When It’s All-Consuming

It seems like a lifetime ago, the spring of 1988.  I was an undergraduate, very serious about my studies and about my calling to be a teacher, and I was taking the required Educational Psychology course.  We were all assigned observation placements in local schools, and mine was in a special-education class at the nearby middle school, a beautiful old building that has since been purchased and repurposed by my alma mater.  In those days, though, it was still the middle school, and Mrs. C’s tiny classroom opened onto a stairway landing next to the school auditorium.  There were five or six young boys with “bad and lazy” labels in the class I observed, and Mrs. C worked daily miracles with, not for them.  I think I’d always known that labels are often false, but that was an important, daily lesson for me … and for Mrs. C’s students, too.

I hadn’t thought about Mrs. C in quite a while, but as I was driving home Sunday evening after a few quiet hours of planning and thinking at the Local Coffee Shop, I remembered a conversation we had one long-ago afternoon.  “What are your plans for the evening?” we’d asked each other politely.  I think it was a Wednesday, which meant dinner, a choir rehearsal, and some study time for me. “My husband and I,” she said, “are going to see a movie.  You have to not let this job consume you.”

It’s taken more than twenty-five years for me to understand and grasp the nugget of Wisdom Mrs. C gave me that spring afternoon.  Teaching, for good teachers, is a calling, and callings require time, energy, and passion; that part is easy to understand.  But callings don’t consume you.  To fulfill a calling or mission is to give and receive joyfully, even when it’s difficult or painful.  But at the end of the day, there’s still a you with more to give, more to share, more to receive tomorrow.  When it’s all-consuming, something is terribly wrong.

When I go to the Local Coffee Shop on Sunday afternoons and early evenings, it’s because of a boundary I set with myself a while ago.  I won’t do school work at home on weekends, and I’ll take one day each week without formally “doing school work.”  It’s not a rule for its own sake, and there are times (if I’m sick, or if the weather is bad, or if there’s a small task that will only take a few minutes to complete) when I do school-related work at home on a Saturday or a Sunday.  But for lengthy tasks like writing detailed lesson plans, the ones that Great Powers Indeed believe or hope will raise the bar of instruction (and students’ test scores) in These Parts, it’s important for me to be not at home.  I don’t want the school-related work to be all-consuming, and leaving this space is one way to limit the time, the energy, and the resources I devote to a task that can easily expand indefinitely.  Ms. X, after all, told me she’d spent six hours or more “writing those lesson plans,” only to get “a bad grade” from the Relevant Power who had read and commented on them.  And Another Ms. X, standing over the copier several days ago, ruefully admitted that she’s chasing after the highest possible rating from Relevant Powers on her lesson plans, even though she knows that a “proficient” rating is just fine.

Paul Thomas’s recent blog post speaks to what he calls teachers’ missionary zeal … and the more I think about the phrase, the more I see how that zeal is connected to the all-consuming ways that factory-model teaching and learning affect students, teachers, Powers, parents, and everyone who buys into the mindset.  If you think there has to be one right way or one set of best practices, then the implications are clear.  You simply must find that way, discover those practices, and implement them … with fidelity, as teachers are often reminded when they newest version is rolled out.  Long hours go with the job, new teachers learn quickly.  At my first school, One Ms. X kept a tiny microwave and a mini refrigerator in her classroom so she could eat both lunch and dinner there; “I just have to,” she’d say, “to get all my work done.”  I’m not sure how Ms. X defined my work, or how her husband and children felt about her zeal and devotion, but That Ms. X is hardly alone.  A few weeks ago, I saw an old friend who’s retired from that school, and I discovered that Yet Another Ms. X, now wheeling an oxygen tank around and slowly fading away, refuses to retire because That School “is her life” and “she just knows she’d die if she went home.”

For That Ms. X and The Other Ms. X, it was clearly all-consuming.  And when it is all-consuming, it’s unhealthy … not just for Ms. X, Mr. Y, Mrs. C, or Mr. S, but for the students and families we think we’re helping because we care so much.  Exhausted, frantic teachers and Powers make bad decisions, give poor explanations, and (perhaps worst of all) assume that everybody else should be as all-consumed as we are.  And when they aren’t, when they seek balance and life outside of the all-consuming factory, we’re quick to yell and label about “not serious enough” or “What about your future?” or “Think of the children!”

joyful learning community, well-built and well-sustained, should mitigate those all-consuming tendencies even for us recovering perfectionists.  While factories are built on scarcity and now, joyful communities embrace the abundance of both time and resources.  At the start of a busy week, that’s an important lesson to re-learn and embrace.  I’m grateful for the memory of Mrs. C and her movie, and I wonder what new insights we’ll all discover and share with each other today.

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Published in: on March 10, 2014 at 10:37 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] wanted to transfer to and eventually retire from.  The one where That Ms. X, the one I mentioned yesterday, wheels her oxygen tank each day because “it’s her whole life,” as a mutual […]

  2. […] and perceived messages we talked about on Wednesday, and with the questions of loyalty and all-consuming work that inspired other recent posts.  Starting, but far from finished!  Factory-model schools […]


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