotta shelve you for a while. These people don’t like you, and I can not handle the rejection!”
We’re sneaking up on the problem here. We’re good teachers when we care so much that we make ourselves vulnerable to painful rejections, causing us to back off and care less and thus become less effective teachers because we are less of who we genuinely are.