Shameful workaholic

This weekend I became one of the newest members of the “omicron club”. My symptoms were almost indistinguishable from my allergic reactions to the cedar and juniper that sometimes tortures me down here in south Texas. But I’m home from work for the next few days because of CDC protocols and probable contagiousness. On the one hand, I’m glad that I’m not spreading this virus to anyone today. I know there are people out there who may be hit harder by it than I’m experiencing. On the other hand, I feel guilty for being home and that seems wrong. I feel guilty for feeling guilty. In my mind, I can justify being home from work only if I’m feeling not just sick but sick enough to prevent me from teaching my classes. This isn’t right.

In part, there’s a more honorable, if not prideful, rationale: I’m confident in my teaching and I believe that when I miss a class, my students lose an opportunity to learn and think with me. It’s a little arrogant, admittedly. But I do think of myself as being good at my job. That said, students miss all the time—for sickness, for team sports, because they’re exhausted. So, it’s not like a day without me teaching them is something that’s completely disruptive to their learning experience. In fact, if I’m honest, while I must believe that my teaching has a real impact on their lives over the course of a semester or a year, a few days means almost nothing.

So, if I know this, why do I feel guilty? Why am I home thinking thoughts like, “My symptoms should be worse to justify being home from work”? I think I’m a workaholic. It seems that the “Protestant Work Ethic,” or whatever we call our enculturation and indoctrination into capitalism, is something I can’t shake. And it reveals to me that ideas around “purpose” are buried deep in my psyche, determining my self-worth, and preventing me from enjoying rest and leisure, even when my body needs it (just because Covid doesn’t feel terrible doesn’t mean my body doesn’t need rest when dealing with it).

I’m better at rejecting this mindset when it comes to my students. When I’ve had students out because they’re sick (whether Covid or something else), I exempt them from the classwork/homework that would’ve been due. I know that some of my colleagues don’t do this and sometimes it may be justifiable. For example, if you miss a few days of advanced mathematics, your deficit may begin to snowball as you fall behind the pace of the rest of the class. But religious studies isn’t advanced mathematics (or learning another language like Latin or Spanish). In fact, religious studies is one of those fields where teachers like myself must consistently resist the efforts of administrators, parents, college admissions offices, etc., to quantify what we teach. As Johannes A. Niederhauser says in his YouTube Short about teaching philosophy:

Instead, we must provide students with a map that helps them discover new and fresh ideas. We teach them “how to think” more than “what to think”. We teach them how to “travel” with their minds rather than where they “must go” with them. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a syllabus, or lessons, etc. My classes are quite detailed. Sometimes, I estimate down to how many minutes a given part of a lesson should take. (Though if we go somewhere offroad, and the discussion is fruitful, the outline must be abandoned, even if temporarily.) But that’s not the same thing as saying “Students must learn A, B, C, and D to have really learned!” And because there are many things students can learn—some that I might have anticipated; others that I didn’t—I can be flexible with them when it comes to helping them find a life-school balance. I can try to teach them the very important lesson that they’re not their work or their “doings” or their vocational “purpose”.

That said, I don’t know that I’ve taught this to myself. As teachers, we must learn to care about our health as much as we try to care about our students. We must model self-care; we must model work-life balance. So, while I have no say in the manner, I’ll do my best to not fret about being quarantined at home. I won’t spend all my time trying to get ahead on grading or lesson planning. Maybe I’ll go sit in the sun and read a book. Maybe I’ll take a couple naps. Because what I need to learn is what I try to teach my students when I tell them “don’t worry about this week’s assignments; get some rest and we’ll see you soon”.


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