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Blog #14: Working Yourself to Death

Do you ever think about death? You don’t?! Where are all of my morbid readers at? I mean, we all had a goth phase at some point in our lives right? Some of us more than others, but we all had a moment in our life where all we listened to was Death Metal or Sarah McLachlan, we all wore colors that were less than bright for a long stretch of time. A grey pair of sweatpants with a snapping back pocket perhaps with a wristband of the Cullen family crest from Twilight perhaps…So I have some regrets about college, but who doesn’t right?!… Or maybe you were more drastic in your goth phase and you wore dark eye makeup every day and part of the reason you were sad or mad was that you had to put in on every day just to keep up with all the other people in your life that were also trying to be different.

Either way, you have surely thought about the end of your life in some shape or fashion. That’s why I felt that it was my duty…Yes, I said “duty” middle school teachers, stay with me….to tell you about how to save yourself from death! No, not in some Nazi’s go and find the Holy Grail and drink to immortal life kind of way, just in an “I want to watch my grandchildren grow old” kind of way. Maybe the Grim Reaper, maybe Blue Oyster Cult, maybe the Grim Reaper is playing in Blue Oyster Cult as the guy who plays the cowbell and Charles Darwin is singing lead vocals. Either way that death appears, it is coming, and I think we should put ourselves in the best position we can to avoid it as long as possible.

Let’s start with the idea that most, if not all, teachers are overworked. It has been widely reported that the U.S. has the world’s most extreme work hours based on the amount of education that you have. Since teachers have bachelor’s and many times master’s degrees, they trend upward in how many hours that they work. Makes sense right? More college, more money, longer hours. But that is just the tip of the iceberg for teachers. Throw in the fact that teachers often don’t just work one job, they work several, and you get into a gray area that most other professions don’t deal with. Teachers have to find jobs, most of the time, below their level of education, to supplement their income. I have done this. I have worked sporting events, I have coached, I worked for a minor league baseball team taking tickets. All because what I made wasn’t substantial enough to sustain my family, or at least felt it wasn’t.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we work in one of the most publicly critical and professionally volatile careers in the world. You say, “Seth, I know this. I knew that when I started. Why would I change that now?”. I get it. You’re addicted to the adrenaline I think, as am, I. But, because of the uncertainty in our jobs. According to the Organizational Business Professor at Stanford School of Business, Jeff Pheffer, “since the 1970s uncertainty in job security and predictability is a major predictor for cardiovascular diseases and an early death”. Like dead-dead. Dead as a doornail. To cash in one’s chips, to croak, to go to Davy Jones’s locker (If you teach on a submarine) Okay so I am combining sayings in there, but you get the point. If we don’t put ourselves in a position to not kill ourselves, how can we not die sooner?

I want to make one thing clear. I am not advocating switching careers. If you feel like you don’t want to teach anymore, then find something that will fulfill you more. But if you hear me saying stop teaching or it will kill you, much like Stevie Wonder doing a connect the dots by numbers, you’re missing the point.

You need to decide if the place that you work as a teacher is toxic to your health. Plain and simple. Dr. Pheffer says that many of us want to quit our jobs and move on to a healthier workplace, but we have some things that prevent us from doing so. All of those reasons have to do with guilt and pride.

Let’s start with the former. Guilt is something that has achieved many things in life. It has dragged people to family reunions, made them clean out the dishwasher, or made us stay in jobs that are bad for our health. The first way that we feel guilty is that we feel we are abandoning the students. You say “well if they have gone through all of these awful things in their lives, why can’t I live in a crappy work environment for the next 25 years? “, and there is nothing wrong with that emotion. Except that you are also part of a family that needs you outside of those four walls. They need you after you retire, too. And if that means giving up on fixing a system that is corrupt because it “might get better”, maybe that’s a sound health plan for your already compromised nervous system. Many also feel guilty for working too hard or too little. You see yourself getting stuff done quickly and you feel guilty that you aren’t stressing about everything like your coworkers do. Or it’s vice versa and you struggle all night to build these amazing lesson plans and your colleagues don’t show up until the bell and leave when the bell sounds every day.

The later one of these is a form of peer pressure. Yes, peer pressure isn’t just about doing drugs when you’re a teenager in those after-school specials; it’s about compromising yourself to make those around you feel better about themselves…(Insert that phrase about ships and tides)…Don’t stay at school because you feel guilty about it. Stay at a school because it fits who you are as an educator. I hate to break it to you, but I have had friends who have fought the system in schools for 15 years and come out every year disappointed about the direction of the school. They are amazing people, but they have found the change to be little to none in school culture. You don’t need to “Power through it” and nobody is going to think of you as a quitter. Save your sanity and find a place that fits you.

Now pride. If guilt didn’t ruffle your tail feathers, I am sure this will. We are all replaceable. We can be replaced. There are literally millions of people out there right now training to be teachers. As Dr. Pfeffer puts it bluntly, “workers to a business have become like horses on a supply run, if one horse isn’t pulling its weight or it’s injured, the owners simply replace it, one way or the other, with a new stallion”. You can’t work 16 hours a day and expect to work at peak performance. You’re going to make mistakes if you do that to yourself. You need to find a place where you can work within yourself, to make sure you can sustain your work throughout your career. More exhaustion equals less productivity, and if you are in an environment that requires you to sustain an unhealthy level of commitment, eventually you will run out of steam and you will make mistakes. Surgeons don’t operate when they go without sleep, and truck drivers have a maximum number of hours that they can drive in a day. Why? Because maximum productivity is achieved when we can put forth maximum effort, and we simply can’t sustain that if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Pride may keep us in an unsafe workplace. Don’t let pride lead you to live a less-fulfilled and an ultimately shorter life.

And I get it. Some people thrive off that kind of life. You live to work, you don’t work to live. Some people believe that they are put here on this earth to work until they die, no matter how early in life that happens. They bring their groceries straight to school and take up the whole staff fridge whenever they are grading a big project because they know they aren’t going home that night.

I want you to consider taking some time to evaluate if that’s what you truly want. Do you want to work in a place where you feel miserable and hope it gets better soon? Do you want to stay somewhere because leaving would make you feel shameful? Is it really that bad to consider a place that will be better for you in the long run, even if it means leaving a place that you have been for 20 years because you thought it would get better? It really isn’t. You are a person, too. You aren’t just a tool to be used by a school that should be used up and then thrown away when you have outlived your “usefulness”.

Ask yourself, Are you in a situation where you can do what you are doing over long periods and still renew yourself? Are you in a situation where your school or district is well-meaning and health-enhancing? Or are you in a school or district that is well-meaning, but health-destroying? It’s worth a look around to see.

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading.

Best wishes,

Seth Tripp