Teacher Burnout and the Good-Mother Mindset

A One-Room School House

Many teachers feel burdened by the expectations to be a nurturing teacher, a social activist, a creative pedagogue, a worker with a limitless work ethic and to do it all with a smile and boundless energy. When much of your free time is spent on planning, marking, creating for school or thinking about how to improve students’ experience, you can lose a sense of your own life. What teacher hasn’t experienced feeling buried beneath countless worksheets from many classes you teach, the extracurricular activities, the multiple school and district committees to sit on, and having hundreds of students to report on?

I remember thinking many times when I was teaching: “If I were a CEO I would have a team of administrative support staff to assist me. But since I’m a teacher I just feel like I’m in a one-room-school house with no one there but me to do all the work.” But I never considered it to be problematic. It was just what you did. That’s what teaching was. That’s what every teacher I knew, had or worked with did.

When I was considering my leave-options to handle my burnout from teaching, I remember going to the district’s employee program. The counselor there sized me up and said, “You know, I can’t ask how old you are, but from how old you look most women your age would already have had a maternity leave and that would help you feel less stressed.” My jaw unhinged. With that comment I understood for the first time how sexist notions of femininity in teaching and the primacy placed on women being mothering had contributed to my burnout.

I saw how the culture of schooling socialized me to be complicit in my own burnout. Even as a feminist, I was embodying sexist norms that I didn’t agree with. Being self-sacrificing. Putting my own needs last. Being in service to everyone but myself. Ignoring my needs for time and support because someone always needed caretaking. These were all the underlying themes of my stress in teaching. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. How was it possible to become complicit with these sexist norms without realizing it? How had I lost myself, when I thought I was doing myself and my career a service? For how many teachers is burnout-prone behaviour normalized through the unspoken norms of sexist femininity that is embedded in the culture of teaching?

 

The Wounded Roots of In Loco Parentis: When Mothering in Teaching Harms

Although mothering is only one expression of femininity, when working with kids, mothering becomes a feature of the dynamic. Mothers bring life into being. They nurture existence. Ideally mothering would teach love, self-esteem, individuation and communal responsibility to the growing child. It would be a respected role, which respected the woman in it. But historically mothering has been the ground of homeschooling patriarchal values. The role of the good-mother grows out of the norms of sexist femininity.

The ideal of sexist femininity is rooted in the history of teacher development. The earliest influences in the 1800s in North American public schooling came from the social norms of that time. Of course in those days only single women were allowed to teach – so that their full attention could be on their young charges. The single teacher was prohibited from becoming a wife and mother if she wanted to keep her career. In this way the independent woman was deprived of an adult role and relegated to role of the good daughter and patriarchy was not disrupted, only entrenched. This good daughter was encouraged to become a good-mother to her students. In her historical analysis of the feminization of teaching, Madeline Grumet writes: “Catharine Beecher (an early theorist in education) argued for placing educational responsibility in the hands of women, maintain their submissiveness and elevating feminine self-sacrifice, purity and domesticity into moral superiority.” Beecher’s now antiquated argument has impacted the lives of teachers for 200 years. It settled into the culture of teaching and it has never left.

Of course this is 2017. Women have made such social, legal and economic advances we have to ask if this is still relevant today? Grumet thinks it is. She writes, “From those early days of industrialization when the first women took a day at school or summer school session to their majority in the teaching corps today, women teachers have been weighted down by this attribution of passivity and self-abnegation”. You can see the manifestation of this in the 25% burnout rates amongst teachers. Enforced passivity and self-abnegation depletes the self of vitality. To prevent burnout, teachers need to un-school themselves from these ingrained values that shape the expectations, identity, roles and workloads of teachers.

The historical roots of patriarchal femininity expressed as traditional mothering as a model for teacher education shows up in the expectations we have of what makes someone a good teacher. Grumet posited “The education for this cult of motherhood required the mastery of self-denial”. We can see this influence in some of the norms of practice embedded in teaching. These five principles are some unspoken assumptions in what it means to be a good teacher.

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.
  2. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of the teacher.
  3. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching.
  4. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.
  5. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems.

These five aspects of “good teaching” serve a system that requires teachers be complicit in their own stress by dressing up patriarchal norms of femininity and mothering as good teaching practice.

 

Examining “Good” Teaching

  1. Good teachers are caring and caring is expressed as being mothering.

This principle is rooted in the social construction of teacher roles in the 1800s. Grumet write that “This image of the ideal woman and the ideal mother were extended into the training and work of the ideal teacher” and until today has a tight hold on the culture of teaching. This diminishes the professionalism of teachers by over emphasizing their role as natural caretaker over that of professional educator. The concept of in loco parentis legally requires teachers take responsibility to act in the best interests of their charges in the absence of the students’ parents throughout the day. This is good and no one is rejecting that premise. But acting in loco parentis doesn’t mean to take on the emotional and spiritual responsibilities of mothering and parenthood. There are ways of being caring without enmeshing the role of mother with teacher.

  1. Good teachers sacrifice their time and energy for their students to the detriment of their own wellbeing.

This principle follows from the first. The guilt put on teachers to negate their own wellbeing, time management and personal boundaries for the good of their students is symptomatic of the mother-concept in education. The result is often compassion fatigue, a syndrome common amongst the caring professions, particularly female-dominated ones such as nursing, social work and teaching. A healthy ethic of care, in 2017, should move beyond gendered expectation of women bearing the brunt of emotional caretaking. And I’m not forgetting about the men who serve in our schools. In teaching, men’s experience of teaching becomes influenced by notions of patriarchal femininity as well. Regardless of their gender, the emotional labour traditionally placed on the shoulders of women is placed on all teachers.

It’s interesting that there is some research to suggest that male teachers burnout at a faster rate than women teachers. I think this is because women are socialized to shoulder the sexist expectations and demands of emotional labour in society at large, and teaching being a feminized environment women teachers know how to exist within those parameters, even if they disagree with them. Men are not socialized in the same way. Men are socialized to be the recipients of this emotional labour, even if this is not conscious on the part of men. The male teachers I have worked have been as caring, dedicated, and hardworking as any female teacher I know, but I wonder if in feminized environments male teachers experience a cognitive dissonance between their socialization outside of the school and the demands of emotional labour within the school culture. You could say that any person who respects their sanity would be driven to quit teaching, But women are socialized to align with these patriarchal values and are used accommodating this value of servitude. Men are not and I think this might be why men leave teaching for other careers at a higher rate than women. The 19th century mores encouraging “self-abnegation and sacrifice” have no place in 21st century schools. Good teachers can serve their students with integrity without destroying their own wellbeing.

  1. Good teachers teach out of service to students and this takes precedence over their career needs and other motivations for teaching

This principle echoes the mother-ethic. Patriarchy equates femininity with motherhood. It requires mothers to be of service in a way that denies a woman’s personal agency. Denied of agency she cannot advocate for her needs. Her needs are rendered invisible; her only need is to serve her family through mothering. What if teacher-training were designed as if the teacher actually mattered as a person with goals, aspiration, passions and not just a conduit of educational facilitation and emotional-caretaking for students? This invisibility of the teacher is nothing new. In her analysis Frances Maher states that in Dewey’s treatise Democracy and Education “the curriculum and the students are the main concern, not the agency of the person who brings them together”. Maher describes how this historical omission of the visibility of the teacher has led to education courses lacking a space for the inclusion of both the teachers’ and students’ voice, minimizing teacher autonomy, and lacking intellectually stimulating in-service training.

Making teachers’ needs and desires visible is important. If the teacher burns out who will teach? Teachers are the core of education. Their needs cannot be make invisible. They are too important. Unfortunately their personal and professional needs are very often sidelined.

  1. Good teachers are fully responsible for the actions of their students.

This principle shows up when teachers are blamed for all manner of issues within education. Whether it is student behaviour, or test scores or the state of schools, the implicit understanding is often that teacher who has anything go wrong must not be “raising the kids right”, because of course, mothering and teaching so often are conflated. Mothering within patriarchy is an unsupported exercise. Historically relegated to the hearth, the mother figure is cut off from other forms of personal agency and social connection, and when she struggles she is blamed for her inability to cope with the strictures imposed on her. Maher’s feminist analysis blames this patriarchal narrative of the mother-like teacher isolated in her classroom with her kids as reinforcing “the false assumptions of individual teacher blame and responsibility. Teachers need to be supported and respected rather than ignored or solely blamed for the conditions of their work”. When the toxic guilt instilled by this principle is internalized, emotional distress increases. The teacher has influence to be sure, but the sphere of influence on each student is far wider than any one teacher. The many political, systemic and social factors that influence the classroom hold far more power than any one teachers’ resistance to them. You can only take responsibility for what you have control over. To frame your teaching practice on a false assumption of total teacher responsibility is a recipe for frustration.

  1. Good teachers can be effective in any environment and are resilient in the face of any problems

This principle sounds so positive on the surface, but it is an excuse to blame the teacher rather than do the political and systemic work required find effective solutions to the issues facing students, teachers, and schools. And doesn’t that just sound like what a good mother does? In a throwback to 1950s ideas, the good mother takes care of her kids, is always smiling and can handle any crisis without complaint. As Grumet notes, “the cult of maternal nurturance prohibited those who stayed behind the desk from confessing their rage, frustration and disappointment to each other”. This principle denies the teacher an avenue to express dissatisfaction. It shows up when voicing personal struggles with stress is equated with professional incompetency or a lack of dedication and care.

Burnout is still an issue that not many teachers want to openly admit to suffering from. It labels you a teacher who “can’t handle it”, rather than being understood as a natural reaction to a working within a system that has been molded by historical norms and assumptions that are detrimental to a persons’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. To reclaim our wellbeing as teachers we have to stand against the forces that would have us be complicit in our own disempowerment. Teaching is a profession dominated by women. Imagine what could happen if we all stood up and claimed    non-patriarchal femininity as the norm for defining good teaching. Would teacher burnout even exist?

 

Sources

Grumet, M. (1981). Pedagogy for patriarchy: The feminization of teaching.

        Interchange, 12(2-3), 165-184.

Maher, F. A. (1999) Progressive Education and Feminist Pedagogy: Issues in Gender,

Power and Authority. Teachers College Record, 101 (1, Fall), 35-59.