Right now, classroom educators are in the midst of lesson plans and unit designs and classroom set-ups and photocopies and tech-checks and parent contacts and teaching skills and content and so on. All of that’s a lot of work, right?
Teaching, at least for me, can be difficult to manage sometimes.
But in my opinion, all of this work need not necessarily drag me into demoralization or burnout, sending me into an overwhelmed, crushed-up state. Even when the tasks on my to-do list start to pile up, I’ve found that when I consistently implement constraint-based measures like setting myself a strict work schedule, saying "no" more often, and simplifying things that I tend to over-complicate, the workload can become manageable.
Unless… unless… I’m not careful to keep my work from being about me and my sense of self-worth—my identity.
This is what I often refer to as “the work beneath the work.” This extra layer of work takes place when we use our jobs—the work I described above—as a means to prove ourselves… make sure our lives matter… cause people to respect us… become irreplaceable heroes for our students.
For example, I did all sorts of outlandish and positive things early on in my career. I took students on weekly mentoring trips; I made stand-on-my-desk speeches; I prided myself on being the first car in the parking lot and the last to leave. But over time, as I was coming to God day after day with how overwhelmed and stressed I was, I started to realize that I was relying on my job to give me my sense of identity.
Through prayer, God revealed to me that beneath all of my labor, I was trying to:
- Validate my career choice
- Measure up to the teachers from Freedom Writers and The Ron Clark Story
- Win awards and recognition
- Make sure my students admire and rely on me
And do you know what? All of that work—that work beneath the work—turned out to be soul-twisting slavery. All of it was 100% about me. It wasn’t me mimicking the Son of Man who came to serve not to be served (Mark 10:45); it was me trying to wrestle the beautifully service-oriented work of teaching into becoming my own personal shrine.
Teaching—the real work—is wholly others-centered. This work solely focuses on our students.
The teachers who flourish for the duration don’t waste time and energy on the exhausting, soul-twisting work beneath the work. These teachers—who derive their sense of self from God rather than their job—continually bring themselves back to the real work of teaching.
Thank you to New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz and author/thinker Tim Keller, both of whom treat these ideas in their work. It was from Tim Keller that I first heard the phrase “the work beneath the work.”
Dave Stuart Jr. is a husband and dad who teaches high school students in a small town. He writes about teaching students toward long-term flourishing at DaveStuartJr.com.
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