Making Caring Professions Sustainable with Dena Simmons | Crooked Media
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July 26, 2023
Work Appropriate
Making Caring Professions Sustainable with Dena Simmons

In This Episode

What do you do when your job is burning you out, but you can’t really *care less* about it? When children need teachers and vulnerable populations need social workers and hospitals need nurses– how can you walk away? Dena Simmons, founder of LiberatED, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer listeners’ questions about how to make caring professions more sustainable.

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen. And this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] So more than a decade ago, I was working at a hippie little boarding school in Vermont. This place was amazing and I absolutely loved teaching there. But in addition to teaching six days a week, we taught in the morning on Saturdays. New teachers also had to live in dorms and dedicated two nights a week, plus every other weekend to dorm duty. If you’ve ever hung out with teenagers, you know this is a lot. After my first few months, I realized something. They’re in their first, second, maybe third year. Or they’d been there for a decade or two. [laughs] Gradually, it became clear that teachers took two routes. They burned themselves out and left. Or they figured out how to operate at a sustainable pace. That meant not dedicating all your waking hours to lesson planning and grading and meeting with students, but it also meant setting firmer boundaries around your general availability. I ended up leaving before I burnt out entirely when I got a job offer I couldn’t refuse. But that lesson has stuck with me. Sometimes you have to do less. Even in a passion job that you love in order to keep doing the work that matters, matters to you, but also matters to all the people whose lives your work touches. So this episode is all about how to, quote unquote, “care less about your passion job.” But it’s really about how to make this sort of work sustainable. And our co-host today has been thinking about this question both in her life but also in the lives of others. For years. [music plays]


Dena Simmons: My name is Dena Simmons. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What’s your background and can you tell us about that? 


Dena Simmons: My background starts is in education. So I started my career as a teacher, a middle school teacher in the Bronx, New York, and I taught there for several years. And there for me, I think it’s important to know that I was returning home when I went back to the Bronx. And, you know, I didn’t go to the Bronx and say, let me save these kids like a bunch [laughter] of folks say when they talk about teaching. After teaching, I went to get my doctorate degree in education, where I focused my studies on assessing teacher preparedness to address bullying in the middle school setting. Because as a child, I was always fascinated by safety and who got to be safe. And so as a kid growing up in the Bronx, I was often worried about my safety. And so I wanted to study how do we create safe spaces? And one way I decided to do that was studying well how prepared the teachers feel to keep children free of bullying, to prevent bullying. 




And so that was my research. And then I went on to be faculty at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. And I left publicly in 2021 because it was the most oppressive and toxic and hostile place I’ve worked. 


Anne Helen Petersen: A lot of places in academia. 


Dena Simmons: Despite all of the good that I was able to do. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: It was still at the cost of so many things in my spirit and my health and my wellbeing. So. So yeah, that’s my background. 


Anne Helen Petersen: How would you describe the mood of educators in America right now? 


Dena Simmons: Well, I would say if you were to describe the mood of educators, I would first ask them instead of having me stage on the stage or expert to do that. But I have I have the privilege of working with educators through my work as founder of LiberatED, where we center radical love, healing and social, racial justice and education with the goal of creating a world where all children could live, learn and thrive in the comfort of their skin. And so with the educators with whom I’ve worked and also in my speaking, I am hearing that educators feel demoralized, they feel disrespected, they feel stress and burnt out based on not having the resources to do what they were being asked to do. And that is a continuation. Since before the pandemic, it was exasperated during the pandemic and it has only continued. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between demoralization and burnout? Because I found that distinction really useful, that idea of like I do not have the tools to do the job as I feel it should be done. Like, that’s just such a useful tool. 


Dena Simmons: Yes. So I feel like when people feel demoralized, they lose sort of confidence and they feel disheartened and they no longer feel that they can do what they have done well. Whereas burnt out when when feeling burnt out is a particular construct that has several components of it, but essentially it’s related. I would relate it to toxic stress, right? It’s this is this over and over? Like you’re experiencing something over and over again, sort of this stress or this discomfort which impacts how well you can do your job. It impacts how well you feel, it impacts your engagement in your role and the purpose that you feel it related to your role. So you just feel like you just don’t have it in you anymore. So I would just say, you know, a good something to think about as a way to visualize it is as a candle, right? Eventually the candle has nothing left to give once it’s burnt to the core. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: So you couple that will feeling demoralized and disrespected, there’s not that much you know that that excitement that a lot of educators feel when we first walk into the classroom that is sort of stripped from you when you feel demoralized. That excitement, that enthusiasm, that purpose to to do better and to gift your students with the knowledge that you have been gifted from your educators and so on and so forth. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I come from a line of educators and also from people who’ve watched even just the field of education changed so dramatically over the course of the last and we could say 20, 30, 40 years. But I think that there’s this feeling, and I want to extend it past just educators as well, but this feeling of like, if I don’t care about this, if I leave, if I quit, no one else will care about this. And I wonder if you have any insight before we go into the questions about how to be so deeply involved, to care so much, but then also how to take care of your self and how that’s changed for you over time. 


Dena Simmons: Right. So, first of all, I think when we talk about education and when you ask me what is the mood of educators, how our teachers are feeling, I think it’s important to also add the socio political layer on to this, which is that teachers are literally under attack. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: All right. We have an anti critical race theory movement. Teacher mentions race, teacher mentions sexuality, a teacher mentions white supremacy. You know, she oh, she can fear losing her job. So I think that context is important as we think about and understand how teachers are feeling. And so I would say for the educator who’s like, I care so much about this, this is like, if I don’t do this, no one else will. I will say that’s not true. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dena Simmons: First of all, like, I have that mentality, which is like, I have to do this, but but we have to also get over ourselves. Like, when I was at Yale, I was I stuck through so much toxicity and hostility because I really wanted to create a better environment. And I did the best that I could. And I did make it better while I was there, because I come from that ethos that leave things better than when you found it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And so I, as one person, did not have the capacity to change an entire system, an entire institution that needed to happen in community. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And so what I often tell educators is find your community so that it’s not only on you, find other people who care, connect with the community of your school, and engage in this work at the community level so that you don’t feel that all of that weight is on your shoulders. So I would say that is the first thing. And the second thing is you cannot be the best teacher that you can be if you are stressed and burnt out. Because we know from the research is that when teachers are stressed and burnt out, their interactions with the students are less warm. Their students don’t do as well because school climate suffers. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: Right. And so in many ways I always tell people that a stress of burnt out teaching forces an equity issue because it influences how students do socially, emotionally and academically. So teachers have to take care of themselves if they do [laughs] want to take care of their students. And then on top of that, school systems need to take better care of our teachers so that the onus is not necessarily on the self care, but on the collective care. 


Anne Helen Petersen: We did an episode a few weeks ago called How to Care Less About Your Job, and naturally we heard from so many people who were like, If I care less, people will suffer but also help, I am so burnt out. And these listeners were from a bunch of different industries teaching, of course, but also social work, non-profits, health care. So for our first question, we’re going to hear from one listener named Katie, who sums up this conundrum really nicely, and then I’m going to read off a few of the different variations on the question that we got from other listeners. Okay. So here’s Katie’s question read by our producer, Melody. 


Katie: I work at an elementary school in a large urban public school district. I’m struggling with self-care on a couple of fronts. As a caregiving job, it’s hard to not take work home all the time. The more time I spend less in planning, the better my lessons go and the more my students learn. I’m also struggling with setting boundaries. There are almost no substitutes these days, so I’m often asked to cover for coworkers. Saying no isn’t really an option because kids would otherwise go unsupervised. I’m burning out, but if I leave this job or leave teaching altogether, it will just make things worse for my students and coworkers. I have two questions. How can you set boundaries in caregiving jobs, and how do you know when you need to leave? When leaving a job or profession will make things that much worse for the people you’re leaving? 


Anne Helen Petersen: And then the other few ways that listeners phrase this struggle is, are my choices really to just keep working and burn out or set boundaries, but feel continually guilty? How can I do less when there is so much work to be done? Any tips for making peace with putting my health first? So obviously this is a very hard and heavy question, so I think we can take it piece by piece. So first, how can you set boundaries in caregiving jobs? 


Dena Simmons: So first of all, I have to say that I am a recovering people pleaser. So when you are [laughs] a recovering people pleaser or a past people pleaser like myself, boundaries are just an idea, right?  [laughter] You’re like, they’re like, oh, those are nice, but okay, what do you need and how can I make you happy? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: And so as a recovering people pleaser, I’ve had to learn to set boundaries. And what’s hilarious is I knew that almost ten years ago when I started at Yale, I told my colleagues, I said, please don’t expect any emails from me after 6 p.m. or on the weekends. I said that because I knew myself and I did a terrible job at that [laughs] first I want to say I had the intention right, but I was terrible at it. I just want to like, say that we are all works in progress and I want people I say that because I do think we have to give ourselves grace. I am doing better as setting boundaries because now I work for myself. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dena Simmons: And I know also as someone who was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness, that my body will set boundaries for me. So boundaries mean something differently for me. So what I often tell people is, do you want to be around long enough for your work, for your passion, for your people, for your family, for your community? And if you want if the answer is yes, then what are you going to do to take care of yourself so that you can care for others the way you say matters to you? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: I think once we believe that we can do this and we can do that, and yes, you get a yes and you get a yes that we have to start saying yes to ourselves. And I don’t think we say yes to ourselves enough because we feel guilty. And I often think about the work of Audre Lorde, who talked about caring for ourselves as being part of the revolution. Right. And especially for Black women who have had our identities and humanity and personhood tied to our labor. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And so I often had to basically extrapolate my labor, my success from my wellness, from my enough ness, from my being in order to understand that I have to care for myself in order to be the best person that I can be, for the people that I love, for the people that I want to be around long enough to enjoy, to see, and long enough to see my descendants. And so that’s what I’ll say for that. And I know you have other parts of this question [laughter] so I’ll stop here, because I could go on and on. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: So I mean, as a follow up to that question, I do It reminds me of this conversation that we had a couple months ago with Dominique Baker is about specifically about burnout in academia and people who are just feeling really bad about like, I’m leaving academia. I feel like I’m failing my students. Can anyone, like, do my job? [laughs] And this piece of advice was so good. She said, you’re special, but you’re not that special. 


Dena Simmons: Facts. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] And and I think sometimes we get this inflated sense of how important we are. Right? And like, in some ways, yes, obviously, you are so important to your work that you’re doing is so important. But also, if you go away, it’s not like the entire community is going to crumble in a pile of ashes. 


Dena Simmons: I totally agree with that. It’s funny because I was talking to some educators the other day and someone asked, but the similar question that we heard earlier and I said, we have to get over ourselves. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dena Simmons: We’re really not that important. Like the work will continue, somebody will replace you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And it’s really that level of perspective that says that if I missed school today and I come back tomorrow, better everyone wins. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: But instead we tell ourselves the stories that if I am not here tomorrow, everyone loses. And I think we need to start shifting the fact that caring for ourselves should not be in competition with anything else. It should be a norm. So the question rather isn’t about myself, but what about the school system is causing me to have to make these choices. And that’s what we should start asking. Like where about the academic settings from either K all the way to university? Why do we have to make that choice? 


Anne Helen Petersen: So what do we do about these cases where, like, she can’t say no? Because if you have to ever cover a class like she, she really needs to do that. But then also there are some times when I think probably she could say no to some things. But oftentimes we need to institute a practice of saying no, especially for people pleasers like ourselves. So do you have any advice on that, that part of the question. 


Dena Simmons: So people pleasers have a hard time saying no, but what I’ve been learning is no is a complete sentence. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dena Simmons: I have a hard time saying no without giving every reason why I’m saying no because I’m so guilty. I’m like, no, because I have a doctor’s appointment. I’m like, you don’t need to know all of that. Like just no period. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I know. [laughs] 


Dena Simmons: But I was a teacher and I had to cover classes and I sometimes would get upset like I this is my free period. Some ways this is where the union is helpful. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dena Simmons: Because the union actually protects you from being asked to do things during your. So you have to. What I always tell people it’s important that you know your rights. You have to know what is within your contractual agreement, the union contract and agreements specifically with teachers. And there were times when I was being asked to cover a class more than I should have been asked, and I had to go to my union rep and figure out a way to advocate for myself. And so in some cases we can say, no, we can. Like I would tell sometimes I’d tell my principal, I cannot do it right now. Like I need to prep for this class. There are, by the way, other teachers that might be able to do it. So I would say test. Test out no’s. Test out what you what no’s you can get away with, for lack of a better way of saying it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dena Simmons: Because there’s something that’s magical that happens when you start to say no is that people are okay with it. Or if they’re not okay with it, they learn to be okay with it. And we cannot take on their upset and their disappointment because we’ve decided to prioritize ourselves. So I would advise that you find the moments where you can get away with that no. And you know your rights as an educator and you know where the boundaries are. And you set them slowly and surely. And if you’re like me, you unlearn those yeses and you have to become more discerning of your yeses.


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Yes. 


Dena Simmons: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dena Simmons: Because time is time is is finite. And so we have to say, is this the best way I can be spending my time? What are the things, activities or things that this person is doing that’s not bringing joy? And how do you do more things that bring joy so that when you get to the moment where someone’s asking you to cover a class, you have the reserves, the excitement and the resources to say yes, but don’t do it if you don’t have the resources. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s such an important point. And I also love that you brought up the union, because if you are in a in a state where the union has power, right, like they can be your insulation from these acts that are taking so much from you. Like sometimes you can rely on the contract to say no for you. 


Dena Simmons: And I hate to say that because people will say, oh, so you’re going to be that teacher that leaves at 3:20 at the contractual hours and you’re not going to do this. And that is how we learn to overwork by the way. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep, yep. 


Dena Simmons: Like we tell people you should feel guilty that you’re leaving at the time that you’re supposed to leave. Why don’t you stay 25 hours extra. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dena Simmons: And work and clean the school building while you’re at it? And I often tell people you are going to be better at whatever you do. If you love yourself, if you care for yourself, and if you have the support and community you need to thrive. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What about the person who says? If I leave the people I work with, they’re going to be are going to suffer. Like, how do you deal with that kind of emotional weight or guilt? 


Dena Simmons: What does suffering mean? Right. Because suffering is a very heavy word. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dena Simmons: Maybe another word that is less drastic than suffering is going to mean. Maybe they’re going to have to cover for me. Right. So if we think about the school setting, when I missed a day, someone did have to cover for me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: In New York City Department of Education, there’s a thing called sub central. You call a number and a substitute comes in. Sometimes that’s not always effective when a teacher has to cover for you. But that’s why community is important. I have to trust that just as someone will cover for me, I will cover for someone else. Right. So there’s this this community effort to ensure that we’re all taken care of and that we’re all caring for ourselves. And I know the pressure of if I don’t do this or if I don’t show up, it’s going to impact everyone. Everyone’s going to have a worse day because now they have to do my work and I have to say that those feelings are temporary. They won’t last. It’s not going to be eternal suffering, because what we have to understand is that when you show up in the classroom or in your job, not as your best self, as your burnt out self, as your demoralized self, what actually good are you doing? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: Because again, like I shared like, first of all, we need to understand that emotions can be contagious. There is a term there’s like this idea that called the emotion contagion theory. It’s a theory, a construct. And so essentially it’s what it sounds like. Emotions are contagious or they can be contagious. And so you could just think about your own life, the listener, so you can think about your life when you’ve been around someone who saw the world or a glass is half full or half empty. Like if you’re around that, for example, Dena, downer, you start to feel that energy too. And so the same way the same thing can happen in the classroom, you show up stressed and guess when I was telling you that your students are stressed because or you’re anxious and now your students are anxious because that’s like leaching out into your classroom communities. So I feel like we have to think not only of right now, but we also have to think about how if we don’t take care of ourselves and we’re not our best selves, how that not best self is actually having a larger future impact. That actually is not what we have in mind and is not what we want. So if we shifted how we thought and said, if I take the day off, I will come in better tomorrow and I’ll be able to support my students and my colleagues because I would have been rejuvenated. 


Anne Helen Petersen: This also makes me think of how cynicism is really contagious. And that’s something I see in a lot of these professions where people are so burnt out, whether it’s social work or other forms of community care like. You just get so worn down that it’s really easy to think like just to talk about how broken the system is all the time. And I get it. 


Dena Simmons: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like the system is broken. But also how like you’re around people that you were trying to provide care for. And that cynicism is that’s a contagion. 


Dena Simmons: Yes. For me, I always tell people that I cannot always live in the darkness because I want to get up. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dena Simmons: And it’s so easy. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: It’s so there’s so much darkness around me. So I often say that like my ancestors, my Black ancestors, my ancestors who were enslaved, my ancestors who were in the Holocaust, that hope is what wakes me up. The fact that I believe that there is something better and that every day I can work little by little for something better and I can trust in community. Little by little, we could work for something better. And then I look for the lightness in the cracks, the beauty in the mundane, the sort of laughter in the pain, if that makes any sense. So I try to find the hope in the everyday darkness because I have to. If I don’t, I would be depressed all the time. And so I remember that my ancestors survived so that I can be here today to do the work that I’m doing. And I feel very grateful for that. And I have a certain level of responsibility to find that hope and to move forward with that, hoping to share it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And it’s really hard to find that hope when you’re so tired, right, when you have no time for yourself. Like that is a difficult feeling to excavate. And I think that’s like, you know, when people do have that dialogue in their head of like. Oh, if I take this time like I’m failing in some way and I wonder if there’s, like, a phrase that we could use to, like, talk back to it. Like, is there something you say to yourself any time that it feels like you’re you’re not taking that time for yourself, you’re not taking care? 


Dena Simmons: I think we just shift it like I am going to be better when I rest. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: I’m going to be better when I rest. That’s all we have to say. And I listen. I went to Catholic school. I understand the guilt. I understand the guilt. I used to be guilty every time. I’m not even lying, I remember feeling the first time I was sick and I had to take the day off of work. I felt guilty. And I’m like, where did that guilt come from? Who made me feel guilty? You know? Where did I learn that? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: And I think we have to start asking ourselves those questions. And so for me, I think we have to say I will be better. I will be a better person, I’ll be a better partner, I’ll be a better teacher, I’ll be a better whatever you say, whatever you are. If I rest, I think we need to start sort of telling ourselves that that you will do better. You will be better if you can be your best self and you can be your best self when you are rested, when you have taken the time to recover, when you’ve taken the time to reflect and to remember what is most important to you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think sometimes when we start to try to do that work of figuring out where do those messages come from? Very rarely is it one person, right? Sometimes we have it modeled for us by someone that we respect or a family member. But usually, you know, it’s this whole constellation of pretty deeply American, also, oftentimes very like Protestant work ethic type stuff. And then you have to be like, that’s not my belief system. It’s almost like reexamining our religious upbringing. You can be like, this is not my ideology. I can decide that it’s it’s not what I believe, but you have to sometimes make it visible to yourself. 


Dena Simmons: I mean, we have to think about our current folks who decided in the pandemic to do to to do the Great. But is it the call, the Great Resignation? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: Before that, I decided to resign from a job that I thought I would spend the rest of my life. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dena Simmons: I thought I would spend the rest of my life. I had done everything I was supposed to do. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: As a little poor girl from the Bronx to end up at an Ivy League institution as a faculty member. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: I got into Columbia University. I got a Fulbright, a Truman, a Soros fellowship. I did all the fellowships. I did every every network. I did a dissertation fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, you name it. I am a part of those networks. I did what I was supposed to do and what I thought. What like you said, this this religion, right? That religion I had learned was over work. The religion I had learned was your enough ness is attached to your achievement or your high achievement, or if if we’re real. And so I’ve done everything and here I am in 2021, walking away from my dream job because seven years before that, when I walked into that job, I had to realize I had to realize over time that I was rationalizing the hostility that I was experiencing. And I kept rationalizing and rationalizing it. And I had to one point ask myself at what cost? And I only began to ask myself that question of what cost during the pandemic, when I didn’t have to take the three hour commute from New York City to New Haven and back. So that was a 6 hours. I had to be very clear that it was 6 hours a day. Right? I was so committed to this idea that this was I had arrived as I had gotten and done what I was supposed to do. I had worked, I had overworked. Right. And then the pandemic hit and I didn’t have to do that. And so there was, yes, less physical stress, but also I didn’t have to deal with the daily microaggressions. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: The daily slights, the daily oversight, the daily un doctoring. Everyone else gets doctored. But Dr. Simmons doesn’t. Yet she’s the only Black person in the room. I think that’s important. So the pandemic in many ways gave me the stillness to reflect on what was important to me. And one of the lessons I learned from the pandemic that I would like to share with other people is that I had to redefine success. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Dena Simmons: And success now, for me includes how well I am, one, how much time I make to rest, to laugh, to spend time with my family, how present am I? And so I have a new definition of success that does not require me killing myself over working myself from some idea of success that shifts, by the way, especially for Black folks, that that shifts for you. Because you’re never supposed to achieve it, because you have to continue working for it. Because if you don’t work for it, what does this nation have without Black labor? And so I had to really come to that realization. And I have done nothing but thrive since centering and valuing my care and my restoration and my rest. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and I like that idea of reframing it. So it’s not that you quit your dream job, it’s that you redefined what success look like. And maybe success looks like quitting a job? 


Dena Simmons: Right. Exactly. [laughter] You had asked me about quitting jobs. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And I was like, sometimes the job will quit you as in— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughs]


Dena Simmons: As in, sometimes you have. We have to tell ourselves that. And it’s funny because I’m thinking about this therapy. When I have therapy with my my therapist and toward the beginning of the pandemic and I was reflecting on why I was like, why do I have to be the one to leave? I didn’t do anything. I did everything I was supposed to do. I worked so hard. I made all these sacrifices and this is what she told me. And because my question was, why do I have to be the one to leave? And she said. Well, you can also think about it. Perhaps you’ve outgrown it. And so I want to share that with other folks, that sometimes we outgrow places. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: Sometimes places don’t serve us love the way we deserve. And we have to realize that when we go to a place and we interview, we’re interviewing them as well. It has to serve us just as much as we offer and serve a place as well. It’s a relationship at the end of the day. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, right. Like you are giving this place labor, they are paying you, but you are also laboring for them. It is a relationship and you both have to want to be in the relationship. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is from Sara, who is dealing with what she calls carrying creep. 


Sara: I work in a helping profession, providing direct services to people with a huge scope of practice. The pressure is always there to learn more, care more and to do more. After doing this for years, I’m realizing that although I like my job, this extra pressure, both for myself, coworkers and those I work with to learn care and do is unreasonable and burns me out. Just as one example, there are so many continuing education courses I could take that I could do that and just that until retirement. And many are expensive and time consuming. Meaning I’m working all day and then trying to learn more. As another example, there’s this caring creep that happens where people send very long email updates and there’s no way I can be reading and still be seeing and helping humans 40 hours a week. I like what I do, but the extras are unsustainable. 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right, so this idea of caring creep, I feel like it’s so applicable in many ways too, to academia too, because there’s just so many ways that you could always be doing more. And then like the understanding of what you need to do to get a job changes and then also the understanding of what you need to do to get tenure changes. There’s never any time I think there’s this this myth that like, oh, you get tenure and then you’re just like, relaxed. Right. No, most institution this is very much not the case. But I can see in other caring institutions where there is an expectation for continuing education, especially education that you have to do on your own time. And just like always being asked to care about another thing, it’s hard. So what’s your advice here? 


Dena Simmons: You know, first of all, yes, I if you’re a K-12 teacher, you have to take, you know, continuing education courses. If you’re a social work educator, if you’re an academic, you go to the academic conferences you present, you have to write papers to make sure folks think that you’re still, as we say, productive. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. Productive. 


Dena Simmons: And productive. Right? And so I’m like, well, first of all, let’s actually let’s take apart productivity, right? What is productivity connected to? White supremacy. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Dena Simmons: It is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: Right. So our country’s built on this idea of labor, right? Oftentimes cheap labor. And so because we have that mentality as a nation of cheap labor, so we have in our beings, in our nation’s blueprint, this idea that there is an expectation for for an overseer to ensure that you’re doing your job the way the overseer of those in power want you to do it. And so oftentimes I think about those continue education courses, which is which can be helpful. But many of them are kind of low quality, boring. But I have to do it in order to keep my certification or my license. And so to me, I think we have to, one, evaluate what we’re asking people to do and if it’s actually helpful and then figure out what is more meaningful. Educators want to select the professional development that they decide as opposed to having top down. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: So there’s something about being free to choose what you want to learn. How can we leverage that curiosity to improve someone in a profession or for someone to improve in their profession? Something that they want to learn? But then we also have to ask ourselves, why are we asking people to do this? Is it about control? Because what we know is when people feel like they’re controlled or they’re being asked to do something just to check the box, it does lead to burnout. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: So it’s all related. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, and even like this example, she’s kind of vague in how she describes it, but like long emails relating something that she should care about. Right. Clearly, it’s being related in a way that makes it very difficult to care about. And then you might even come to resent these emails. So of course you’re not going to care about them like moving forward. So how can this information be preserved and presented in a different way that makes it easier to care? 


Dena Simmons: Right. What I what I tell people is either one we have depending on, cause when I, when I was curious about when I listened to that was what was this person’s role? Because not everyone has the responsibility of having to check email to to do this, check this box or manage this, that or the other. And so for me, when I’m when I have a team who I need to hear from, I have a standing meeting with them. It could be a standing short meeting. Give me the updates. But if it’s an email, give it to me in bullet points. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: I would say sometimes you don’t need some updates. Right. So give me the most relevant information that I need to help you. So sometimes you have to set the boundaries with how you want people to communicate to you as a way for you to keep the passion and excitement you have for your job. And you’re not dreading or feeling resentment for those emails. And so, yeah, you have to set those boundaries of communication to support yourself, care, and also collective care. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You could frame it in a positive way that says, I want to care about this stuff. Here is how to help me care about this stuff. [laughs]


Dena Simmons: Well, I would imagine she might not say that she doesn’t care. Right? Right. So she might say, tell me how. Because I think the most important thing is in this person’s I’m imagining that this person has a role where she’s in a position of power. And so essentially she’s trying to ask them to help me, help you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: Help me help you. And so here’s how you can help me help you. I want to get the most pertinent information as I can to help you. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Dena Simmons: And so just that’s all I need. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And then her question, though, about continuing ed like these other classes, I think people with less power in the workplace for whatever reason, that they always have to be going above and beyond in order to excel. So what would be your advice about what she can skip? Like what? How she can have? Like what posture should she have towards these classes? 


Dena Simmons: At the end of the day, we have to think about what roles people are in. So you generally people in executive roles do not have to take, depending on their capacity, do not have to take continuing education, although some should. Right. We know some should right. [laughter] Like go ahead, take that class. Let me send you some stuff. I will give you the class. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: But that’s not always the case. And so some of our professions, like for the teaching profession and social work, we actually have specific number of credits we have to get. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: In order to keep our license active. So there are some courses that she might have to take because she doesn’t have a choice. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: So one of it is how do I find joy in it and how do I do this most efficiently? I have found listening while I work the whole like eBooks situation and podcasts like this have completely revolutionized my life because I can listen and learn while I’m doing something else, while I’m folding the laundry, while I’m going for a walk, finding that care like I have built it in to like listen, to read books, listening to them and going for a walk. So that is the way I’m caring for myself or listening to a recording, a meeting, and then listening to it. And so then I’m getting the learning while I’m doing something that I enjoy or something that needs to happen in the house that I need to get done anyway. So I’m just trying to find ways how to be, I guess, that I mean, yes, multitask in a joyful way, if that makes sense. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, it does make—


Dena Simmons: Don’t do more work. Just be efficient—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes and there is I think there is a difference between, oh, I want to be productive. So I’m like listening to this podcast at three times speed and then also doing my laundry and also like, I don’t know, I have weights on my back while I’m doing it too. Like, that’s very different. 


Dena Simmons: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Than this, which is how can I do this thing that is required of me? And that also might be helpful in some capacity, but make it something—


Dena Simmons: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s a little bit more enjoyable. 


Dena Simmons: And there’s some and a lot there are nuggets in a lot of the courses. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dena Simmons: And so for me, I actually find like the, you know, a lot of us anyway in like academia and any job that you have, you have to take like a sexual harassment course. You have to take a child reporting course. And so to me, I have found doing that in community is like doing a party, like having like a fun party and doing that with my friends. Like, we all have to watch it anyway. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dena Simmons: So we all press play and sometimes we’re like, that is ridiculous. You know. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] There’s always these horrible illustrations—


Dena Simmons: Right, yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —always so bad. Or the stock images. Yes, it does get better. 


Dena Simmons: So I always say like if you do that, like a community has like, like then you don’t feel so alone and you feel like, oh, it’s our monthly thing that we have to do for our PD, for our professional development. All right? Yeah, I’m meeting you. I have house, I’m doing snacks and drinks like. So how do you bring joy into the things and that helps you care for yourself? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: Because care is not just doing the Zen, doing the yoga. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: Sleeping, those are all important. It’s also like laughing and being in community and playing. That’s also part of care, too. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is from Weston, who got out and he feels good about it, but also kind of guilty. Our colleague Brian is going to read this for us. 


Weston: I am a 33 year old who recently left public schools, first as an elementary school teacher and as an elementary school administrator. [?] All the time I was in my twenties ready to devote myself to this calling and being a millennial with a mission, ready to use my energy, my time, my heart to do my best in any means necessary. That is ridiculous. And as many currently in their thirties, I found myself smack dab in the middle of burnout. I’ve been lucky enough to transition to a work from home role in the private sector that I am decent at can accomplish with little stress and is really allow me to better recenter and rest in other interests while giving me a chance to give back to the community in different non work ways. So my question is, in short, is that okay? Can I, as someone with smart, ambitious tendencies, enjoy this low stress, low responsibility time in my life, or should I view it as recharged by my next big adventure? To be honest, I feel driven towards the former in my current state, but feel pressure for whom? I’m not sure. To the latter. 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So what is your initial reaction to this one?


Dena Simmons: Weston, live your best life. [laughter] What’s so wrong with that? Like you are still doing good work. You said you are. Now you can do the work present, rested with low stress in your community. You’re still doing important work. And then perhaps in the future, there’ll be a day where you’re like, you know what? I’m ready to return to the classroom. You’re going to be a better teacher. Why? Because you’ve had that time to learn, to gain new experiences, to gain you skills, you time management skills perhaps, and also just a lived experiences that you can bring to the classroom. And so I would say be open to what the universe and what the spirit will bring you to. But now, with this new job that you have, you know what is possible. You know what low stress feels like? You know what caring for yourself hopefully feels like. And so moving forward, you will find a way to prioritize that, to build that into your life, because that’s what you did when you walked away. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And so I think we have to see the lesson from walking away. And you can walk back into something but haven’t learned a ton that you can share with others. Because one of the things that I think is important too, is that we teach our young people through modeling how we care for ourselves, but we also actually teach them how to care for themselves, not only with our model, but with lessons and with skills sharing, etc., etc.. So because I think I do think that part of us learned our overwork at school. [laughter] We had homework to do, we had book reports to do in the summer. We’re supposed to always be working. What happens in education so that our adults, when they when they’re grown up, are not asking these questions that are coming into this podcast?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, when I left teaching people all the time, especially people who are teachers, said, don’t you miss teaching? And absolutely, I miss so much about the traditional dynamic of being in the classroom with students. But also there are so many different ways to teach. And I think for someone in Weston’s position, like there are so many ways to be an important person in the lives of kids, some of them paid and some of them unpaid. 


Dena Simmons: Right. And actually mentors in afterschool programing and out-of-school programing, those adults make huge differences in our young people. So actually asking ourselves the question is, why are we asking, is it okay for me to experience joy? [laughter] Because that’s what is it okay for me to have low stress in my life? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Dena Simmons: Is it okay for me to just breeze by in this job and get paid? Is it okay for me to do work that’s important to me, but on a volunteer basis, we have to ask ourselves, why are we asking those questions? And where does this pressure cooker like type rat race idea come from? And again, we have to think about and really reflect on and dig apart how capitalism has really made us sick. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And have us asking these questions in the first place. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I’m always struck by like the whole Protestant work ethic of like if some for some reason you do not feel driven to work all the time, that means that it’s indicative of some inner sin when there this other part of the Bible. This Bible verse that always stuck with me. It was like, be still and know that I am God. Right? Like, be still. And when you are still is when you will, like, figure out whether or not you are a Christian. Like that feeling of I can listen to myself. I can hear myself when I am still. And he is reaching this point right now. I think where he’s kind of figuring out what do I actually like? What do I actually want to do, what are my motivations? Like, that is an incredible, fertile moment. And the temptation is to take that small piece and to go back into those same patterns of like, oh, now I know what I want, I want to do. I get to repeat the same thing all the way over again, right? 


Dena Simmons: A lot of the work that we have to do is unlearning. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Dena Simmons: And so how do we unlearn the desire to work, work, work? How do we unlearn connecting our worth to our work? How do we unlearn? Overwork and overachievement. Right. And so those are the things I’m in the process of doing and reflecting upon. And how do we think about how do we truly care for ourselves and one another. That is our work and that’s the work that I try to do each day. And I work with educators, and that’s what we focus on. We focus on building a beloved community of care. And I wish I wish that for all educators that and for all professions that they can work and feel cared for. 


Anne Helen Petersen: How else are people going to think of you? Are you busy all the time? Are you constantly like checking your planner or are you taking time to be with people? And that includes kids, that includes people that that need care in so many different ways. 


Dena Simmons: And I have to say, for me, like those are moments we have to actually stop and reflect. Like, I don’t have that much time with this person. I don’t have I may not have this much time on the earth. Right? So the is sometimes the universe sends us these lessons for us to care for ourselves. And so for me, it’s like, where can we find those lessons? Lessons that don’t have to hurt, right? Lessons that don’t have to include suffering or losing someone or getting diagnosed with a chronic illness. But like lessons when your little one tells you, Mommy, I like when you hang out with me, I like when you play with me. I like to draw with you. Or when your partner says, thank you. We had a wonderful weekend. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Dena Simmons: You know, those are those are the the little lessons and reminders of actually what matters. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That is a wonderful place for us to end. If people want to find more of you in your work on the Internet, where can they look? 


Dena Simmons: They can look on my website D, E, N, A, S, I M, M, O, N, S. I’m also on social media, on Instagram, on Twitter @DinaSimmons and also my work at LiberatED. And so we have a Instagram also and Twitter on Instagram @Liberated_SEL. But yeah, just Google search me you’ll find some things about me and if you want to contact me, my my website has that option too. But one of the things that I would like to end with is that part of our work is the work of radical love. And so part of that love must include ourselves. And I’m learning that and I’m unlearning the same way folks have asked these questions. I’m also unlearning I was raised similarly. And so let’s do this together. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Absolutely same. Working on that, too. We’re there. [laughter] Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.


Dena Simmons: Thank you. Take care. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we are here for you. Submit your questions at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at We love building episodes around your questions and you can stay as anonymous as you like. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can also follow me on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen or you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice it really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays]