Last year, in New South Wales alone teachers made more than 500 mental stress claims. Taking into account the rest of the country the final figure is no doubt quite significant.
As a percentage of all teachers it is relatively small but it does provide the motivation for us to think about the forces that can make some of our colleagues and perhaps, at times, ourselves wonder if we have made the right career choice. In the last week of term at 1pm on a Friday, at the start of double Year 7 drama lesson or Year 10 maths, standing at a large intersection wearing a placard for a pizza store begins to seem appealing as a career move!
So what are the forces that seem to drive some of us to unhealthy levels of fatigue and creative burnout that soon see us snapping at students and colleagues like a well trained cattle dog? A few obvious and significant changes in recent decades:
- A significant number of our students have increased family fragmentation and personal issues that become behavioural problems in the classroom and wider school context. This creates a greater demand for classroom management and pastoral care skills that obviously take time away from the art and discipline of pure teaching.
- Increased parental expectations. Exhausted parents often experiencing complex personal, relational or other challenges expect the school and some teachers to act as all-around guru’s, life coaches and mentors to their child. Other parents simply expect the school to guarantee a Rhodes scholarship and can’t understand why their little angel is not excelling under your tutelage.
- Increased administrative and reporting pressures. Whether its NAPLAN or various Board of Studies or other layers and levels of documentation we can all probably agree why the Amazon is experiencing deforestation. It’s because all that majestic timber was pulped to form the pile of papers you need to sort, tick, moderate and file within the next 15 minutes.
- Increasing complexity and busyness in our own lives providing less time for professional reading and the pursuit of excellence or even meaningful professional standards.
All in all it is a landscape of addition. We add and we add and we add. Ask yourself, “How many tasks, burdens, responsibilities, supervisions, extras or classes have you been relieved of recently?” Has a member of the Exec come to you and said, “You know, we are concerned you are not getting enough time to contemplate the rich plethora of research emerging in your subject area in recent years so we’d like you to take off two classes a week just for reading and thinking!” Unlikely.
Ok, now the bad news. This article is not going to solve much of the structural nature of these problems. They are, to be honest, complex systemic and cultural questions about the meaning of education and about the communities we build around it. It is about what we value as a society and then how we resource it. The way some of the issues will change is either they get so bad that the situation eventually calls for dramatic overhaul or, more desirably, courageous leaders will gradually begin to make tough decisions about the culture of individual schools no matter how much it hurts. Some are already doing so. So what then is actually possible in the shorter term? What can we do at a personal level to try and avoid stress burnout and exhaustion?
A Way Ahead
Each year I deliver seminars to about 3000 Catholic teachers on what it means to be a Catholic educator and how Catholic schools can be communities that genuinely impact the complex range of personal and pastoral challenges that young people face. A key moment in the sessions is the exploration of two key terms that have great relevance for the committed Catholic teacher, vocare and missio.
Vocare is the root of the word we understand as vocation. We think of it most of the time as simply a career that a person chooses that they genuinely care about. This is getting things backwards. Vocare means ‘to draw forth’ or ‘to call out’. In Catholic thinking, a vocation is not so much something that you choose but almost something that chooses you. In essence, the Holy Spirit prompts an awareness of a deep inner drive toward some particular area of service in the body of Christ. As such, the vocation of being a Catholic teacher is called forth from within you as you participate at an important level in the salvific action of God in the world. Out of you is drawn the skills, capacities and drives to play your part in building the Kingdom of God. Indeed, a true Catholic classroom is a place where the blind see and where captives are set free from a culture of slavery to consumerism and relativity and meaninglessness. Do you get it? One of the things you need to do in the midst of fatigue is to remind yourself that you were called to do this and that he who called you does not make mistakes. You are meant to be there. Even if it is very hard.
Vocare leads to missio dei – the sending of God, or to be sent by God. So the process is that your calling leads to sending. Your role in Catholic education mirrors the calling of the apostles. Jesus called them aside. He called forth out of them what was to become their deepest identity, their truest selves. After the calling they were eventually sent. However, there is a crucial point here. Their sending, and all their accomplishments and effectiveness happened because they had encountered him, intimately. This is the most important point I want to make in this first essay on being a Catholic teacher. You will ultimately only be as effective as the quality of your personal relationship with Jesus. The response is often; “Well I know lots of teachers in Catholic schools who are not into Jesus that much and they are great teachers.” True. However, here are two thoughts on that. There is an argument to say that if they did know Jesus they would be even better and secondly the Holy Spirit works through all people of good will, Christians or not.
Please take a moment to read John 15. Personally, I hope you can sneak a moment on your own in some quiet place to read it but if not just click the link above and read through it slowly. Jesus makes it very clear, cut off from him you can do nothing. To be the incredible Catholic teacher that you are you must find some way to encounter him. I am going to suggest three very simple things you could try:
- Try and spend a few moments with Scripture. St. Augustine used to say that ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of God. At the moment I am using the new ESV Study Bible published by Crossway which has a section at the back that helps you to read the Bible in a year just by a simple plan of daily readings. I have three kids under the age of three and 150 flights per year. If I can manage it, anyone can!
- Rediscover the sacraments. A simple visit to a quiet morning Mass once a week can have a massive impact on many areas of your life. It could be a great chance to offer God your work for the week and pray for his grace and creativity to guide you.
- Try and start each class with a moment of silence. (Once you have put down the Taser)! A simple routine of silence allows you the chance to invite the Holy Spirit to be present in whatever happens next.
I genuinely hope this does not sound insincere, but thank you for the work you do. Many of you often wonder if it makes a difference some times. It does. In the Academy Award winning film, A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More encourages his power hungry young friend Richard Rich to become a good teacher. Rich replies, “But who would know?” St. Thomas thinks for a while and says, “Your students, your parents, your friends…God. Not a bad audience that!” Indeed, not a bad audience. What you do each day, each week, each Term has a bigger audience and greater significance than you know. Stay connected to the source.
Jonathan Doyle is the founding director of Choicez Media and is currently completing further post-graduate study at The Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. He can be reached for consultancy and training work via the Choicez website
In your experience what drives teacher burnout and what can be done to help reverse the trend?