Professional Traumatic Stress Disorder: aka “Burnout”

The age of political correctness saw Shakespeare chastised posthumously for sardonically recommending in Henry VI a very radical initial step for improving society. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Never meant to be taken seriously, this jest was likely meant to inspire laughter among the groundlings and noblemen alike.

Today, certain ideologues of education reform quite seriously stipulate the first step toward improving Public Education. They shout, “Get rid of bad teachers!” Unfortunately, too many people nod their heads in assent to what seems, at first blush, to be a relatively benign proposition. Who could oppose ridding schools of ineffective instructors?

Clearly, however, people are no longer breaking down the doors of the schoolhouse to become teachers. Quite the contrary, school systems are struggling mightily to fill teaching positions. It is well chronicled, now, that the majority of those few who run the gauntlet of travails in the schoolhouse seek other venues for their talent within five years of decorating their first classroom. We are more successful at driving dynamic teachers out of the profession than those who perform marginally. Inadequate compensation and benefits, interminable labor, mounting responsibilities, declining resources and erroneously attributed blame all contribute to this trend.

Furthermore, were we successful in dismissing every teacher of marginal competence, from what unknown pool of talent do you suppose their replacements might be drawn? Occasionally, the “devil” you know is preferable to the “devil” you have yet to meet.

These are but the first challenges posed by making teachers the scapegoats for our nation’s errant education policies. The questionable hypothesis that teachers, themselves, are solely to blame for lack of productivity in their workplaces remains an unproven assertion trumpeted by ideologues seeking to distract the general public from the real drags on student achievement.

Human beings have a penchant for blaming victims for the misfortunes they endure. Has anyone not perused the account of some crime and wondered what the victim was thinking while wandering in that neighborhood at that time of night? Does a victim’s momentary lapse of reason somehow excuse a criminal act? How many of us have participated in discussions of infamous incidents that ended by questioning the intelligence – or sanity – of the victim?

So, it should come as no surprise that blame for our educational woes should land at the feet of classroom teachers. Politicians often ask labor leaders when they will take a stand on the removal of incompetent educators from the ranks of classroom teachers.

A simple question deserves a simple response. 

  • Such a stand will only be viable when simple survival in the classroom no longer requires universal application of superhuman effort on a timescale that wears down even the most committed advocate for Public Education.

Rocket science is not involved. 

Our society must wage the war on ignorance the same way it wages war on the battlefield. We must place a well-equipped, overwhelming force at the point of attack and commit logistical support until the objective is attained. A military leader knows that a 10-1 ratio is likely necessary against an entrenched adversary. 

Would you question an army’s competence in fighting hordes of barbarians if it were limited to engaging the enemy with peashooters and slingshots during a campaign that lasted many decades? Would you label as incompetent the wounded foot-soldiers?

Dismissing every teacher who eventually raises the white flag of surrender will not improve Public Education. Furnishing every teacher with a reasonable caseload, adequate resources and appropriate time will…. 

Few events are more heart-rending than knowing a once-upon-a-time innovative and dynamic teacher and overhearing one of his students say to a classmate, “You know, Mr. Bartleby just don’t teach.”

Mr. Bartleby might be trying to hang on a few more years for the benefit of the worst retirement plan in the country following three decades of grossly inadequate compensation. Mr. Bartleby has likely corrected more than 500,000 papers submitted by nearly 5,000 students during a successful career prior to the onset of health problems. Unfortunately, he can no longer tolerate the interminable sessions of paper grading and lesson planning into the wee morning hours. Does this mean he has nothing left to contribute?

The word spreads that Mr. Bartleby is no longer “chewing the leather”. People begin to notice his less-than-stringent adherence to school policies. Next year might mean being assigned the most challenging classes and the most onerous non-teaching duties in the hope of compelling him to move on or accept the meager benefit of partial retirement.

Is it any wonder why Mr. Bartleby might choose to follow the lead of Herman Melville’s famous scrivener and say “I would prefer not to…”

Often merely exhausted by the unrealistic expectations of the modern classroom, the education profession is diminished when the Mr. Bartleby’s of this world are needlessly driven from its ranks.

Most of us would accept as axiomatic the admonition of Paul Tsongas that, “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.” Yet, it is presumed that teachers will commit whatever time is necessary, with alacrity mind you, to educate however many students the community chooses to squeeze into classrooms. It is also assumed that, as primary recompense for their never-ending altruistic endeavor, teachers will experience paroxysms of satisfaction while basking in the sparkling of a learner’s eyes.

Most teachers selflessly contribute countless hours to their craft while feigning cheerful acceptance of the delayed gratification lifestyle. Any measurable success in the classroom currently demands such personal sacrifice.

Today, devoting anything less than the totality-of-being to the profession carries with it the implied threat of being labeled “incompetent” or “unworthy“.

Teaching is exceedingly difficult even for those blessed with good fortune and robust health. When life delivers serious difficulties – as life is wont to do on occasion – even paragons of virtue eventually succumb. Who among us is blessed with infinite stamina?

Do we want elevate the professional practice of all teachers? Do we want to see improved academic performance for students? Assign all educators a workload that is manageable in something approaching a normal work day…


Further Reading:


[The original version of this Viewpoint appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 9, 2002. ]

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