Words can be descriptive and prescriptive. They can identify what’s known—“My, that sandwich looks delicious!”—or they can name and maybe label evermore what remained unidentified up to that point—“Why are you so hostile whenever I ask for a bite of your sandwich? Why are you hostile all the time?”
Some words you fear using. Someone told me once about the afternoon his wife mentioned divorce and compared her saying the word to summoning a dark spirit. Once it was uttered, it could not be unuttered and, after months in couple therapy, they split.
When you see an image hidden in a painting or sign, it’s hard to see anything else. I think sometimes about the words I don’t dare evoke because they may eliminate other possibilities. My list is short. I don’t have to step around too many shadows. But one word I avoid particularly, and ten sentences have passed without my being able to say it.
The word is “burn-out.” It’s not a bad word for most people—Neil Young, after all, tells us it’s preferable to fading away—but it’s scary for a teacher. People speak abstractly of teacher burn-out all the time. They discuss it as a phenomenon, addressing its causes and manifestations. Websites like Edutopia list questions to expose warning signs, like , “Do you feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy?” and “Are you becoming frustrated with parts of your job?” But it’s hard to imagine any working person not answering such questions affirmatively, at least on a dark evening after a frustrating day.
For me, a giant step separates saying “Yes” and saying “burn-out” aloud. Speaking the word is starting a clock, dividing feelings of fatigue from a sense of diminishing returns. It’s distinguishing between a need for a good night’s sleep and inertia or paralysis.
Websites warn exercisers about “overtraining,” but few people ever reach that point. Will gives up long before the body, and most sensible folks will pause, hands on hips or knees, panting, until they are ready to begin again. Only someone with deep faith in mind over matter could ever achieve overtraining. But those who do, suffer. Having passed up short respites, they need longer ones. Then they come back too soon. They mistake debilitation for momentary exhaustion and dig deeper and deeper into quicksand.
Teachers are idealistic. Most are not in it for the money (because the money is never great) or the stature (because society mostly admires teachers for their sacrifice, not for their consequence) or the human returns (because their clientele often arrives at gratitude years later, if at all). Teachers rely on belief and the assumption that, whatever the immediate satisfactions, they do something good by teaching. Their business is “Mind over matter” and, though some teachers experience profound disillusionment when they confront reality, many cling to idealism despite mounds of contrary evidence.
Those teachers burn-out because relentless effort wears their engines. They burn-out because they follow the same calendar hoping for something better. They burn-out because they borrow on capital when interest proves insufficient income.
None of which really—still—addresses my use of “burn-out,” a word that, even in this essay about burn-out, seems too scary to apply to myself.
I don’t like to believe this daily bone-weariness is the start of the end. I have two children in college and can use the monetary compensation—whatever it is—and I’m not ready to retire with pride… or with any sort of plan. I’ve given years to this profession I believe in.
Some might judge me for whining about my three months off or my shortened workday or my not being grateful for the privilege of being in the presence of all these vibrant young people. But I am tired. I worry sometimes that putting my hands on my hips or knees won’t help. And—on this dark, post daylight savings time evening—I worry no one can do this job for long enough.