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June 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 9

Reining in the Super-Teacher Complex

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Social-emotional learning
School Culture
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Credit: June 2020
Last year, I had seven jobs. I sang at a bar, consulted for a culture development company, facilitated teacher PD for a national corporation, spoke, wrote articles and published a book, and taught a college class. Oh, I also taught full-time at a high school.
Yet this is not the stale tale of "destitute teacher seeks absurd work just to make a living." It's not a story of all-out passion for education. It's a story of someone who couldn't say "no."
I had convinced myself that being busy was a sign of achievement—that because people sought out my expertise, I was somehow powerful. But it wasn't strength I possessed. It was hubris. It was a Sisyphean flaw, not a Herculean feature.
Educators like me are burning out. And yet most of the headlines focus on the external conditions—like low pay and testing pressure. While these conditions are very much contributing factors, we also need to ask ourselves how our own actions and attitudes are compounding the problem. Are we trying to be heroes? Are we overworking ourselves?
For too long I lived the myth of the super-teacher. Now, fortunately, I'm learning how to move from myth to reality, recognizing the flawed attitudes that drag my teaching and my mental health downhill.

Let's Roll It Back a Minute

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, king of Corinth, is often described as the "cleverest of men." Twice, he escapes death (the Greek equivalent of a staff meeting)—first by tricking the personification of death, Thanatos, into chaining himself up. Later, he instructs his wife to avoid performing the formal burial rituals on him. Sisyphus then persuades his boss, Hades, to let him go back to the living and show his wife how to do the ritual, where he lingers for another few decades. And thus, Zeus, the supreme superintendent, gives Sisyphus the ultimate staff meeting: Rolling a rock up a hill for all of eternity.
To many, the myth of Sisyphus is the story of a guy who tries to escape mortality. To me, it is the story of a guy who struggles to let go and say "enough." In Sisyphus I see the modern educator, who tries to do it all, who can't set personal boundaries, who is left spinning busy work up a hill.
A Sisyphean task is one that can never be completed. And, if you're like me, you've found yourself continuously rolling that rock in your quest to be the ultimate educator. But that rock has taught me how to be more human than hero.
Here are the four rocks that have held me, and many of us, back—and how to let them go.

Rock #1: Not Saying "No"

Every one of us wants our work—and our lives—to matter. We assume that being sought out is a sign of our value, rather than a cue of cursed ambition. We say "yes" to things that dilute our energy—developing a new class or joining a committee or a mid-week happy hour. Shrugging off these opportunities, though, is not embracing complacency: It is being mindful of the scarcity of our resources. Would it be better to invest in the class I'm already teaching? Do I have time to do this committee justice? Would I benefit from a workout or a run instead of pints and fried foods?
Look at those burdens that have been camouflaged as opportunities. This year, I slashed my "side gigs" in half, limiting myself to teaching, writing, and speaking. I asked my principal if I could step down as our peer leadership advisor, knowing someone with new energy and ideas could do a better job of expanding the program. I said "no" to an opportunity to be an executive board member of a nonprofit for teacher wellness. I wanted to say yes to every one of these opportunities. But sometimes "yes" is a want and "no" is a should.
What's one thing that is diluting your energy? And what would you gain by giving it up? If you have to add something new to your plate, what's one thing you can drop or outsource in exchange?

Rock #2: Not Setting Boundaries for Our Time

I often have moments when I think, There isn't enough time to do all of this!, shaking my mental fist at the sky as though the gods above are punishing me personally. And then I remind myself, Oh yeah … there isn't enough time. So, all I can do is manage the time I do have.
When we blame our challenges on "not enough time," we increase our external locus of control by blaming external factors. It sounds like, "If only [external force] would give me grace THEN I could. …" This thinking, like Sisyphus's rock, sets us up for defeat and frustration because we can't always control what the outside world sends tumbling down on us. Instead, we need to shift to an internal locus of control, which reduces our burnout. This thinking frames our effort around our own choices and opportunities—which are always in our control and therefore empowering.
We have to learn to let go of what's beyond our control and accept imperfection. We have to be OK breaking our personal rules from time to time. Maybe my PowerPoint doesn't need to have the fanciest border. Maybe I don't need to write novellas of feedback for my students. Maybe I need to set a timer for 30 minutes and do what I can.
This past year, for example, I prioritized boundaries for unexpected, non-teaching tasks. When students approached me to look over a college essay or help with a speech outline (neither of which are related to classes I teach), I set a boundary: "I'd be happy to help. I can dedicate 20 minutes of full support on Tuesday after school." I blocked out specific times on my phone's calendar for ad hoc meetings to hold me accountable. I can't always control when the unexpected shows up at my door, but I can still set my personal office hours.
Where are your current time sucks? How could you be even five percent more efficient? What's a boundary that keeps getting broken?

Rock #3: The Pull to Be Everyone's Savior

Sisyphus wanted to save himself. The modern educator wants to save everyone. Sometimes compassion comes at a cost, creating empathy traps—feeling another's pain too deeply. There's no question that the prevalence of childhood trauma is affecting educators. The solution, though, is not to harden our hearts. We have to remind ourselves that we are humans, not demigods.
I often find myself in potential empathy traps. I'll be catching up on grading when a student enters my room in an emotional crisis. I think to myself, This student needs me right now. But here's the rub: A student doesn't necessarily need me. The student needs help—probably from a counselor, a social worker, a therapist, a career advisor.
I can't be a curer, but I can be a resource connector. I don't cold-heartedly push the student away. I tell him I have a few minutes to help him sort some stuff out (see: "setting boundaries"). Then I direct him to the right resources.
What are some resources that will help you help others? What can you do to remind yourself that you are not everyone's savior?

Rock #4: Innovation Traps

Sisyphus was an innovative thinker. But though he crafted new successes, his quest for better became his curse. We are no different. We innovate by thinking about how things could be better. However, this upward contrasting often diminishes our happiness and leads us into innovation traps. Shinier isn't always better. New isn't always the solution. Mastery is greater than innovation.
In my ambition to do more, I've found myself leaving tried-and-true projects behind. I've scrapped entire lessons of content after finding an "innovative idea" on Twitter. I've thrown a new complex assignment at my students before giving them feedback on their previous one. Similarly, I've seen my district scrap entire programs after one year of effort.
Maybe the grass isn't greener on the other side. Maybe our grass can't grow because we keep rolling "innovation" rocks over it.
What's already working for you, and how can you improve existing systems and strategies? What are your strengths and how can you leverage those?

We're Only Human, After All

Sisyphus tried to have it all. But he couldn't. We can't have it all either. We are not immortal—not gods nor heroes nor saviors. We are human. We won't always have enough time or skill to climb mountains. But in letting go of the burden of being super teachers, we can still move forward.
End Notes

1 Dijkstra, M. T., Beersma, B., & Evers, A. (2011). Reducing conflict-related employee strain: The benefits of an internal locus of control and a problem-solving conflict management strategy. Work & Stress, 25(2), 167–184.

2 Levy, L., Howard, T., & Aronczyk, A. (2018, January 9). How to be a hero. [Audio blog post]. WNYC Studios.

Chase Mielke is the author of The Burnout Cure. He is a nationally recognized speaker, consultant, and expert on teacher well-being and burnout. Chase is a Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee and an instructional coach for Plainwell Community Schools in Michigan.

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