Category Archives: Burnout

It’s Hard to Teach When Gollum’s in Your Class

It’s hard to teach when Gollum’s in your class.
He’s not the ideal student by any stretch,
but he’ll blame you if he doesn’t pass.

He’s very disruptive, all that muttering “my precious”
and small group work with him is just a bitch.
It’s hard to teach when Gollum’s in your class

because even saying Sméagol when you take attendance,
even smiling when you really want to screech,
you can be sure that he’ll blame you if he doesn’t pass.

He misses class a lot. Just vanishes.
Then swears he was too there. It’s hard to teach
the earnest students when Gollum’s in your class,

but you owe it to the ones who are not treacherous,
the step by by step by steps, the clear approach.
That rat-like monkey will blame you if he doesn’t pass,

but don’t dumb things down. Just do your best.
Backwards design might save you in a hitch.
It’s hard to teach if Gollum’s in your class,
but don’t blame yourself if he shall not pass.



If fish were learning outcomes, Gollum would get an A+.

If fish were learning outcomes, Gollum would get an A+.

(photo by Larry and Linda on Flickr, Creative Commons)

(OH that last line–“He shall not pass” sounds so foreordained and the teacher in me keeps hoping, hoping that Gollum will pull it together and squeak out a decent grade. But how can I not play on “shall not pass?” Decisions, decisions…)

Creative People Say Yes (Sometimes)

I once came upon my cousin Reid practicing different ways to say “no.” He was 3 or 4 at the time. “No, I couldn’t possibly,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

He was onto something, that little ‘un. At least in my family, saying no takes practice.

Saying no? I’m big on it. Sometimes I’m even good at it. I certainly like the IDEA of saying no.

I’ve written about a fair number of times:
“How do I do that? How do I become the sort of person who says no to things?”

Clitter-Clatter Clutter Time , which references two terrific posts by my favorite tattooed Lutheran blogger, Nadia Bolz Weber, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying No,” and its companion piece, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying Yes!”

The Sarcastic Lutheran says, “The people who are inclined to say yes to everything do all the work and then burn out and become resentful about the people who are inclined to say no to everything. It’s as though the world is divided into martyrs and slackers.”

I don’t make a very good martyr or slacker, either one, not for very long.

I worked enough 50+ hours this spring semester, I worry my slacker credentials are in danger of not being renewed.

Busy as I’ve been, I’m nowhere close to martyrdom. I have some regrets, but I don’t regret all of the times I said yes. (Or came up with something to do that no one even asked me to do.)

Recent things that added to my to do list that I am particularly happy to locate in the land of “yes!”:

  • In addition to volunteering in my son’s classroom at the River Valley Elementary Studio School a couple hours a week, presenting a lesson on storytelling, with a way of talking about narrative arc that was a big hit.
  • Leading the Westby Co-Op Credit Union Board of Directors and branch managers in creativity exercises.
  • Serving as a (paid) reader for writing sample/placement tests for incoming UW-R students, and as a local developmental writing coordinator (unpaid).

In general, I am unrealistic about how the number of things I try to get done will fit into the number of available hours, and I don’t necessarily do things in the right order (which sometimes does and sometimes does not qualify as procrastination).

Thus, some of my commitments (such as returning student work promptly) suffered this spring, and probably, saying “yes” to new stuff impacted the ongoing stuff.

In general, I need to parse, pare, and prune my To Do list.

So, in one way, I totally get Kevin Ashton’s “Creative People Say No.”

He is right that “We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.”

And he is right that “Time is the raw material of creation.”

Time is a precious resource. It must be guarded. I get it.

But wow did that blog post bug me.

(more on page 2!)

Something Beyond Cynicism

On the other side of burnout
there is rest, there is a place
where even my incompetence
has a bucket it fits into.

As I compost all my bitterness,
my misplaced hopefulness,
my misspent hours,
I watch the steam

rise up from what’s rotten.

A wisp of a moist gray ghost,
a sign of moving on,
a sweet portent

there and gone.

What’s done
is done.

After Fools Day

I’m a bigger fool than I can say.
I’m so sorely, wretchedly exhausted
I almost need another holiday

to celebrate my foolishness, my way
of stopping just when I’ve gotten started.
I’m a bigger fool than I can say,

but that won’t stop me trying every day
to pin down my soul, to parse it.
I already need another holiday

and we’re not that far past spring break.
Adrenaline drove that car and crashed it.
I’m a bigger fool than I can say.

Calling myself a fool is such canker,
the Bible says not to even say it.
I totally need another holiday,

and although it’s foolish to pray
for time off, I can’t stop doing it.
I’m a bigger fool than even I can say
repeatedly, next time I get a holiday.


I told my son this morning that I had an idea for a new holiday–“After Fools Day,” where you say something that’s true, but follow it up with “After Fools Day!” and thus make people wonder if it is true. He was quiet for a moment then said, “Mama I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”

I told him that was o.k. That one of my greatest joys in life was coming up with new ideas, and I had so many, I didn’t worry if most of them crashed and burned. And then my day pretty much crashed and burned. But as days do, this one is ending. Whew.

red shoes make any day better

red shoes make any day better

Prayer for Midterm: Holy Saturday

I try to assure my son that Easter always comes
(he’s worried they’ll cancel it because of snow),
but honestly, I have my doubts this time.
There’s still so much iron-ice that just won’t go

away. So gray. The only bright spot is the rain.
Officially not winter. Officially no drought.
Still can’t lift my mood this Holy Saturday,
shivering in my little cave of time, bound

tight by my to do list, behind in everything.
So many of my students have the same
time-panic in their eyes. What we need
is grace and strength and energy, not time.

Just faith that we could ever get caught up
would feel like Easter. A miracle, momentum.


My son with a peace lantern. Because it was summer. And it's peace.

My son with a peace lantern. Because it was summer. And it’s peace.

(Image of my son taken by my husband, nath, who can be found online at Nightjar Records.)

“How do I do that? How do I become a person who says no to things?”

(If you’re keeping score at home, this is also “How to Get the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part V”)

Here’s one of my favorite drums to pound:

You can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

(You have to be on salary for the math to work.)

How? Here’s how to do less:

10. Take people at their word. Take them up on their offers. For example, when I get an email from someone who says, “Would you like to do X, or do you need me to do it?” I mostly say, “That would be great if you would do it! Thanks!” Because what are the possibilities there?

a. It was a passive-aggressive way of asking me to do it.

b. It was a genuine offer to do X.

c. It was a way to try to shame me into doing it, hoping I wouldn’t admit to “needing” anything.

So, for a. my response is that I might sometimes accede to passive-aggressive bullshit without realizing what I’m doing, but when I see it, I like to mess with it, and play dumb, and pretend like I’m dealing with someone who says what they mean. (Because they totally should say what they mean, or at least stop talking to me.)

For b., my response is THANKS! Then I try to make the offer back  when I can. (I’m not a selfish jerk. I’m just trying to stay relatively sane.)

For c., I would, if I were forced to name names, say call 1-800-Shame Resilience and ask to talk to Brené Brown. She’ll give you the what-for. And I have many, many needs about which I have so little shame that I’m happy to let someone else feel needed.

My need to admit I have needs and someone else’s need to feel needed = pie and ice cream.

This is how great it feels to be needed.

This is how great it feels to be needed.

9. Ask for help. Don’t even wait for someone drive their passive-aggressive sedan by you so slowly that it’s easy-peasy for you to grab the bumper and ride your skateboard along in their fumes for a while. Just ask for help.  You’re a good person. You’re helpful. When someone who isn’t ALWAYS asking for  help asks you for help, do you think that person is horrible?  (Don’t tell me if you do.)
8. Pretend you’re someone you’re not. Would the Mansplainer say yes to everything asked of him? He would not. If you were a rock star, would your personal assistant field this request to you? He would not.
7. Wait to say yes. Lots of people have talked about this, so I won’t say much. But it’s pure gold in terms of effectiveness. It’s hard to say no in the moment of social pressure ACK ACK ONE OF THOSE BAD DREAMS WHERE I CAN’T SPEAK, but it’s way easier half a day later to email and say, “I’m sorry. I just looked at my to do list and my calendar and I just can’t.”

6. Don’t LIE and say you looked at your to do list and your calendar. Actually do it. And try to make it a really accurate to do list and a calendar on which you’ve sketched out when you’re going to do what’s on the list. (Please allow me once again to recommend Things and “Sunday Meeting” by Kerry Rock-My-World.)

5.Stop thinking up new things to do that no one even asked you to come up with.

4. Don’t wait until your wicked-burnout ways land you in a health or relationship crisis (they will, eventually). Get that calendar back out and imagine you’ve been warned that approximately two weeks from now, there will be a one to two-day crisis that you absolutely have to deal with.

Or, if that feels icky, imagine that the grandmother of a former student wants to give your campus a check for $100,000 dollars and because that student spoke so fondly of you, you have to accept the check in person. Two weeks from now. It will take two days.

What would you do? Cancel some stuff? Ask people to cover for you? Reschedule some stuff? Imagine blocking out two whole days. Make a plan.

Then follow through.  Or, if that feels too indulgent, do it for one day. Or an hour.

If you really can’t do it just for yourself, to get caught up, or catch a movie, or take a nap, or work on your favorite part of your job that you never get to work on, or go on a date, or WHATEVER, then schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional and use sick leave. That is what sick leave is for. It is for when you have a health problem. If you can’t make time for what is important, you have a problem.

3. Find that one thing on your to do list that you haven’t done yet, that you don’t want to do, that you keep putting off, for whatever reason. Cross it off your list. If someone else needs to know you’re done with it, email them and say, “I’m so sorry, but I said yes to too many things this semester/month/week/year/time on the planet. I am not going to do this. I am very, very sorry.”

This is not the BEST way to be a people pleaser, but you know what? Ms. People wasn’t pleased at how long it was taking you to do whatever. At least now Ms. People can make other plans.

And even though it wasn’t taking up your time because you weren’t doing it, it was taking up a lot of psychological energy hanging around on your to do list. Kind of like that creepy guy that kept asking you what kind of batteries he should buy with his special massage implement when you worked at Spencer’s Gifts.

2. Check in with people who know you & will tell you the truth (their truth, anyway) who can fulfill these roles (these might or might not be people you actually work with, and these may be the only useful roles the fun house mirrors play in your life):

MIRROR: person who sees things pretty much as you see them in terms of philosophy, values, work-life balance, who respects you and cares for you. Ask the MIRROR person: am I working too much? am I working enough? Jussssssssst right? Make adjustments as needed, in consultation with that person.

FUN HOUSE MIRROR SKINNY WORKAHOLIC VERSION: ask someone who lives to work and works to live the same questions. If that person EVER, EVER, EVER says something along the lines of “You’re working an awful lot lately,” you know it’s crisis time (see #4 above).

(Don’t wait for that person to say “You’re working too much.” They don’t believe that is possible.)

FUN HOUSE MIRROR LOVE-HANDLED BELUSHI-BOY: if you say to this terrific guy, who’s probably wearing a Hawaiian shirt & shorts with 700 pockets, “hey, am I working enough?” and he says, “No, you’ve been super mellow and ready to play pool a lot lately” go back and double-check with your MIRROR and then make a plan if you need to. Could be you’re making time for a precious friend or it could be you got TOO GOOD at setting boundaries. Don’t worry if that happened, because

Here’s what there will always be plenty of: people asking you to do stuff. You will never lack for opportunities to do a little back-fill if you realize you were slacking. Which you probably weren’t.

1. Do whatever you can to be the kind of person who operates from a base of worth and plenty rather than inadequacy and scarcity.

I still struggle with this, but I’m trying to listen less to the voice in me that wants everyone to like me all the time, especially the people I don’t like. I’m trying to listen more to the voice that says I am enough, and that I get to be picky about who rides on the bus with me. People who bring me down can’t get on my bus. Or they at least can’t sit in the back where we’re singing “One Tin Soldier.”

This isn’t possible for all of us, I know, at least maybe not now, not this year, not this week, not with this boss, not in this job, not in this economy–I get it. I feel it. I feel gobsmacked by it sometimes. But when and where it’s possible, we need to listen to Nancy Reagan’s quavery, moneyed, seat-of-power voice:


Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part IV

Part of healing from burnout is learning to set boundaries. Making time for what’s important (yourself. family. friends. fun. community. yourself again) other than your work.

Easier said than done. Really easily said. “Set boundaries.” Unless you have a cute little hint of a lisp the way John F. Kennedy, Jr. had. Then it’s a little harder to say.

Pretty hard to do.

But those of us who’ve emerged from the Pretty Good Depression still employed find ourselves picking up the slack left behind when people were laid off, or  not replaced, or carrying a heavier load in terms of student enrollment, juggling new initiatives, etc. etc.

It is just so easy to do too much for too long and end up having your soul scrape up against your to do list like bone-on-bone-bad arthritis.

In the long run, as I mentioned to my boss’s boss’s boss last Valentine’s Day (ahem), a system that is structured to rely on people burning themselves out LIKE OURS is not sustainable. (It also doesn’t get the best work out of people, even in the relative short-run–but that’s the subject of yet another blog yet to be written. Stay tuned.)

For me, the urge  to work too much (and the actuality of working too much and the guilt of perhaps not working enough) mixes with my long-term tendencies toward depression and anxiety into a toxic burnout brew that makes me less of everything I want to be (loving, enthusiastic, effective) and more of everything I’d rather not be (chronically irritated, cynical, spastically ineffective).

I’m still learning, but I’m making progress.

If you click on “burnout” in my blog categories, you’ll see it’s something I write about a lot. (cf: fixate upon.)

In Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Parts I, II, and III,

I acknowledge:

It is all too easy to come across as whining, and something like “I had to spend an hour on the phone getting my insurance coverage worked out today” can come across as ingratitude, a classic First World Problem….it is a luxury to consider what changes we could make to improve our lot. But you know what? A lot of us in academia do have that luxury, especially those of us with tenure.

I assert:

You can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

I celebrate myself, I sing myself:

I don’t work too hard. I work hard enough.

Here’s how good I am at setting boundaries.  I got folks pounding on one of the walls I built hollering at me  like they’re possessed by the spirit of Chico Marx: “You no work enough.”

Here’s the contested boundary of the month:

In response to Scott Walker’s 2011 budget bombs (which resulted in less take home pay for my family), I looked around to find ways to save money. We love Culver’s just as much as we always did, but we don’t go as much as we used to. INSERT LOTS AND LOTS OF OTHER EXAMPLES OF BUDGET TRIMMING HERE. And then, to save money on gas, I started working from Spring Green some Tuesdays (my teaching schedule is MWF). That enabled me to volunteer in my son’s classroom now and then. That turned into a regular gig. That turned into a commitment. Which turned into a column in the Voice of the River Valley.

I do a lot of work on Tuesdays, and I check email a lot during the day. I’m considering setting up virtual office hours to make sure students and advisees remember that I am available on Tuesdays, just not in person in my office on my campus. And as I mentioned in one of the three prior posts in this series, I average more than 40 hours a week during the 9-month contract. Since I try to take a week off between semesters, and two days off at Thanksgiving, and two or three days off during spring break, and maybe Labor Day if I’ve got my course syllabi ready, that means I typically average 45 hours during an actual teaching week.  (I don’t count how many hours I work in the summer, but it probably averages to about 20. )

I don’t see why it’s anyone’s beeswax, if I’m accessible to students, if I’m doing my job well (I have official recognition of that), and if I’m doing my share for service (and I do), WHY it matters how many of those hours are in my office or on campus or in my kitchen or at a coffee shop or wherever.

But there are people for whom dedication to campus life is measured in hours worked (more hours = more dedication) and hours on campus (more = more). I don’t agree. I hope the issue goes away. If it doesn’t–well, gracious. You won’t like me when I’m angry.

Take this one boundary skirmish as a warning, all ye who dare to dream of  work life balance. Sometimes when you set a boundary, you have to defend it. But a lot of times, people don’t even notice.

If you’re brave enough, if you’re tired enough, if you’re burned out enough, tune in next time when I share my Top List of Ways to Work Less. (Remember: if you’re on salary, you can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.  The hilarious irony is that the quality of your work will actually go up, and in some cases, the quantity too–because you have more energy to focus on the things you’re still doing. Shh. Don’t tell.)

Meanwhile, Joshua blew the trumpet at Jericho and the walls came a-tumblin down.

This is what a system structured on burnout looks like. Eventually.

This is what a system structured on burnout looks like. Eventually.


(photo from flickr, Creative Commons, by Babak Farrokhi, entitled “Office Under Construction.” So it’s not really about sustainable systems OR Jericho.)