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?

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2 thoughts on “Is Your Passion for Teaching Healthy?

  1. Tom Gamble says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m going to share it with a teaching colleague who was today quite down because of the pressure to “do it all”. Do workshops, running records, math stations, motor skills programs, buddy programs, etc, etc, etc.
    Perhaps part of the problem is that there are just so many good ideas out there that the school leaders want to try, but we forget to make it explicit about what we want taken out to make room for the changes, or how we see the timetable working to keep teachers half sane?

    • Hi Tom, thanks for commenting. I hear what you say about the pressure to “do it all”. It becomes overwhelming and it just isn’t possible to do or be all that all the time. We get spread so thin that we can’t do anything well. I think with any change we need to start small. Just one small change, one manageable step at a time. I hope your colleague can rise above it all.

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