From losing out to dropping out

A large number of newly hatched educators drop out of the teaching profession every year. An even larger number of high school and college students drop out before graduation. This morning I've been exploring the possibility of a gradual process building up enough frustrations to culminate in dropping out regardless of age or maturity. The process starts with losing out, followed by acting out which leads to burning out which ends up with dropping out. This process applies equally to teachers and students. The consequences of closed minds, extrinsic rewards and linear delivery systems play no favorites.
  • Losing out: When receiving formal evaluations of performance that determine the amount of reward, intrinsic motivations go into hiding. It does not matter whether the rewards impacted by the evaluation are points on a quiz or the size of a pay raise. The person framed by contingent rewards no longer gets in the mood to do anything and can only force themselves to show up. They stop getting creative ideas, empathic insights into others or inspired alternatives to solve chronic problems. They lose out big time.
  • Acting out: After the loss occurs, a bounty of negative emotions arise. There's anxiety about the loss and suspicions of personal inadequacies. There's lots of resentment toward the authority figures to dish out those supposedly objective evaluations. There's frustrations with how much of the required activities seem contrived, useless and senseless. Finally, the inner turmoil gets acted out as misdirected anger, retaliatory hostilities or other forms of taking one's own frustrations out on others.
  • Burning out: The cathartic experiences of acting out only provide temporary relief. There is a concurrent loss of stamina, endurance and motivation. those who've passed through phases of losing out and acting out become more passive, dependent on others and incapable of personal initiative. Feeling numb, bored and indifferent leads to acting bored, apathetic and indifferent. Commitments seem annoying. Requests seem like impositions. Conversations seem excessive. Burnout has replaced acting out.
  • Dropping out: The situation calls for a "fight or flight" response. The pervasiveness of the adversity seems far too extensive to fight it. Nearly everyone appears to be content with feeding the problem, perpetuating the abuses and ignoring the effects on individuals. It's taken for granted that participants would lose out, act out and burn out. Everyone is looking at what's going on with closed minds. The only solution is to get out of the toxic system. It seems like the open-minded thing to do that may possibly revive intrinsic motivations and self respect.
The dropouts' assessment of the problem appears accurate to me. There's no solution at the level of changing job/course requirements, pay/grades rewards or counseling/advising interventions. The system needs to replace uniform requirements with self-selected explorations, extrinsic with intrinsic rewards and content delivery with peer reciprocation systems that will open closed minds.


  1. "...self-selected explorations, extrinsic with intrinsic rewards and content delivery with peer reciprocation systems that will open closed minds." Sounds like good old fashioned idealism to me Tom. Certainly idealism was the accusation leveled at me when I proposed such things even just conversationally.


  2. Innovations usually look like idealism to incumbents of legacy systems. TV broadcasters must have accused proponents of "watching TV on cellphones" as idealistic. Likewise, operators of livery stables would have told designers of horseless carriages to be more realistic. The accusation of "idealism" is a sign that the the innovation will not be merely sustaining, but rather a disruptive game changer. Thanks for taking this further minh!

  3. Ah it's flagging a fear response?
    My fave response to a notion of mine - That teachers in a trad classroom have lots of power & this is corrupting so we should monitor ourselves - was as follows: "Oh minh don't - you can think too much." I was only 26 & the sayer was significantly senior to me & kind, generous & supportive - there was no where to go. I was hearing fear.

  4. Fear indeed! The little boy who noticed the condition of "Emperor's new clothes" was also probably told "don't think too much" by citizens loyal to the under clad king. Any system of abuse, exploitation or corruption will blame the keen observer/whistle blower for noticing what's amiss.

    In looking for where to go when faced with defensive rationalizations, I favor "what if questions" and explorations of possibility space. Thanks again!

  5. Yes - "what if.." "how about ..." Why don't we try ..." ameliorate the impact on one's colleagues of the 'shock of the new' but what about those who have to do this over & over again at the coalface? Burnout of course! Escape to the upper tiers. Desertion?

    Blame is an aggressive response & will often come from higher up the higher-archy. In the case of my think-too-much senior the response seemed to involve neither flight nor fight but something I have come to think of as folding. In her case there was a physical bending of the body, a downward intonation in the voice & sense of cover up, folding the cloth of ignorance across the offending notion. I have watched this happen lots in the decades since then.

    Folding also has a flavour of the poker game - "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away ...

    So flight, fight & folding - & I reckon folding is when the stressors act up big time because there is no release in flight or fight. Slavery is a brutal condition characterised by folding & folding & folding with NO recourse to the other
    2 options.

    Will the damage be cleared by the 7th generation?

    And well-coined was the term wage slave.

  6. Thanks for such an adventurous "folding" metaphor, minh! Like me, your wonderfully fruitful right brain is destined to encounter objections from literal minded colleagues. Your image of "folding" also fits the way the immune response wraps healthy cells around toxic invaders. In organizational contexts, that immune response is often characterized as "bureaucratic stagnation" or "static equilibrium at all cost".

    I've triaged reactions to their perceptions of "offending notions" with the framework of fight-flight-freeze. Like your repeated observations of "folding responses", I've often seen that "deer in headlights", frozen with terror, look when I've said something that pushed their buttons, exposed their naivete or shaken their foundational assumptions. Within that framework, the folding you see would be a "freeze response" to me. When animals feel trapped, they exhibit submissive behavior. Their endorphin, pain-killing system overrides their adrenal fight/flight system. I include humans in that animal category. That endorphin response could well explain the slavery that persists amidst our advanced cultures.

    I view hierarchies as protection rackets. Those organizations protect those whose conduct proves to be ineffective, incompetent and unresponsive. they build up lots of steam that gets let out by blaming, rumor mongering and making cynical excuses. Hierarchies provide safe harbors for those who habitually react with flight or freeze responses. In providing support for the "damage", these structures also enable further submissive behaviors. If people redeem themselves from this trap, they claim responsibility, personal power and choices outside the system. They become a "real somebody" in their marriage, outside projects, local community or friendships outside of work.