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.


“Work Smart” Myth Exposed

The popular maxim “work smarter, not harder” is pure hogwash.  It implies that clever tricks can supplant sustained effort.  While effectiveness is unarguably a virtue, nothing can take the place of sweat.

In teaching, we can implement all the cutesy activities, routines, and fads that the educrats can imagine, but the bottom line is that no class will be optimally productive unless the teacher is giving enthusiastic direct instruction, then guiding students through practice.  Even during in-depth independent work, we teachers must be circulating the room, checking on student work one on one.  It’s exhausting, but nothing less produces the best results.  It’s inconvenient for me, too, but we can’t just sit at our desks for an hour and occasionally bark orders and expect real learning to just happen. 

In church service, it’s even more true.  No amount of efficient program planning, curricular correlation, or assignment reporting–worthwhile as those things all are–will ever do half as much good as simply rolling up our sleeves and bringing gospel messages to people in their homes.  Passionately involving ourselves in people’s lives with meaningful service is going to take far more effort than the bare minimum requirements of any calling or ministry, but it’s also absolutely necessary to help grow anyone in the direction of Zion. 

Clichéd as it is to lament the passively entitled mindset of contemporary society, it’s still true.  If we want to help the world remember the value of good, plain, old fashioned hard work, we must, as Gandhi said, be the change we wish to see in the world. 

We may sometimes feel the need to step back and rest, but we can’t let it become a habit; the stakes in the things we care about are too high.  Wear out, don’t rust out. 

26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28, emphasis added

13 Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven—

14 These should then be attended to with great earnestness.

Doctrine and Covenants 123:13-14, emphasis added