Category Archives: Sabbaticals

As It Should Be and Is

HughAtkinsOntheBeachweb_0The second in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

Maybe all teachers have models they’d like to be or become. I’m been lucky. I’ve met many exemplars with diverse styles and talents. If you ask me which teacher I’ve envied, however, I can reduce the number to one.

Forget that he finished tasks well ahead of deadlines and without sweat, that he graded and returned papers sometimes on their due date, or that he, unaccountably and invisibly, forged consensus among members of a department trained in making barely differentiated but essential distinctions. Forget that he discussed every new book, read every magazine, already knew anything you might mention having seen or heard—after probably having absorbed them all at once in his armchair, watching sports. The work engaged him, yet he found time every school day to write exactly one page in this journal, an ellipsis dotting the last sentence at the end of the page. He made teaching look relaxing because he loved it, every day. He made time to reread and mark new passages. He found time to doodle. He found time to laugh. Students universally admired him and loved talking to him and, no matter how busy he was, he always had time for them.

He seemed built for professional longevity and spent each moment in the moment. Hilarious and moving, playful and dramatic, organized and improvisational, demanding and fun, spontaneous and steady, he never seemed to be working, though undoubtedly he was. Around him, everyone worked hard (and obviously) to look half as capable.

He could be fiery. No one wanted to disappoint his expectations twice. Yet his approval meant more. It meant more than awards, and, whether students feared or loved him (or loved and feared him), he pulled the best from them. We taught fall and spring versions of the same course, and I watched students stretch well beyond themselves in his tasks, his papers, his final projects. I wanted to know how he did it—his secret—and asked frequently. But the key is he did it. I didn’t inspire my students nearly as vividly and, at times, felt dispositionally disadvantaged staring at the last minute, half-baked products of my charges’ labors. His students produced mobiles with albatross wingspans. Mine floated a walnut shell sailboat in a shoebox lid full of catsup. His spoke eloquently about justifications and implications for every choice. Mine said, “I just felt like it.”

With his returns, I might discover fuel to teach forever.

Yet I knew, almost instantly, I wouldn’t become him. I couldn’t draw as much from students because I wasn’t and would never be him.

That discovery was my first disillusionment as a teacher, the first intimation of my limits and unwinding clock. My parents taught me that labor could overcome any deficit, but sometimes not. Perhaps every profession illuminates people so suited to its tasks, so observant, and so shrewd they grow into “naturals,” but they seem especially rare in teaching where you assume you can always master something novel, where belief in self-improvement is unshakable faith.

My triumphs have been exhausting. I’ve been diligent. I’ve been self-consciously personable. I’ve been painstaking. I’ve been earnest. I’ve stumbled upon success through effort and desire, but mostly effort.

One question education won’t prepare you for—how long can learning last? For years, I’ve become a more efficient, sensible, and composed teacher, but dependability and predictability mix finally. I’d like to be new everyday, as my model was, but returns diminish. Your desire to pull a lesson from a folder overwhelms ambition, and, for most older teachers, little appears fresh anymore.

The few who find the sweet spot between work and play promise hope and envy, an ideal, an aspiration stretching ahead, a picture of what could—and should—be.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Education, Envy, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Resolutions, Sabbaticals, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Work, Worry

I Hesitate to Say

techer-burnout-300x300The first of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching…

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.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Sabbaticals, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Words, Work, Worry

The Balance Sheet

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?

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Sabbaticals, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work