Voluntary Martyr Teachers

In my first few years of teaching, I tried to be one those Hero Teachers–the guy who stays at work ten hours a day, who goes in sometimes on Saturdays, who takes tons of work home and grades while he tries to unwind at night.

During that third or fourth year, a scary thought hit me: what if I only did half as much work?  Would I get half the results from students?  Would they only learn half as much?  I tried cutting back on the intensity of grading papers and fancy detail of planning classes and, even after several weeks, it was obvious: my extra efforts had made no difference at all.  It was a sobering epiphany, and much of the next several years were heavily influenced by it.  I didn’t stop caring about the quality of my work, but I did try to trim anything extraneous that didn’t seem crucial.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers who think that unless they’re beating themselves to death, they aren’t doing a good job.  Some of them are convinced that we have to read and grade every line of every paper in copious, minute detail, or we’re cheating children.  Now, I’m all for feedback and revision, but except for that, so much of the time we spend grading and planning is frankly wasted.  There’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to teaching as much as anything else.  After a point, ongoing work is fruitless, or even destructive.  The goal of anyone who would do their job to maximum effectiveness is to find the point at which energy stops yielding results, work up to that point, and then clock out.

Some of us may have a Puritan streak to us that demands that visible suffering and sacrifice are requisite virtues in a teacher, but that’s baloney.  What matters is student learning.  Achieve that, and you’ve done your job well, regardless the hours you stayed late.  The time and energy you might have wasted being a volunteer martyr can be better spent on your students during the day, anyway.  Or you might even put more into enjoying your life, which will also increase your productivity at work.  This is one case where it truly does help to work smarter, not harder.

 

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