Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Tue, 11 Feb 1997 06:44:23 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thought: Burnout
It was last Friday morning. I had just gotten out of my second early
morning class. With two hours until my third class, I went to the Union
to satisfy a craving for some sticky glazed doughnuts. As I entered I
noticed a bunch of first-year students who had been in my first year
history class during the past few quarters sitting at a table.
"Hey, Schmier," one of them yelled with a wave of the hand, "sit with
us. We were just talking about you and your class."
"Only about the good things, I hope," I said with a smile as I
"What's this we hear that you're doing some new stuff in class. How
come you didn't have us come up with advertising campaigns for Hamilton's
federalism and Jefferson's republicanism?"
"Always trying new stuff. Gotta keep the juices flowing," I
answered as I grabbed a chair.
"Neat. We were wondering how many times have you taught History
"Oh, about seven to nine sections a year for the last fifteen years,"
"Teaching the same old course over and over and over. Some of us
were wondering why aren't all you professors burnt out. Doesn't it bored
you after a while?" One student asked.
"I'll can't speak for anyone else. But, for me? No," I
"Why?" another student jumped in.
"It's short and simple. I don't have to deal with burn out because I
don't let it happen. It's not about the course or how many times I've
taught it, it's all about me; it's in the spirit I create and attitude I
have, not so much what I do. I suppose I would get burnt out or be bored
if I thought of teaching only as a monotonous job like being on a
producation line, or if I thought it got in the way of more important
things I wanted or had to do."
"Well, what do you think teaching is?"
"It's me. It's who I am. It's why I've been put here you might say.
It's something sacred, a joy, a privilege, a mission. I don't just do it;
I feel it."
I went on to describe how I think and feel excitement and fun in my
bones. I feel in terms of engaging with different people. Teaching
touches me down where my guts are. I explained how I've learned to go
into a classroom and instead of seeing only an anonymous herd, I look at
sixty separate and distinct and interesting people with different names
and faces; I get to know them; I hear many distinctive voices each telling
his/her own story. I told those students that I'm intoxicated with people
and addicted to students; that I love each one of them; I respect each one
of them; I hold each one of them valuable and sacred. No, there's nothing
dull in the classroom for me because people aren't dull. So, I don't see
myself teaching the same old anything. Instead, I see the classroom as a
human arena, a dramatic place, a dynamic place, an exciting place full of
energy, a place of growth and change, a demanding place, a wondrous place
of becoming, a risky place, a place of surprises, a place of promise and
possibility, a catalyst for learning. It's an amazing place for touching
people; it has a mysterious capacity for changing lives and a magical
power for altering the future.
"I have a friend," I explained, "who I once heard say that she is
sometimes disappointed when she enters a classroom and doesn't see a
burning blackboard and hear a voice telling her to take off her shoes.
She's right because, most of all, I see the classroom as a sacred place
where I have the opportunity to give people hope, get them to believe in
themselves, have faith in their ability, and make a difference. All that
gives me a high, a kick, a rush. That's what keeps my fire constantly
burning. I have a burning bush in my gut and I constantly hear that voice
In the course of the conversation that continued on, I explained in
bits and pieces that teaching is more than just a spectacle for
transmitting information and giving a grade, more than just getting up
there and talking about the same old stuff over and over and over, day in
and day out. It also involves a lot more than just knowing the subject.
It's a complex process that constantly involves a lot of time, significant
intellectual and physical and emotional investment, considerable
preparation and effort. It's not a fixed recipe. It's a creative and
imaginative and ever-changing mixture of many ingredients. To me, I
described, each day is filled with a newness that keeps my juices flowing
because each day is different, each moment is different, each student is
different, each class is different. Each difference poses a new
challenge. Each challenge can only be met new effort. Each teaching move
must be new and unique. By the time I feel comfortable with an approach
or technique, things begin anew, making it time to move on to try new
things to master new situations or learn new, processes and reach inside
for a newness. About the only thing that's the same about the classroom,
I told them, is the walls, floor and windows. It's constant movement and
"But, doesn't it get easier?" one student asked.
"Don't let anyone tell you that. I never let my teaching get
easier--or old. I'm always on the move refining, searching,
experimenting, perfecting, staying on the edge, risking. Anyone who tells
you that teaching gets easier or that they can teach in their sleep is
suffering from sameness and have stopped giving birth to life, and already
is burnt out inside. I don't see anything old, stale or routine about
people and about engaging with people. Routine puts people behind
restricting bars to breath stale air, and they lock the door behind them
and throw away the key when they accept it. If there's a routine to
teaching, it's a routine in which nothing is ever routine and no one ever
We talked some more. "I'll give you a short and simple recipe I've
concocted only for myself," I finally told them. "I find that it keeps
the flames from flickering: if it's going to be, it's not up to the
system, it's not up to the course, it's not up to someone else. It's up
to me! I'm the only one who can keep me fresh and alive and on the move. I
am the only one who has the authority to give birth to or sign the death
knell to my excitement and dreams and life. I'm the only one who can
strengthen or weaken the kick, pick up or slow the rush, or raise or lower
"No, you've said it's that short and simple a couple of times. It
can't be," one student protested. "You weren't always this way. You told
us yourself in class that you changed about six years ago. My mother, who
had you years ago, cringed when she heard I had you for history. She said
you were a great professor but a son-of-a-bitch who always smiled but deep
down really didn't care about them unless they were already good students!
My life in 70s and 80s flashed before me as if I was suddenly
drowning. His words hurt for an instant. The harsh truth usually does.
His mother was right although I didn't realize it at the time because I
had convinced myself otherwise. He went on.
"When I told her about the great stuff we do in class, how we got to
know each other at the beginning, the great projects, no lectures, no
tests, just lots of learning, and how you respect each of us and never
stop believing in us, she couldn't believe I was talking about the same
person. She flipped--I thought she was going to have an attack or
something--when I told her how you always acted like you believed more in
us than we believed in ourselves and were more interested in helping us
become better persons than better students and that you loved each of us
and nothing we could do would change your mind. What changed?"
"To make it short and simple, I changed me." I hesitated for a
minute. Then quietly admitted, "But seriously, yeah, you're right. It is
a lot longer and more complicated. But, you're pushing me to my deepest
confession and admission of my gravest sin." I looked at my watch.
Ninety minutes had flown by. Thirty minutes to class. I quickly ended
our exchange. "Next time I'll fess up," I said as I got up. "Right now
I've got to meditate and get ready for class."
And, I left. Never did get those doughnuts.