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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Teaching and Decision Fatigue

Teaching can be exhausting. Some thoughts on why.

November 20, 2019
 
 

My Twitter feed is highly populated with teachers of every level, and because of this, I see a lot of expressions of fatigue.

I’m December tired, but it’s only November.

The implication, which I think a lot can identify with, is that a semester is an inevitable process of being worn down until at the end there is an exhausted collapse at the finish line. Maybe some of this is inevitable, the nature of the exercise. I previously wrote about how to subvert some measure of that exhaustion by using end-of-semester reflection to redirect some of the energy from concerns about “performance” in the class to an examination of what has been “learned.”

But this does not grapple with the underlying causes of this fatigue. Having been away from full-time teaching for a few semesters, and now being back in the classroom teaching a single class, I believe I’ve gained some fresh perspective on a big reason for the outsize nature of teaching fatigue.

Essentially, I believe that during the semester teachers experience a steadily declining amount of physical and emotional bandwidth because of the sheer number of decisions one must make as a teacher, combined with the stakes (both real and perceived) of those decisions, and the fact that almost all of these decisions must be made by the instructor, acting alone.[1]

Is decision fatigue a thing?

The fresh perspective comes from the fact that I am working as many or more hours as when I was teaching full-time, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m filled with boundless energy, neither am I feeling that familiar sense of wondering if I’m going to make it to the end of the year with psyche and senses intact. I will enjoy the coming Thanksgiving break, but I will not treat it as a respite during which I can grab a couple of fresh lungfuls of air before plunging back below for the final weeks of the semester.

My Monday evenings with students in our first-year experience class have given me a reminder of the toll of having to make all these decisions. I often have sleepless Monday nights as I worry about whether or not what we covered was sufficient, or if my advice on a project will put the student on a productive path. I have to figure out what to do about absences, illnesses and other events that inevitably upset progress. It is a kind of responsibility I do not face in either my writing or research work.

With writing, while every piece involves constant decisions, all of the consequences for those decisions fall squarely on me. In my research work, I am part of a team that often makes decisions through a collaborative process, but when it comes right down to it, in that realm I am clearly not the boss. I will often take work home with me -- even though I work from home -- rolling around a particular issue even when I should be sleeping or attending to the other humans in my life, but I do not feel the weight of responsibility for those issues in the same way as I do about teaching.

The concern and stress I feel over my nonteaching work is real, but compartmentalizable. I have to meet my deadlines and be responsible to my editors and colleagues. I get busy, but all of this is in my control.

Teaching, on the other hand, involves much that is out of my control. Students are independent actors. Exogenous events can throw things into flux. College of Charleston has had both a hurricane evacuation and mumps outbreak this semester. I am both in charge of the course and at the mercy of factors entirely out of my control.

That dynamic is one of the most fascinating aspects of teaching, and one of the reasons I find the work so involving, but let’s face it, it’s also exhausting.

It’s exhausting in ways beyond the number of hours worked. I also think the scale is not strictly linear, that a 4/4 load is twice the emotional load of a 2/2. It’s more logarithmic, that for every additional course or student, you increase the potential of reaching an overload, and as overload is approached, a decision drains more bandwidth than it might have earlier in the semester.

With teaching one course, I am able to turn down the constant hum of concern to manageable levels. The number of decision points that pop up is limited.

Earlier this semester, I talked about how I missed the immersion of teaching full-time, but today I’m thinking more about the specifics of the toll that this work requires, and I really think it’s rooted in having to make so many decisions that feel consequential, at least in the moment.

This doesn’t seem like something we can necessarily solve. The work is the work. The best we can probably do is recognize it and name it and respect it, to acknowledge how larger teaching loads may be taking a toll that the strict number of courses doesn’t fully reflect.

How many of you feel pushed to the edge by your teaching responsibilities? What would help to mitigate these issues?

[1]And those that are not in the instructor’s hands -- decisions based on policies or administrator fiat from above -- would carry their own kind of emotional toll.

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