A Quick Fix for English Teacher Burn-Out

By Maria Fachal Corbeira

Just two days ago, I was void. A dark hole inside my mind’s dictionary vomited a festering liquid. It was the sign of serious teacher burn-out.  I was tired of fighting against windmills. To learn or not to learn that was the pressing question. Literary characters naked: Hamlet, and Don Quixote just burn-out teachers with pressing questions that no one bothered to answer.

 According to researchers, an average teacher may ask as many as 400 questions a day.  Do they know the answers for all of them?

  Not knowing the answers is not a sound argument to blame instructors for raising those questions. After all, teachers do learn by teaching.

 Good teachers do ask questions for which they are completely incapable of providing an answer. It is the quest of knowledge that entices them to search for answers, to pack up their stuff and seek consolation in the company of other learners who are as clueless as themselves.

We take leave, we set sail, we follow new paths, we do our best to conquer new places, pristine isles where no one has ever trodden or at least not unscathed. That is one of the Confucian principles; do not pretend to know more than what you actually do, if a disciple asks a question for which you can not offer an answer, do depart with them and by all means try to discover that new land.

 Teaching is rebelling against routine, certainty and status quo. Good teachers question, dare to hesitate, and as they are about to drown in their own ignorance somehow managed to make it up to the surface, thanks to their students’ empathy or even the lack of an audience in front of which they can make a fool of themselves.

 I feel relieved that most of my students do not know how little I know, how much I doubt, how many problems I have no solution for, how much ignorance I have been amassing through decades of experience of teaching.

  Somehow, I manage not to return to square one because once you start teaching there is no turning point. You must thrive in the company of other imperfect souls. Your students may not be as ignorant as you, and they are far better people, more naive, less cynical, less academic…

 They are your drive. You may be foolish, ignorant, incomplete, you may feel naked, devoid of meaning, hurt and broken inside but they look up to you as a model and that teaches you to embest upon yourself that glowing gown of calmness and self-control that may be easily mistaken for rounded knowledge.

 You are what you are because they rely on you for answers. And that keeps you working.

  You grow up as a person because they expect you to be greater than they are, you thrive where they fail because you are the one marking their exams, assessing their work.

 You are a hypocrite and that often hurts… Of all the people in the world, how could YOU  pretend to be in the shoes of a know-it-all? YOU do know it all. You know you tend to misspell words, you have lots of issues remembering punctuation rules, you are so ignorant…  A sparse reference to the classics and you call yourself an English Language Teacher????

 But then, who could avoid feeling burn-out when you are expected to encompass the works of hundreds of millions of speakers?

 If you want a quick-fix, just remember this:

You entered this profession because

YOU strongly believed that there is no other weapon as powerful as language to succeed in life, no other tool as versatile as language skills, they could help you sweet talk your enemies, conquer your beloved ones, land a good job, entice someone to love  you, give you a ticket discount, buy you a drink, get you a lighter punishment.

  Needless to say, and that’s the other side of it, poverty and social exclusion are often linked to a deficient linguistic knowledge. Few things can make you as helpless in life as having poor English skills. You will become the prey of other people’s greed. It will be easier for those who are proficient in English to exploit you. This is of course is applicable to other languages but no other language is as blunt a weapon as English.  When you come into contact with it and you are not ready to counter-attack, it will make your flesh bleed, if will make your face blush.

  It is your responsibility to endow your learners with good English, to pass on that precious knowledge so they can learn how to defend themselves. As a teacher you will be the one offering shelter to cultural-asylum-seekers and linguistic refugees.