So on a chat yesterday about getting over the mid-year slump, one of the suggestions made was that a way to combat the exhaustion and near-burnout (or in my case full-on burnout) that comes during the middle of the school year is to be positive, to make sure that we don’t show that we’re frustrated or exhausted, to share what works with others and to point out to others the achievements of your colleagues.
At a glance, those sound fine. After all, when you’re exhausted, frustrated, and overall fried, crying in your coffee isn’t going to help get work done, right? And if we support each other and show each other off, we’ll come together as a team, right? And we’ll all remember that this is all about the kids and the kids are wonderful and puppy dogs and ice cream and rainbow sprinkle sparkle sparkle sparkle moonshine snowflakes, right?
Let’s break down why teachers get into this mid-year slump around January-February and then talk about these “solutions” and why they’re not really solutions. Why are we … or at least why am I feeling a little fried right around now.
First (yeah, I hate doing “first, second, third” like this is some five-paragraph essay but I’m not exactly inspired to write any purple prose right now, sorry), there’s money. Teachers in my district were paid before Christmas and had to wait until the end of January to get paid again. Yes, I know we all try to budget for six weeks without a paycheck instead of the usual four, but it gets pretty exhausting when you don’t get paid much to begin with and therefore are constantly thinking about it. Yes, I realize you don’t go into teaching for the money, but there are limits.
Second, the schedule doesn’t help. I, like most teachers, don’t come back to a new semester after Christmas, which would make a lot of sense. Yunno, you’d end the semester/have midterms (if your school has them) and come back to a whole new unit, blank grade slate, etc. Instead, I come back with two weeks left in the quarter and that means benchmark testing. That’s not something that’s easy to get motivated for after two weeks off, although you feel obligated to do a big push because it’s “important.”
Third, the weather is frustrating. We have used five snow days this year. Two of them were from Hurricane Sandy, and three were from a few inches of snow and ice a couple of weeks ago. Our district has four bank days saved but because of the way the calendar committee has decreed our schedule to be, we’ve only used two of them. As a result, we lost the day before Thanksgiving, the work day at the end of the second quarter, and President’s Day. Now, I won’t complain too much about the holiday losses (because I know, I know, I should do my job and other people don’t get those days off and your salary pays my taxes, etc.), but the loss of the work day really hurts. Work days, even if I’m not grading papers, are days I get to really recharge. I spend the day planning and taking care of a lot of other things that get pushed aside due to only having so much planning time during the day. I’ve been known to park it in front of the photocopier for a good hour on a work day so that I can just get that out of the way.
Furthermore, repeated closings and delays disrupt my rhythm. Yes, I realize that you can’t plan everything as a teacher and nothing goes according to script, but the repeated start-stop is jarring enough for you to feel tired and for the students to tune you out despite your best efforts. I know I’ve done a lot more direct instruction in the last couple of weeks because I am tired of feeling like what we’ve been working on has dragged on for way too long.
Fourth, everyone’s sick. I’ve *knocks wood* been able to avoid the flu that my wife came down with a couple of weeks ago, but I have five incompletes on the last round of report cards, mostly due to the fact that those students had missed nearly two weeks of class from being out from the flu. So now they have to make up that work in not just my class but every class plus stay on top of what’s currently going on. I’m pretty accommodating when it comes to this–I give them a couple of weeks–but I know that can be overwhelming, especially if it’s a student who has trouble staying on top of things in the first place.
Fifth and finally, putting students first is also a problem. Now, before you burn me, hang me, or make me go in front of HUAC, hear me out. I hear so much crowing about “the kids, the kids, THE KIDS” and spend so much time thinking about my students when planning and working, that I often forget about myself. Oh, that’s selfish, you say? Well, I don’t know–after all, if you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you be expected to do your best for others?
So with that in mind, being positive, making sure I don’t show that I’m frustrated and exhausted, and sharing the positive things myself and others are doing is a great solution, right?
First (again, I know it sounds like a five paragraph essay … maybe I just keep thinking about how I have 80 essays to grade right now?), as much as I think it is important to stay positive in the face of what your average sportscaster would call “adversity” but I call just a tough couple of weeks (because really, football team, do you really face adversity? Facing adversity is standing up for your rights when the police and government want to blast you with a fire hose, not a 20-point deficit and an injured quarterback at halftime), but there is a fine line between staying positive and taking shit with a smile. I won’t willingly put myself in denial just so that I can make it through a month or so where things aren’t going well; I’d rather see how I can fix the problem.
Second, I think that sharing the negativity is actually healthy. I commiserate with my colleagues all the time–it’s great to hang out, have a cup of coffee or a couple of beers and just vent because it shows me that I’m not the only one who has a tough time on occasion. Moreover, there are times when yes, I do share my frustrations with students. Why? Well, I teach teenagers and very often they’re airing their frustrations so I will lend an ear and we’ll talk a little about it. I don’t go too far and sound like a lunatic or anything, but I’ve found serious common ground with some kids over their frustrations about policies, or I’ve helped offer solutions to problems they were having.
With those two things in mind, I’m obligated to say that I try not to get too negative or commiserate too much because there’s a fine line between commiserating and just being sour, which is as unproductive as taking shit with a smile.
Third, the sharing and the praise. Let me put it this way: I hate dog and pony shows. I like to see what my colleagues are doing, I like to talk shop with them, and I even ask if I can use some of their ideas from time to time (and in turn have no problem sharing my stuff when they ask about it). But I hate dog and pony shows. I don’t need the faculty meeting to be extended 20 minutes so I can see a sales pitch for a gadget that I probably won’t use. And I’m among those who don’t really like to be hauled up on stage because … well, I could go into the laundry list of insecurities and self-esteem issues I’ve had since junior high school, but I’m already at nearly 1350 words here. In fact, I think it’s more genuine to simply say hello to a colleague and say, “Hey, that thing you were doing last week looked really cool,” or “I heard from a few students about X and that sounds really awesome” instead of hauling them out in front of the faculty like they’re King Kong so that you can also get praise for praising them (I’d also like to note that sometimes such praise results in unwanted visits from admin to “check out what you’re doing,” which can be very unnerving to some teachers … or maybe that’s just me).
So, what do I do to get out of a slump if I think the advice doled out is crap? Well, I tend to see where I can get cracking on getting out from under all of this. That means that I start planning weeks and even a month or two ahead (and yes, I know I should have the students share in the planning with me puppy dogs rainbows snowflakes but I have two massive yearbook deadlines between now and the end of March and this has proven the only way I can be both a yearbook adviser and a teacher at this time of year) and that I try to parse out the work as much as I can, keeping in mind that I need to also set aside time where I’m working on non-school things or making time for myself. I ask for help or “collaborate” where I can, but I also am mindful that my colleagues are starting to get buried too so “we’re all in this together” will only get me so far. Does it sound like I’m a bit of a control freak here? Well, that’s exactly what it is. I’m sorry, but I get flustered when I am not in control of a situation that I can easily control, so when that starts to happen I take the steps to ensure I stay on top of it. It’s not innovative but it works for me.
In conclusion (let’s just call this commitment to a bit here), we are all tired, poor–and if you believe some people our students are the huddled masses yearning to breathe free–but the last thing I need is touchy-feely to get me out of a slump. I will do my best to solve things my way and if it doesn’t work for you, then you find what does.