Friday, October 18, 2013

Turning Up the Heat Part 2: ...Pour in the Bubble Bath, Have a Glass of Wine, and Breathe

On Wednesday I shared with you guys this post about what it felt like to have to heat turned up. I consider myself someone who works well under pressure, but the kind of pressure that was going on then (and continues on even now) was really fracturing my overall well-being. I was stressing about things that ultimately don't matter, ignoring the things that do matter (ummm... my sanity?), and generally falling apart. When I shared with you guys that I was taking a break I told you that my heart wasn't at its best and that I was just all out of sorts.

A part of this did in fact have to do with my personal life. My husband, whom I respect, admire, and absolutely adore, took an excellent job opportunity that resulted in great work experience for him (he's an electrical engineer and this is work in the field), a little padding in our bank account (that will hopefully be applied to a house next spring), and a lot of time away from home (which has been hellish for both of us). I can't tell you how much more I respect military husbands/wives and other work widow(er)s who are home while their significant other is away. It's taken a lot of work on both of our parts to adjust to this big change, so that has been rather stressful.

As discussed in my previous post, though, the majority of my recent sadness (I don't want to throw around the word "depression" because I don't think it is a term that should be used lightly, but I do wonder if that's what it was...) was coming from my workplace. Those of you who teach (and I think that is the vast majority of my readership) know how much your profession infiltrates your life. Your entire life. Being a teacher is not just my occupation; it is a part of my identity. My school building is my second home. (Some of my students were astonished to discover that I have a hairbrush, deodorant, makeup, a set of clean clothing, dry shampoo, a manicure set, and various other toiletries stashed in one of my cabinets... but I have to! I live there for 10-12 hours a day, 5 days a week!) I've often joked with my theatre kids that, while my husband is away, the stage and the classroom are my paramours.

Needless to say, when you fall out of love with teaching, it brings a lot of unhappiness to your life. And that's where I've been.

Despite the intimacy of this (because these are not things I normally share with others, let alone with the internet), I'm telling you this, dear readers, because I want you to know how I got myself out of this predicament. I want to leave this little breadcrumb trail in the hopes that, should you ever get lost, it will help you find your way back out.

1. Avoid the poison. The poison is negativity. Avoid it like the plague. I've written in the past about how you might consider avoiding teachers' lounges and such places because they are often the hatching grounds of pessimism, rumors, and mutiny. I don't know why I did it, but for some reason I felt drawn towards the poison while I was at my lowest. It was like we had a common enemy and I felt like there was someone who would understand. Guess what? That negativity doesn't accomplish shit. It just makes you feel worse. Suddenly you find yourself dwelling on every awful thing that ever happened in your career as an educator. It's ugly and it's not worth it.

2. Teach what makes you happiest. If I asked you what your happiest times in your classroom are like, I'm sure you could tell me. We know what we most enjoy in our classrooms, and we know what we detest the most. I detest prepping for standardized tests. You know, it's different if I'm prepping them for a unit assessment. I like that. I love our test review days because they feel productive. Let's use the trite old metaphorical mountain. We know we're trying to get to the top of the mountain. We can see the top of the mountain, and we can see the path to the top. I let the students lead the way as we climb the mountain together and I help them out when they get stuck. Sometimes I'm able to look ahead and see part of the path that's going to give them problems and I can say, "Hey, watch out for that really narrow ledge there. You're going to have to take that nice and easy." Then we all make it to the top of the mountain and we celebrate with candy with positive praise. That's how normal test prep works. Prepping for a state standardized test? Well, first we put beer goggles on the students... not the kind that makes everything look sexy, because multiple choice questions aren't sexy... the kind that impairs you like you've been drinking too much. So those first, because the world of standardized testing is totally skewed. Then, I get to wear a blindfold because, quite frankly, I'm going in blind. The damn test is so different from year to year that I really don't know which path is the best one to take. Then we all hold hands and I lead the way and I drag them up the side of the mountain. Oh, did I mention the mountain is the size of Mt. Everest so we can't see the top? Or that it's spewing lava?! Or that it is on Venus?!?! Yeah, that's a state standardized test.

What I'm trying to get it (in a totally roundabout kind of way) is that prepping for standardized tests IS NOT FUN FOR ME. At all. So, while I was in my funk, I had to do the things that made me happy. So we read a novel and did a WWII/Holocaust unit because, even though the Holocaust was an extremely sad and horrible thing, it was more enjoyable for my students and myself to study the Holocaust than it was to stare at more multiple choice questions. Oh, and a funny thing happened on the way to the forum... while we were studying our novel unit, my students learned literary terms that I guaran-freaking-tee will be on the test. I think. Okay, you know, it's a state test so maybe not... but maybe. So it's like we did test prep... but we weren't up to our armpits in lava and we weren't breathing in noxious gases from Venus's atmosphere.

(That, my friends, was waaaay too long. More of an allegorical mountain than a metaphorical one... But I'm keeping it. If you made it this far, I salute you. Just reading that was probably like climbing a mountain.)

3. Find a little spot of sanity in the insanity. I did a stupid thing (academically speaking) during my third semester of college. I was very close to wrapping up all of my gen ed classes so I stuffed as many of them as I could into one semester. I did not take a single class that made me happy. I took... math. And physics. And biology. And all those other classes that make English majors like myself want to crawl in a hole and die. It was awful. That was by far my worst semester of college. From that point on, I vowed to take one "sanity class" a semester. Best. Idea. Ever. I would recommend that to any college student, and now I recommend it to you. Find something that keeps you sane while you teach and hold onto it for dear life. During this horribly sad time in my life, the only thing that kept me sane was theatre and, more importantly, my theatre students. It was the same way at School #1. That extracurricular activity, despite being extremely demanding (and you have no idea how demanding it is unless you coach/direct an art), was/is the spot of sanity in my day. I always look forward to theatre practice after school each day. Find your sanity spot.

4. Don't get stuck in a rut. I did that too. For a couple of weeks my days were very "wash, rinse, dry, repeat." Once I realized I was in that rut, I started doing little things to get out of it. I drove a different way to work. I sat outside for lunch one day. I worked in the auditeria during my prep instead of in my classroom. In the evenings I watched a couple of movies I had been wanting to see. It's amazing what little changes like that can do for your overall morale.

5. Be meaningful. This Huffington Post article refers to this Ted Talk when it mentions there are three different kinds of happy lives. The happiest living, according to this, is when we lead a combined life of engagement and life of meaning. We are at our happiest when we are engaged (working) and we are using our strengths in the service of something larger than ourselves (meaning). I'm pretty sure that's the definition of teaching right there. According to this, teachers ought to be the happiest people around (obviously there are many factors that contribute to unhappiness in our profession, but we already know what those are). I think one of the reasons I felt so out of sorts is that turning up the flame under my ass to get those amazing test scores was sucking all of the meaning out of my work. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I basically had to put on my big girl panties, push my woes to the side, and remember why I teach and for whom I am teaching. And that's my students.

It isn't fair to them when I'm unhappy at my work. It isn't fair to me when I'm unhappy at my work. So I started kicking it old school. I went into my classroom, I shut the damn door, and I taught. The students led the discussion. The students asked meaningful questions. The students learned. I was merely a guide, and that's what I've wanted all along in my classroom.

I firmly believe that you can teach yourself into a happier classroom existence. I think that sometimes we forget our own power. My husband and I have talked about this a lot. Happiness is a state of mind. You choose happiness. We have the power to choose how we want to look at things. So for now, despite all of the negativity, despite the junk funneling down from the higher powers in the public education system, I am choosing to teach and I am choosing to do it with a smile on my face.

"Happiness is a state of mind, a choice, a way of living; it is not something to be achieved, it is something to be experienced." - Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Turning Up the Heat Part 1: When Life Puts You in Hot Water...

First, I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to all of my fine readers who supported me during my absence. Your emails were touching and restorative. I assure you that I will respond to each and every one of you.

I've been gone for a while, and I've been "gone" in multiple ways. Gone from the blog, gone from myself, gone from teaching... just gone. To say I was in "a funk" would be a gross understatement (ha... pun on "funk" and "gross" not originally intended, but my subconscious is a sly bastard, so I'll take it!).

I started this school year with a fire under my ass, and it was burning hot. That fire looked something like this.

Now understand this: this fire has been burning beneath me as long as I've been an educator. I graduated from college in 2010. From my understanding, that's about the time the fire started getting good and hot. For a while, I didn't really feel the burn. Or maybe I did feel the burn, but it was disguised as something else.

After the honeymoon period was over this year (I guess about four weeks into the school year), it started getting very, very hot. I started sweating under the collar a bit. After three years of sitting at a simmer, I finally felt myself coming to a boil.

Why was I feeling the heat all of a sudden? After much consideration, I believe that the heat got turned up in the following ways.

  • I was given the majority (and by no small percentage) of the high-pressure English 10 kids. The numbers were a bit more evenly distributed last year, so the weight was spread around better.
  • I'm just going to say it. Those high-pressure English 10 kids, for various reasons, aren't where they should be right now academically, mentally, or socially. They are a very challenging group. Now don't get me wrong... if you put them in my classroom, they are my kids and I will do my very best. I'm not angry that these students are mine. In the words of Helga Hufflepuff, "I'll teach the lot and treat them just the same."* But they do present their own unique challenges.
  • My "target class period" only consists of eleven students. That means that I have to ensure that eight of them pass the state assessment in order to be considered "effective." It's just not in me to be satisfied with "effective." I want to be "highly effective" and, damn it, I'm capable of that! I just can't quite wrap my brain around how their scores can be an absolute judgment of my abilities. I think every teacher in the world uses this mantra sometimes to help them sleep at night: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
  • I'm freaked out by this target class period business (known as our SLO class). I might have a small touch of PTSD after last year's SLO class disaster.
  • As a result of all of this stress about my English 10 classes, I started doing benchmarks and test prep right away. Anyone who tells you that they just love test prep is either a saint or a damned liar. Nothing will make a teacher (who loves her content matter and her students) go crazy faster than test prep. It is tedious, mindless, and outright boring for the teacher; it feels tedious, mindless, outright boring, and totally useless to students. Guess who's having fun? Not a damn one of us.
  • A friend and mentor of mine is a wonderful teacher. Her students like her, she's great with her content, and she is passionate about what she does. She is a born teacher. Her students generally score well on tests. As a punishment result, she now only teaches test prep classes all day long. And she's burning out. And I think she'll quit her profession within the next two years. I don't want this to happen to me! I don't want them to take away my favorite courses in favor of making me test prep all day. (NOTE: this has not been suggested to me in any way at all at this time... I was am prematurely panicking.)
  • Lately I feel like I'm just shouting into the wind. (There are lots of little things kind of like this that I'm just not at liberty to discuss in a public place like this.)
  • In a completely unrelated manner, my personal life got turned upside down a bit at this same time. (Everything is okay.) Home, which was normally a salve for my burns, wasn't quite the same and wasn't nearly so soothing.
By the middle of September, I found myself waking up with that old familiar stomach ache, the same one that plagued me at School #1 during my horrid first year of teaching. I started oversleeping again. I got out of the habit of keeping my prep work ahead of schedule. I found myself smiling less. I developed an absolutely God-awful ache in my TMJ (temporomandibular joint) from clenching my teeth (a very bad stress habit of mine). I was in an extremely unhealthy spiral. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I needed medical help. I am strictly against the flippant use of pharmaceuticals and I will always favor a natural remedy over putting some kind of drug in my body. But I just couldn't figure out how to make myself happy again.

The only thing that was keeping me sane was my motley crew of theatre kids. Those kids saved me and they don't even know it. More on them another time, perhaps.

Whether you just found this blog during your Pinterprising efforts or you've been a long-time reader, you should by now know this about me: I love teaching. I love my content area. I love my students. I love my grade level. I love my building (most of the time). I want to see my students succeed, not just on the test, but in life. I don't like to spread the negativity of teaching because it just seems so futile. We're all shouting, and we aren't getting anywhere fast with it.

So why in the world, you might ask, would I be sharing this with you? In a place that fosters passion, creative thinking, and devotion in teachers, why would I share with you how "turning up the heat" completely destroyed me over the last several weeks?

Because I need you to learn from where I've just been.

More to come.

*Why yes, I did just quote a fictitious deceased educator from the Harry Potter series that the readers never actually meet, didn't I?