Is Your Passion for Teaching Healthy?

Is being passionate about our work ultimately bad for us?

Most of the teachers I know are passionate about what they do. We love our work and find it fascinating. We are constantly striving to become more effective, to engage our most challenging students, to keep up with the latest research and technology and to ensure that our students are well prepared for whatever they may face in our constantly changing  world.

This morning I stumbled upon an article by Karla Starr of  The Atlantic about following your passions. It turns out that being passionate about what you do can be a bad thing.

She writes,

Those with harmonious passion really love something, but ultimately can leave it, since it’s a “significant but not overwhelming part of their identity.” Harmonious passion doesn’t interfere with other aspects of life, like relationships or education.

In contrast, obsessive passion resides in individuals who derive their self-esteem and identity primarily from their performance during the activity itself. Internalizing the activity exacts many costs. A lousy day on the basketball court threatens to undermine an obsessively passionate player’s entire identity.

I suspect that many of us teachers have an obsessive passion rather than a harmonious passion about our work. Much of our self-esteem is derived from how we perform as teachers, perhaps because we invest so much of our personal time and energy into teaching. We are also frequently criticised, often personally, if we fail to measure up to the ideal.

We are afraid to fail.

We lie awake sometimes worrying that we haven’t paid enough attention to one child, or prepared a lesson thoroughly enough.We know that if we fail, its our students who are affected most of all. We don’t want to be the teacher who turned them away from learning forever, or the one who was responsible for their incomplete understanding of maths.

The work is high-stakes, because we know what a difference we make.

Fear of failure leads to problems

In her article, Starr quotes Jocelyn Bélanger, author of a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

“[Fear of failure] can help if you’re starting a new job and have to make your mark,” he said. “But it also leads to burnout, increased stress, and decreased longevity.”

So what’s the solution?

If you find your passion is becoming an obsession, try to step back a little and get some perspective. We are more than our jobs and we are not alone in our jobs. Teaching is a collaborative process. Successful teachers work in partnership with parents, students and colleagues. As much as we might like to, we can never take total responsibility for our students successes or failures.

We are all human, and none of us really live up to the perfect ideal of what a teacher is. Sometimes its hard to recognise that. While teachers are happy to share their success stories, we rarely talk of our shortcomings. That’s why this excellent article by John T Spencer was such a breath of fresh air this week.

It’s okay not to be the perfect teacher. Perhaps we need to let each other see those imperfections more.

Think about what’s important in your life outside of teaching. If you can’t think of anything then perhaps its time to start rediscovering those passions. Think especially about the people in your life. Are there relationships you are neglecting because of your work?

It’s fine to be passionate about teaching, most of us are. But that passion needs to work in harmony with the other aspects of our lives, rather than costing us everything else that’s important.

What about you? Is your passion for teaching obsessive or harmonious? What do you do to keep things in balance?

Aside

Teaching – Why I Don’t Give Up

Last Sunday I wrote a post about the stress of teaching, and how it was affecting me. It received some interesting responses, both in the comments and on Twitter. The Twitter consensus seemed to be that most teachers feel that way at times. There are moments when the stress builds, it all becomes too much and the smallest thing will break you.

But this tweet made me think:

I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of teachers. We often hear about teachers burning out and the high attrition rate, especially in the first few years of teaching. The stress and workload demands drive many from the profession.

But even though I DO feel stressed and have days like lasts Friday where it all just seems too much, I’m not seriously entertaining the idea of leaving.

This is why I stay:

1. Teaching is Rewarding

I love that moment when a child’s eye’s light up because they’ve learned something – the excitement and appreciation that they show. Learning is a joyful experience and it’s incredibly satisfying to be a part of a student’s journey. I also find that I am continually learning. Even after 20 years, I’m still being challenged and inspired to find new ways of doing things. It’s never boring.

2. Teaching allows me to be creative and to vary my days

No two days are ever the same, and as a primary school teacher, I get to teach all the subjects. I teach art, music, HSIE, mathematics, writing, public speaking, dance, drama. I am a person who craves variety and primary school teaching allows me plenty of that. The process of designing units of work and planning lessons is also highly creative and I enjoy coming up with new and engaging ways to teach. I enjoy the challenge of having students with special behaviour or learning needs. I like to think outside the box and find the key to reaching students for whom traditional teaching approaches don’t seem to work.

3. I love my students

I am blessed to work at a school with a very positive culture. The students from K-6 enjoy coming to school and most greet me enthusiastically whenever they see me either in class or in the playground. They are keen to learn and appreciative of our efforts. They are nice kids and working with them is a joyful experience.

3. I have great colleagues

I am also blessed to work with a team of very committed and enthusiastic educators. There is none of the cynicism that abounds in some workplaces. My colleagues care about their work and, like me, are continually learning. We support each other through collaborative planning and teamwork and share the load. We recognise that not everyone has strengths in every area and help each other out. A teacher who is talented in music will take that subject for another teacher, who in turn might teach PE for a teacher who has difficulty in that area. When people are sick, run down or going through difficult times, my colleagues are quick to help out, shouldering some of their responsibilities at time until that person is able to cope once again.

4. I have a great principal

The principal I work for is committed to making good educational decisions. She is not swayed by political interests, or the pressure to produce higher and higher results in standardised tests. Instead, she allows the specific learning needs of our students to determine our directions for school improvement. She listens to staff and consults with us. She acknowledges our hard work. If there is a period of time where I am overloaded, as I have been lately, she will find ways to release me from face to face teaching so that I can catch up, and will be flexible with deadlines wherever possible.

I realise that I am lucky. Not all schools have this positive culture. In fact, this article by Dan Haesler explains that many new teachers leave the profession because of the lack of support from their colleagues.

I am fortunate because, even when I feel stressed and demoralised, I work in a supportive environment. That’s what keeps me going.

It’s the culture of the school that makes the difference.