Teacher Burnout

The teacher-student-monument in Rostock, Germany.

I can still remember the thrill of teaching my first college class over 30 years ago. I walked into the room wondering “What am I going to talk about for an hour, three times a week, for sixteen weeks?” As I soon found out, I could talk that long easily!

For the most part, I enjoyed teaching, but I’m glad to have put it behind me. For one thing, I can now concentrate on my scholarly thinking and writing, and for another, I was burned out of teaching toward the end of my career.

There were many contributing factors to my teacher burnout. First, many of the students in my introductory college courses didn’t want to be there—most of them took my philosophy classes to fulfill a requirement. So it was like teaching someone to play the piano or program a computer who doesn’t want to learn how, not an ideal situation. Looking back I wish that I could have gone into a class and said: “If you want to study and learn then we can do it together but if you don’t please leave.” No, I never said this but I admit I wanted to. Also, you meet a few nasty students when teaching.

Another factor is the inherent conflict surrounding grading. Most students care primarily about grades whereas I care about their learning. This led to occasional, dispiriting battles over grades. Moreover, the cumulative effect of teaching as many as 8 classes in a single semester slowly took its toll. This resulted from the fact that, in addition to a full load at my primary institution, I usually taught community college classes at night. In all, I estimate that I taught about 250 classes in my career covering 25 different subjects to a total of about 9,000 students.

A final factor had to do with the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy is mostly about controversial topics like ethics, religion, and politics. Thus teaching it well forces such topics to be broached. As Spinoza put it: “I can’t teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace.” That’s exactly right but the problem is that most students don’t want their peace disturbed. Add to this the current instability and hyper-partisan nature of American culture and the classroom is fertile ground for tension. I just tired of the conflict.

As for the students who wanted to learn, I enjoyed teaching and learning with them, and I remember many of them fondly. I say with all honesty that I did everything I could to contribute to their educations and would spend hours talking with them if that helped. Real education is something I believe in and I’d still teach today if I had interested students.

But now I feel about leaving teaching the way Thoreau did about leaving the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

One thought on “Teacher Burnout

  1. My experience in formal teaching was the same as yours, even though I was teaching a completely different subject (physics). Let’s call it “factory teaching”. The students come in one end, you work them over, then you slap a grade on them and ship them out. This kind of teaching is in truth more a matter of evaluation than teaching. College doesn’t so much educate you as certify to future employees that you can put up with a lot of shit thrown at you and work with it.

    My eyes were opened when I got a job at Atari but taught courses for extension. These latter courses were populated with students who actually paid to be there, and had no requirements to fulfill. I found that it is immensely more satisfying to get paid for doing “commercial work” and teach for fun. You earn more money and do more educating.

    I love teaching people who want to learn. Nowadays I lecture at the invitation of various colleges, and that’s always a lot of fun, except for the fact that, in educational terms, these are one-night stands. I have now started setting up little courses that I teach using Skype with just a handful of students. During the week they read some assignment, and then on Sunday we meet and discuss what they read. (I have one of these coming up in just a few hours). It’s more satisfying. I also teach one student, a Danish graduate student working on her master’s thesis, individually, and that is the most satisfying teaching experience of all. The catch is that she really, really wants to learn, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. It’s a balanced transaction: she gets the benefit of my years of experience, and I get the benefit of her youthful intellectual energy and her joy of learning.

    I have a very dear friend who is suffering from congestive heart failure and knows that she will die in a few years. Nevertheless, she refuses to stop teaching because she derives so much joy from the students she teaches. Her situation is special in that she is teaching post-graduate students who really want to learn. On top of that, she’s one of the most joy-filled people I have ever known, and I think that some of the joy she gets from her students is actually the reflection of her own joy.

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