Burnout: Attitudes are contagious. Mine might kill you.

This quarter marks two years of teaching full-time, and a total of 6 years intermittently teaching part-time. This translates to a total of 6 different courses taught to a total of nearly 40 sections of students.

I strive to be a fun, yet intelligent, instructor who relates well to Generation Y’ers (although I’m also happy to work with many non-traditional students). The kind of instructor that students are comfortable to approach, yet know better than to fuck with. Sorry, I’m fresh out of sugar coating today.

In fact, I’ve been short on sugar coating nearly all quarter. It started like all quarters. Fresh, new, exciting, and organized. And then it quickly turned into a patience, or perhaps a tolerance, contest. How much bullshit can Christina tolerate this week? The answer to that question decreased exponentially with each week.

As a young, female instructor who also has blonde hair and a generally cheerful disposition, I’m continually conscious of my professional demeanor. The last thing I want to be perceived as is (a) dumb, (b) under qualified, (c) the instructor who tries to be friends with her students rather than a teacher/leader, or (d) a bitch. This, coupled with the knowledge that a woman can in fact be credible yet personable, influences my professional conduct.

Along the way I’ve learned not to become too upset about some things. You want to make a scene about your exam score in front of the entire class to see what I do? Fine, see if I care. I dare you to make me sweat. Little do they know that, just yesterday, in fact, my husband commented on my “nerves of steal”. It’s not an indifference to students, because I really care. I’m a care bear. But it’s simply a mindset that enables me to get through extremely long days often comprised of one too many snide, rude, or completely unethical students. If I got upset every time a student, for example, text messaged and read a magazine throughout a trembling freshman’s final speech (as if the speaker *doesn’t* see an arrogant asshole in the audience who is communicating that their speech is boring), I would give myself a coronary. It’s much easier to remind that student of the attendance policy, reiterate that they are providing a disconfirming message to the speaker, and remove their name from that day’s attendance sheet. In reality, I would actually prefer to text message and read a magazine during *their* final speech. But someone has to grade it.

Because I look kind and nurturing before even opening my mouth, apparently students expect me to excuse all late work. And they would like me to pass out “A”s on a silver platter. Because I’m “just a dumb blonde” and can’t possibly help them improve as a writer. So when I firmly, yet gently, note the consequences for various decisions they’ve made, their jaws completely drop. “Oh my god. I can’t believe she said that. She must be PMSing. What a bitch. Who does she think she is?” Again, there’s no power trip. There is, however, an expectation of university professors. Murphy’s Law clearly explains that if you let a student earn an A on an assignment after turning it in, for no good reason, days late, they will conveniently report this wonderful news to their friend as they pass by the Chair’s office, or the office of a well respected senior colleague.

But back to the persona. I try very hard to show students how much I care about them. The burned out professor is a common image within academia. It’s quite obvious when someone is done. Out to lunch. Fed up. And their world quickly becomes very dark. Suddenly all students are adversaries. They can do NO right. Ever. This guise is not only heartbreaking, but it is frustrating. It starts to poison the classroom and changes students. Just as it’s hard to get over a romantic partner who has broken your heart or mistreated you, it is equally difficult to get over a bad professor.

In past quarters I’ve thought back to a “Teacher Burnout” scale (Richmond, Wrench & Gorham, 2001) that measures your level of exhaustion. But this quarter’s experiences, which quickly depleted my supply of sugarcoating, prompted me to actually complete the inventory.


After completing the measure I’m happy to report that (a) I was only mildly burned out, or (b) the scale does not adequately measure burnout.


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