This week at school I received a reminder that sabbatical applications are due soon. I’m not eligible because I haven’t been working at my school long enough, so this message meant nothing to me practically. Even if I met the criteria, the committee would prefer someone who taught the bulk of his or her career at the school, not elsewhere as I have.
Still, the thought of a sabbatical set my ire going. Next year will be my 30th year in classrooms, and I could use a break about now.
The word “sabbatical” derives from the Hebrew “shabbat” just as “sabbath” does, the day of rest. Literally, it means “ceasing.” At colleges, the option for a sabbatical once appeared every six years of a professor’s tenure, and the origin of that idea may come from Leviticus, which commands farmers to let fields rest after six years of cultivation. They need a fallow year to be fruitful. Maybe minds do too. And maybe not just in education.
In this hyper-busy, hyper-go-get’em age however, sabbatical recipients must come up with proposals and plans for using the time. These plans often involve travel, research, partnership with another school, or the completion of a long-standing task like writing a book. In other words, they aren’t time off, just a different sort of labor.
I haven’t looked at the sabbatical application for my school, but it must prompt teachers to express why they want one. I wonder what would happen if someone answered as I’m tempted to: “I’d like a sabbatical to reacquaint myself with indolence.” That response might be more perverse than sincere—I’m not sure I’m capable of indolence—but it does get at a truth few people seem willing to acknowledge in education and in business. Sometimes you need to rest, occasionally you need to review what rest is and how productive it can be.
Yet, in this case, people who want rest must convince a committee of their ambition. It is not okay to slow down, to reflect, or to allow spent batteries to recharge.
I see why schools can’t honor requests to take a year off with pay—fallow employees still cost, how do you decide who deserves it, and shouldn’t schools want something for their money? And what about those summers teachers get every year—shouldn’t that be enough? Nonetheless, “working breaks”—which become pervasive as technology makes it possible to work all the time—seem institutionally selfish. Schools don’t dare risk hard feelings by singling out those whose years of hard work merit relief. Instead they look for ways to squeeze more work from their most deserving teachers.
More is the rule in our world—the reward for hard work is more work.
The issue of a working sabbatical is a microcosm for how we treat people in an age dominated by corporate culture. Why is it so hard for institutions to build regular and restorative rest into working lives? Increased productivity isn’t as simple as adding labor. When do additional hours actually diminish efficiency, deaden spirit, and encourage lassitude? We regard downtime as a cost, but isn’t a rested human being more productive, creative, and profitable?
But that’s taking the economic angle and ignoring decency. If you love what you do, you do it with love. Do institutions, not just institutions of higher learning but corporations, owe something to the people who give them more than labor, who aren’t doing it solely for money? When personal sacrifice ends in a termination meeting where you’re told “It’s just money,” the violation of the golden rule seems especially harsh. In my experience, work is seldom just money.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I approve of sabbaticals and will be happy for whatever colleague receives it. He or she will regard the time off as a break from the usual grind, and that’s great. The attached strings bother me.
When did gratitude become an item in the cost column?