On emotional exhaustion

This morning I was rushing to work. Nothing new there; I get up at 7am to make my 9:30 class, but between the dog-walking and the breakfast and lunch-making and the email-answering and the showering and dressing (if I’m lucky!), it’s usually 8:50 before I’m out of the house. This morning it was 8:55: cue the panic.

I had to stop at the bank machine to grab some cash en route to campus. This morning there was a man ahead of me – he was a bit older, looked somewhat confused, and was carrying two plastic bags filled with sundries and paper bills. I noted that he hadn’t yet put a card into the ATM machine.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I’m in an enormous hurry. Would it be ok if I went first? I won’t be long.”

He was reticent to start, but then became gracious.

“Just be sure to do something nice for someone else” he said as we traded places.

“Of course!” I replied.

But, as I left the bank and jumped back into the car, I thought to myself: when? When in my incredibly busy day of catering to other human beings’ needs will I find the time to “do something nice” for someone? Isn’t that my job, more or less, all the time? In fact, I was so moved by the (grudging) kindness of this old, disheveled man toward me that I was practically tearing up as it was. It felt ages since someone had stepped out of their way to give me a helping hand. Mostly, I do the stepping, the helping, the hand-extending.


It’s mid-October: brisk air; swirling, coloured leaves. Here in Canada Thanksgiving is over and Halloween is a week away. The geese are running wild in the streets. (No, really.) The snow has already flown. On campus, that of course means homecoming is behind us, midterms are here, and study break can’t come soon enough. The students look like zombies. Everyone is sick – my inbox is littered Tuesday mornings with tales of coughs, flus, reasons aplenty not to come to class. They trade their germs with us; my colleagues cough and wheeze up and down the hall.

It’s also the time of year when class numbers start to dwindle. Students make the calculus: whose lesson do I skip to finish the assignment for Professor X? They may know, or may have forgotten, the penalty for skipping mine. They probably make their decisions based on whose absence penalties are most punitive.

This morning, when I finally made it to my classroom (after a major parking headache, with four minutes to spare!), I faced a mere 65% of the group. I won’t lie: my heart sank. After all, I’d put heart and soul into the prep, and I was prepared to give all the energy I had to the room even though I was sweaty and slightly out of breath. I’m not sure the students could have cared any less; their faces looked, well, like they were zombies. (NB to all university timetable-keepers: for students, 9:30am is the new 6:30am.)

Now, I’d like to stop here and say that I don’t intend this post to be a rant about typical undergraduate student thoughtlessness; I wasn’t an undergrad *so very* long ago, and I know I made some stupid, thoughtless choices at the time that I wish I could take back. (Entschuldigung, Dr Langhorst!) But the combination of events at work this morning – the familiar, draining rush; the man in the ATM vestibule; the manic arrival in class; the lack of students, and those in attendance sporting their weary masks of “it’s too early!!” – made me realise, once again and as though for the first time, how incredibly emotionally draining my job as a teacher is.

To be a teacher in any capacity means that you need to be prepared to give a great deal more than you get. Those of us who do this work all know this on some level, but we rarely vocalise it; instead, I suspect, we live with the struggle of coping with an emotional deficit most days. I go to class and try my very best to give my students the most energetic and passionate experience of my research that I can; good teachers are “passionate”, after all. What the brochure doesn’t tell you: that students tend to lack similar levels of passion for the thing that ignites you. That your passion is not in a 1:1 relationship to their potential passion. And that the return on your passion-investment is often pretty poor: one or two truly excited students per semester, after maybe 40 contact hours (not counting prep, office, other…) of you doing the very best song and dance you can. I’m not denying this is a valuable outcome – of course it is; I’m just saying that it’s not a very efficient one. Forty hours of hard work for one or two lives touched is wonderful. But it also means our emotional engines run hot, run out; and we often run dry.


(Only Eadweard Muybridge understands my pain.)

By the middle of any term (aka, about now), I usual start getting regular visits to my office hours from students in some need. Anxiety and depression are big ones; panic over deadlines and apparent confusion over the assignments I’ve painstakingly laid out in detail in the syllabus are two others. Basically, students come to my office hours to express to me their emotional struggles with the pressures of school, of getting older, of coping on their own, of peering into an uncertain future. I smile, I look concerned, I nod, I try to help them problem solve as best I can. I feel for them – really I do. I remember being in their shoes. And I often eat my lunch while they are talking, because there is literally no other time for me to eat it.

So, by the time I get home most nights mid-semester I’ve got honestly nothing left. Still, many evenings I hunker down to work: as I’ve spent so much of my teaching day meeting with students or colleagues, I usually need the extra time to catch up on administration or a bit of writing. On research days, too, the demanding emails roll in while I’m trying to write – and then they need somehow to be addressed, or at least triaged, before the next set arrive with the new day. I realised this past weekend that I’m working at least a 60-hour week right now, not counting home chores. If I have an hour a day to myself that’s a good outcome; I watch TV rarely, though I miss it a lot, and I wish I had time to read more for fun.

drained (10-11)

I don’t want this to seem like I’m complaining about my job. I am so lucky to have a well paid, salaried, tenured, flexible position in a well respected and highly ranked Canadian research university. I just wish my students, and maybe also the world around them, could appreciate better the sheer amount of emotional labour required by me and my colleagues every day, in addition to the intellectual and administrative work that defines our jobs on paper. And I really wish my colleagues and I could talk more openly about this stuff amongst ourselves. I know I, who have so few emotionally strengthening resources to draw on at home, would welcome such a conversation with open arms.


3 thoughts on “On emotional exhaustion

  1. Hi Kim, what an eye opener your article, and what a stress job it is for you, I did not know that you are in such demand at same. Plus there is also your Mum to think of at the same time, and your Dad as well. There is not to much time to think about yourself or the chees farm you where going to have at one point witch was your dream after all at one point. As always I feel and thin of you often, Love Marlene.💞💞💞

  2. What a wonderful post! Not sure how I happened upon your blog, but I am a middle school French teacher in Toronto, and your post some dub my exact emotions for today.
    I love the imagery you used to explain the emotional deficit that all teachers, of every level, experience.

    Two lives touched is not a very efficient system, but I see the same thing in all of the social structures of our society. You were one of the many people who will educate and influence your students, and each of them will go on to contribute to some other societal structure. Whole lives working towards shaping our society slowly. So slowly. I am coming to realize that I cannot be THE changing factor in my students’ lives, but I can be a factor in their lives, and they will be a factor in our society. Keep going! And take care of yourself!

    • Words of wisdom, Angela! Thank you so much for reading, and commenting. I agree: being one factor amongst many in promoting positive social change is, indeed, an achievement worth celebrating. You take care too! Courage!

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