Open Letter to an Open Letter

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Teacher burnout is way too understandable. Here's a way to possibly avoid it. I just read a very moving Open Letter written by a teacher, Chase Mielke, who is tired of feeling ineffective with his most difficult students. It is a good letter, a fervent reminder to himself that he must not give up. As a teacher, therapist, mother, and caring citizen of this country and this globe, I'm writing my own Open Letter back to him and to other teachers who are giving their all not to give up on their students.

Dear Chase Mielke and other great teachers,

First and foremost: You are right not to give up. Thank you for re-committing to this crazy job with these crazily troubled students.

Second, and very important: You are right to want to give up. There is just so much one person can do. And there are just so many years that caring, creative, energetic people can throw themselves at insoluble problems without cracking.

But there might be another way to think about your frustration and your commitment that could save you from exhaustion and burnout.

Here's the way to burnout: Thinking that you as the teacher must try harder, must engage more energetically, must overcome your negative emotions and pump out hope, must put out 120% to make up for your students' -20%. Noble as that commitment is, it is, frankly, unsustainable. If you are an awesome teacher (as you, Chase Mielke, appear to be), we are in danger of losing you if this is the approach you insist on taking.

Here's another way: Slow down. Breathe. Notice your feelings: Frustration. Hopelessness. Fear. Anger. Incompetence.

Now think about your students. Might they be having these same feelings? If so, then breathe again and smile. Your students are communicating very effectively and even hopefully with you. Through their behaviors, they are teaching you how they feel every day in your classroom (and, probably, outside of your classroom). If you can notice these feelings and sit with them, then you are beginning to see your students very clearly. They are frustrated. They are hopeless. They are afraid and angry. They feel incompetent in school.

Next step: Why might your students be having these feelings?

I'm guessing you won't have any trouble answering that question. I'm guessing your students have every reason to feel frustrated, hopeless, afraid, angry, and incompetent. I'm guessing their lives have taught them to feel this way.

Next step: Notice your desire to give up on these students. Wonder if that is precisely what your students expect of you. Is it possible that other adults in your students' lives have given up on them? Or have never had any hope for them in the first place? Is it possible that your students are simply being realistic? Is it possible they are protecting themselves from the probability of intense disappointment and confusion when their efforts to succeed are met with indifference or ridicule or contempt or oblivion?

If you have gotten this far, you might feel as though you're onto something. Why wouldn't your students be acting out so egregiously? Why wouldn't you, as a feeling, functioning human being, respond exactly as they are teaching you to respond? And, given this natural, logical psychodynamic fit, what should you as a teacher do?

My answer is to aim at the truth, which is that your students know they can't trust you -- that is, they do notknow how to trust you. If they do not know how to trust adults in their lives; if they do not have the capacity to make use of your care; if they have no faith in their own ability to "recruit" (to use a term from another of my blog posts) consistent positive attention from their mentors, then they are not going to respond to any of your attempts to teach them content. Your job, as I see it, is to teach them how to trust you.

This won't be easy, Chase Mielke. It takes honest reflecting back at your students, reflecting of the "good" and the "bad" with curiosity and care. It takes consistency. It takes ongoing emotion work on yourself so you can keep the students' needs separate from your own and your own needs met so you can address the students' as well as you can, within your totally acceptable limits. It takes detachment. It takes a commitment to not doing the students' work for them but to narrating, wherever possible and without judgment, what the students' actions (or inactions) might mean for them. It takes a commitment to being a developmental partner, not just a subject matter teacher, and it takes acceptance of the fact that emotional development -- the growing of trust in oneself and others, the awareness of one's strengths, repeated experiences of honest connection and care that start becoming a new normal -- takes time.

This job of teaching students to trust you won't be easy, but it won't be impossible, either. If you continue to try to teach them as hard as you can, you're just throwing yourself on the craggy rocks of their lives. That's the path of impossibility, and it leads to burnout. If you focus on seeing your students accurately, on caring about them with detachment so they're not oppressed by your expectations, on living within your own limits and consistently holding them to limits that make sense (something they might not have experienced in their own lives), then you might be able to get somewhere.

And you might not get anywhere. But at least you will still be there, in school, ready for students who can use you, patient with students who for very good reasons cannot use you -- yet. Your hope is in your ability and willingness to show up and connect. And my hope is that you get the emotional support you need to keep at it without giving up and burning out. We need you too much, Chase Mielke.

I am sincerely yours.