The Right Time to Burn A Match

There’s a saying in bike racing that I always find interesting.

“You need to be strategic about where you’re willing to burn a match in a race.”

In race reports, you might read, “I burned a match on that switchback and I couldn’t recover.”

Or if somebody won or did well, they might say, “I burned a match trying to pass a few people and it paid off on the last lap.”

If you’ve ever tried to create a fire from a limited amount of matches, you know you  have to be strategic.

If the wind blows a certain direction, you have to wait until the time is right to strike.

You have to be patient or you burn a match and your effort is all a waste.

I recently had a heart to heart conversation with a person who is in a position to be such leader in all things Open.

And she/he/they is choosing to not take the opportunity. Thanks. But.

No thanks.

The demands are too high. The hours are too long. The work is too thankless. The work removes all possibility of a work/life balance. The work removes all possibility of joy.

Really hard frickin’ work.

And I gotta tell ya, the work takes its toll on people.

Here’s the sentence I can’t stop thinking about. This is the sentence that haunts me:

It’s more work than I can possibly do and still enjoy my life.


I also caught myself saying this week that I love this time of year because I can work 12 hours and still have enough daylight to rip it up on my mountain bike. That’s a crazy fucking statement when you think about it and I’m probably drinking way too much coffee right now. But I digress.

It’s more work than I can possibly do and still enjoy my life.

Wait. I know that tune.

That’s the familiar drum beat on the songs about burning out.



How do you do this work and not burn out? (A Memoir)

How do you do it, I get asked.

Okay. Sure, I say. This. That. I say.

I can’t say for sure that I know what I’m talking about. Ever.

Perhaps I have a few answers because I’ve already lived through two career burnouts. Thus all of what’s hard about the current work I’m doing is still very interesting. Fascinating. Positively engaging. All good problems to have. I’m ya girl.

I could have gone into restaurant management if I hadn’t seen that work as a dead-end. The metrics of success were simple. Boring. The shorter my skirt, the greater my tips.

I could have been a contender. I coulda been somebody in that business.

I could have also become a lifelong adjunct quietly teaching section after section until I died.

I could have been a variety of things if I hadn’t always been obsessed with the idea that there was something more interesting right around the corner. Right around the corner. What I’m involved in now is so interesting there aren’t enough hours in the day.

And as tired as I may feel sometimes, nobody has asked me to clean out the fryer after working a double-shift because the cook is passed out drunk in the walk-in freezer. Good times. Nor am I asked to work a double shift because the person who is suppose to relieve me did too much cocaine last night and is still asleep at the dinner rush. We need you to cover until he gets here, I’d hear. Good times. Nobody has asked me to mop up barf in the bathroom because the bachelorette party of 12 got a little out of hand and I knew what I was doing serving them another round of margaritas (Hell yeah, I did, they drank top shelf margaritas for hours, which meant a higher gratuity for me). I should have cut them off, but I knew they had a stretch limo ready to take them to their hotel. Can’t let that mess sit until the janitor comes in the morning, I’d hear. Here’s the mop, Indrunas. Good times.

As burned out as I may feel, when I work hard, I see the rewards of that work. I also don’t have to figure out how to pay my bills four months out of the year because the organization I work for can’t find the funding for a full-time position for me. Refreshing.




I’m laying it on a little thick. This I know. Career Burnout; It’s What’s For Dinner.

How to avoid burning out your teachers at the start of another school year?

I think the most powerful you can do right now for your staff, your teachers, and yourself is to be upfront about the potential of burnout during your Welcome Weeks. Convocations. Week 0s. Before you start another year, be honest about how hard it all can be.

If we tally up all of the things we are asking teachers to do to be a quality educator, it’s an oppressive list ripe for cultivating burnout.

Let me get this straight. You need to make sure your students have access to a food pantry. Check.

You need to remove as much of the cost of their educational materials as possible. Check.

You need to change everything you do as a teacher to meet every avenue of inclusivity and accessibility. Or you’re a fascist pig. Check.

You need to use at least five digital tools to show innovative practices. And you need to apply for a major grant in less than 20 days to fund all that work. Check. Wait. What?

You need to generate data to support the latest initiative that your local/state government has created to improve teaching and learning. Check.

Oh, and while you’re at, let’s dismantle every woe of late capitalism with a smile on your faces.

Check. And after a long day of teaching and committee work, we need you to attend this campus safety meeting just in case there’s a shooting on campus. Check.




Okay, before you get offended, let me just be clear. I’m exaggerating for the sake of my point. We’re asking for a lot these days. And we’re so outraged when we don’t see what we believe is The Right Solution.

There’s so much to be outraged about right now. So much to be outraged about right now. There’s a lot we can’t control. There’s just a lot.

Personally, I’m tired of being outraged. It’s too easy.

I’m more interested in talking about solutions. I’m more into talking about what’s easy to solve.

What can make a teacher’s life easier? What can help a student learn?

Welcome Week is an opportunity to plant some seeds for the spring. Or for the next year. Or next week. Why ignore the potential of this opportunity? Burn the match and take a few chances with being creative.

Classes start soon and I promised a few of you that I share some ideas, and I’m frankly drowning in things I want/need to do. Who the fuck isn’t? Here goes.

Five Big Questions

Here’s a short reflective activity for faculty who are game for professional learning opportunities. Gather your teachers together and ask them to write short brief thoughts answering the following the questions:

  1. What‘s the best thing you teach your students? In other words, what’s one thing you hope they remember from your class five years from now?
  2. What do you wish you had time to do differently?
  3. What’s the hardest thing to teach your students?
  4. What would you like to learn from your colleagues today?
  5. What would professional learning look like this year if nobody could say no to your ideas? If time and money were no issue, what would you do for your department? 

You can use these questions to facilitate a good discussion about what faculty want for the upcoming year. Focus group style. Create time for a small group activity where you have fun gathering ideas. Just enjoy talking and listening. It’s the start of the school year, man. People are usually happier than they are come February. You can get a lot more from people by talking face-to-face than you can from surveys.

What follows are my greatest hits that I’ve been sharing all week so I thought I’d write them down here. I keep sharing these ideas over and over and over again. Indy, what should I do during this time? What should I do? What would you do?

You might think that talking about the same things would lead to burnout, right? Saying the same things again and again can be a bore. Sure. But you know what? It’s way better than asking if you want wheat, white, or sour dough bread with your sandwich.

Or pretending like you’re the most fascinating man on Earth because I think you’ll leave me a great tip. Good gawd if only I could get those hours of my life back–standing in beer soaked Doc Martens listening to some rich dullard drone on and on. My current gig is The Shit compared to that, y’all. And if I cut buying books from my monthly budget, I can donate a tiny bit to Audrey Watters and WMBC. And I utilize my public library more to free up the money we use to spend on books. What I donate isn’t much, but it’s a tiny bit of generosity that makes me happy. Win. Win. Win.

All I have to do is close my eyes and I can remember a time when I thought I’d be a 50 year old waitress. Good times.

So when I hear people complaining about burning out, it takes every bit of strength to not snark, “You know what’s really fucking hard? Being poor.”

Oh shit. Hold up wait a minute. Let me put some Ranty Indrunas in it. She’s having her way with my blog again without knowing when to STFU. She’s got deep class resentment issues and she’s kind of a saucy unpleasant bitch who I really don’t like too much.

Where was I?

Hot Tips For Welcome Week: WOOT! 

Number One: Count The Students Not The Teachers

When faculty members attend your session, count how many students they teach with your reporting to the Budget Big Dogs. Don’t just list how many faculty are in attendance. Count the students that they teach.

Let’s say you JUST have four faculty members in your session. You loser! For the record, I’ve flown over 2,000 miles to have that happen to me. Good times.

Before you cue up the sad trombone and don that hair shirt, consider that each of those faculty members might teach 125 students per term. Each.

So that’s 500 students with those four faculty. All those students. Or 1500 hundred students a year if you’re on a quarter system. Or 1000 per semester. The return-on-investment with professional development dollars go way up when you calculate it that way. If you want to account for the labor you and your team invested in to create that one hour workshop, it looks a bit more worthwhile if you count the students that you’ll reach.

I can’t use the phrase to “touch students” by the way–I know it’s all the rage, but I hear how successful somebody is by “touching 100 students” and I’m grossed out. “High-Touch/High-Impact” just sounds kind of sick and dirty to me.

Number Two: Keep Everything So Simple. Easy. 

When I have a free minute sometime after the start of classes, I’m going to listen to the keynote recording of Jade E. Davis from the Digital Pedagogy Lab. I dig her work because she blends a pragmatic message about teaching and learning with the real substantive issues of inequality both from the a systemic and personal perspective. She’s got the pulse on how the infrastructure of digital technologies limits the potential of teaching and learning. Her “Frugal Innovation in Digital Literacies rocks my world. Hot damn!

Note her use of “Keep it simple” in the article I’ve linked above. Wisdom!

So what do you do for your faculty to keep it simple? For your workshop? How do you think of small solutions that will have a big impact? If you have one match to burn, what fire do you want to start? 

For instance, if there are thirty things that you think is really cool about Open, just talk about five things. Maybe less than that. Tone that shit down, man, you’re overwhelming people.

That last sentence is advice for myself, by the way.

In fact, I’ve learned from a colleague who teaches math that maybe you just focus on three items. Five things, Indy, are just too much when there are a lot of hard things to learn. Give me three things, he says, I don’t have the attention for five. That’s all I can remember when things are hard. So okay. Yes. Three things. Simple. Just not in this blog post.

Number Three: Start with what faculty want to learn.

It’s super scary to teach teachers. Holy mother of all the gods I don’t believe in. So hard.

They are the best and worst students. Mean. Direct. They are the best because they care about their work. They love learning.

They are also the worst because they multi-task and they talk while you’re talking. They don’t like the vulnerability of appearing like they don’t have all of the answers. They’re used to being the smartest person in the room. They’ll sass you. Put you up against the ropes before you can even make fists for the fight. And they get angry when you waste their time. Gloves off if they do not agree with your version of Open. Your version of teaching. Of learning.

So I recommend starting by asking for their questions. What do you want to learn today?

Just roll with the questions. If you don’t know something, admit it. The best facilitators I’ve seen use this approach. You can establish a clear ethos from the start. People stop checking email and they listen.

The willingness to go off script changes everything sometimes. Or this is the lie that I tell myself most often.

Number Four: Document every damn thing.

Follow-up messaging is really important. Make promises and keep them. Even if what you deliver totally sucks. A Memoir.

In my eLearning Director days, I loved loved loved sending All Faculty emails. I loved sending messages to people that I thought I could help. All Faculty emails! Yes! Clicking submit made so happy.

Yet the only people who would respond were the ones who just wanted to bitch. After six weeks of not hearing anything positive, I stopped writing those emails. I gave up.

I fell into the familiar vast pit of despair I call my self-esteem, and I assumed that nobody read anything that I wrote. That I was wasting my time. That I was biggest loser in the world. That I had nothing to offer anyone. That my words were meaningless.

Then I held a Canvas training on their rubric function and when I walked in the room, several adjuncts asked if I was okay. They looked so concerned. They were crushed that they hadn’t heard from me in weeks. Why had I stopped sending the eCULT emails? The eCULT was eLearning & Canvas Users Learning Together and prolly my best acronym.

They launched into talking about the things that they learned from my emails. They laughed quoting some of my jokes. They talked about how they looked forward to those tips and read every single one of them.

One teacher said, “I like to sit down with a glass of wine after midnight and I learn so much from your emails. It’s awesome to sit down in my home office and learn at the end of my day.”

Two things of note here. 1] The end of her day was after midnight. So file that tidbit under substantiating How Teachers Burnout. 2] And she was digging on asynchronous learning. With wine. So ten thousand rainbows bloomed in the sky for me.

They also told me they didn’t respond to my emails because they knew I was busy. We didn’t want to cloud up your inbox, they said. Meanwhile I responded HOURLY to a few haters about why we left Blackboard for Canvas. FFS.

I learned a valuable lesson that the haters have all the energy in the world to share their outrage but the people you really want to reach respect you, your time, and what you’re doing and they are often too busy to take the time to express gratitude.

Haters thrive on sharing outrage. It’s so easy, but nothing seems to please me–just like Axl Rose told us circa 1987, amirite?

Number five:  Explicitly include your adjuncts.

State directly “Adjuncts are encouraged to attend.” For every event on your campus. And don’t remind them that they won’t be paid for attending the event. They know. It’s insulting.

Better still offer the same training/professional development online. Asynchronously, you radical. Or hold online office hours. You can work while you’re waiting to hear from somebody. Be consistent with those hours and be patient.

Are you skilled enough to virtually connect people with face-to-face folks? Check out what Virtually Connecting does--you could easily adopt that model if you’re confident with the technology. Their on-site/remote buddy model is one of the strongest examples of online hospitality that’s adjunct-friendly that I’ve seen. I just wish I had more time to participate in what they are doing. Maybe you do. Maybe someday for me.

If you’re not up to that style of facilitating, that’s okay. It takes does take some practice to run it all smoothly. But why not jump in? What the hell? Nobody needs to know it’s your first time.

And honestly, if everything goes off the rails, have a real honest to goodness heart-to-heart with the people in your workshop. At the point where everything is falling a part. Pivot to these three questions and pretend like it was part of the plan the whole time.

Have them fill in the blanks for the statements below:

1. What scares me the most about teaching with technology is__________.

2. This year I would like to try _________.

3. When I was an undergraduate, my favorite teacher helped me understand_______.

Listen. Write things down. Look everyone in the eye and quote James Baldwin from The Fire Next Time.

Because there are no easy answers to any of this work.

Tell it, James:

The impossible is the least that one can demand.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Right Time to Burn A Match

  1. susienorton says:

    What a fantastic piece of satirical personal reflection. I wish I could have my HS students analyze it. Or maybe I can? Hmmm. Burnout is real. We need to fight it, but also prepare for it. What’s Plan B? C? Sticking around with no matches left is the worst scenario for everyone.


    • Thanks for commenting, Susie! I’d be honored in your high school students read this, but I also acknowledge that there are some F bombs and other more adult-level burnout tales. I could remove those and remix this if it would help your students. Let me know–in a parallel universe I’m a high school English teacher. I’m a big fan of HS teachers:)


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