Teacher Burn-Out & Ascetic Altruism

“The problem is well-documented, and there are no doubt many factors which make teaching a difficult activity to sustain for long.”

Job Burnout

“But it does often turn out that it is precisely the teachers we respect the most, those whose selfless dedication to making something happen for other people is an inspiration, who burn out the fastest.”

“I would propose the following very general explanation for such cases: it is precisely because the work is selfless that it cannot be sustained. There is a period during which seeing others flourish is such an intrinsic reward that we are buoyed up for one more week, or one more marking period. But if the activity fails to feed the self in some more direct way, the energy for the activity will be spent sooner rather than later. Our best teachers propel their practice on the fast-burning fuel of a discerning and loving altruism only to find their tanks mysteriously empty long before they are ready to give up the fight.”

“Moral concerns, while crucial in navigating certain dilemmas and interactions, cannot guide a life’s pursuit. At some point, our projects must tap into our desires and aspirations. In other words, they must be our projects.”

“Therefore, if we accept the premise that the best teaching requires a high degree of selflessness, we must add the caveat that such selflessly altruistic practice is not sustainable. An educator who always puts students first may achieve wonderful results for a time, but ultimately the teacher’s own thirst for development will reassert itself.”

“Regardless of whether the teacher chooses to leave teaching for something revitalising or attempts to slake her thirst on the bitter draught of the ascetic ideal, the benevolent teacher vanishes. In the former case, we confront perhaps only the problem of where to find fresh personnel; the latter situation is more sinister, as the teacher carries on, demanding reverence for selflessness and doing damage in the name of altruism.”

(The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice, Chris Higgins 2011. p.159, 160-161)

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