I’ve been officially back to work for a week now (three of those days were spent with students), and it’s safe to say that a) I’m in it, and b) I am surviving it. How is this possible, you might ask? Well, let me tell you–in the form of some lessons that I’m finally learning in year seven on the job as a high school educator.
1) To worry is to waste energy. Don’t do it.
I know what you’re thinking: this is easier said than done. I worry all the time, whether it is about horrible things that might happen beyond my control, horrible things that might happen that are in my control, or the typical guilt-ridden version of worrying about possible negative effects of doing something nice for myself. With work-related worries, what is finally sinking in after years and years of worrying is that I don’t actually get any more work done when I worry. The work itself takes a certain amount of time. It’s measurable, if I cared to measure it. It might take me half an hour to create a handout or a powerpoint, an hour to sift through old materials and make a plan for upcoming classes, fifteen minutes to grade a paper. Worrying about these tasks does not detract from the time it takes to do them. It does not make me do them better. It just makes me worried and sad and anxious and takes me away from whatever is in front of me. Life gets better when I decide to set aside time for the work and let go of the worrying.
But how do you do that, you ask? How do you stop the worrying? Here are a couple of strategies that work for me. A) Call someone (a therapist, your mother, a friend, or anyone who is not a teacher and has no sympathy for someone who just had eight weeks of vacation) and tell them about your worries. If they are very patient, they will listen, but more likely, they will cut you off or perhaps even help “re-direct” your thinking by mentioning things like, oh, I don’t know, Syria or their friend who is fighting cancer or the fact that they are happy it’s Wednesday despite having no summer vacation. B) Catch yourself in the act of worrying and literally tell yourself to stop. I have done this several times, and it really works. “Claire,” I say (out loud), “it’s totally fine that you have put Free into childcare on your day off. She herself never expressed a negative opinion on the matter, and she will love seeing the frisbee expert who is stopping by that day, and there’s nothing wrong with you wanting to have a real day off by yourself–your child will be just as healthy and happy as if you’d kept her by your side all day.” By the end of the script, you will either believe yourself and be able to let go of the (irrational) guilt, or you will have identified faulty logic that will lead you to changing your actions instead of just feeling guilty without doing anything about it.
2. Count your blessings!
I know, I know. It’s so cliche, and when someone once told me to keep a gratitude journal, I almost punched them. But it’s different if you tell yourself to do this, and when you actually force yourself to create a list of what’s going well, you might surprise yourself with how good it feels. After a very hard day at work today, I headed out on my run, which I did not want to do. As I got going, I made a mental checklist of what was good about my day. By the time I (quickly) got to item #6, I felt a million times better, and I was able to stop counting and start tuning into my breathing. I picked up the pace at around mile 3 and shifted out of jogging gear into running gear, which felt awesome.
3. It’s ok to cry…a little
Kristen’s motto is “no wimps or whiners,” and it’s a good one, but I tend to carry all kinds of angst inside me, which builds and builds if I don’t let it out somehow. This morning, waking at 5am and knowing that once I got out of bed, I would be nonstop until 10pm, I felt it all welling up inside me. I needed to cry. When I got in the shower, I let it out, feeling sorry for myself for a couple of minutes before shaking it off and facing the day. It’s ok to feel sad, vulnerable, or just plain pathetic. Just know it isn’t your definitive or default position. Recognize where your vulnerability shows itself and try to identify what can help you pull out of it. For me, a long hug from Newman and a couple of minutes of crying are usually all I need to pull myself together. Sometimes, it requires more intervention, and that’s ok too; the important thing is recognizing what you need to get you through each day and making sure to take care of yourself when necessary.
4. Accept the cycle, for better and for worse.
Teachers know the pain of Sunday night more than most people, and the end of August feels like Sunday night multiplied by, oh, about a million. The other day, I watched my senior class bubble up with energy and chattiness, and I felt a wave of fear come over me as I remembered last year’s class, which put me through the ringer. As I felt my stomach tighten and the anxieties stack up in my brain that this new section would be my “bad” class, I suddenly had a flash of recognition about the old class. Yes, they were tough to teach. Yes, they tested me all year long. But now…they were gone, each on their own path, in college or somewhere else, all young adults on a journey beyond the limits of this high school. That class they had with me? It was a finite journey, and they would never be back with me in that way again. As I thought about this and looked around at the new group, I made a mental note that no matter what it turned out to be, it was a limited time that I had with them, and it was full of opportunity. Even if it ended up challenging me and being a rough year, it was only one year that I had with these students. That’s one of the gifts of this job. You have one year, and then there’s a renewing energy where you start all over again with a new group. Who else gets that kind of cycle? There’s good and there’s bad, and it’s all necessary to understand and appreciate what life is all about. Accept it. Move through it. Be present to as much as you can as it’s happening.
5. Try not to take anything personally.
I’ll admit that this is my biggest challenge. Last year, that tough group I taught had six friends who made every day a little bit crazy, and every one of those students told me at some point that their behavior wasn’t “personal.” They were immature, to say the least, so their behavior may not have been intentionally directed at making my life hell, but it was rude, disrespectful, annoying, frustrating. I tried every tool in my educator resource-kit to make it work, but I felt that struggle intensely all year. Looking back now, however, I am finally able to receive the message they were sending. It wasn’t personal. They were immature, acting out, doing what they always did, in and beyond my classroom. This year, on the second day of class, a student did something that was entirely dismissive, and for the first time, I could see clearly that her actions had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with her. It was a light-bulb moment for me. It doesn’t mean I will write her off or stop trying to relate to and engage her, but I was able to put it aside at the end of the class and recognize that no matter how I had changed my own behavior, she still would have chosen to be the way she was. And that was ok. We are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, but the mistakes and the learning belong to us alone, and no-one else should try to take credit for them.
6. Take care of your students, but don’t forget to take care of yourself.
There’s a balance to strike here, and only you can determine how you manage it. It’s easy to look around at your fellow teachers and judge them or compare yourself to them, but you’re better off spending a little time examining what you need to do for yourself and determining how to do that over the course of a school year. Whether it’s taking a mental health day, indulging in some treat at the end of the day, leaving work on your desk instead of taking it with you when you leave on Friday afternoon, or finding a “hiding” spot at school where no-one can find you, it’s important to recognize your own limits and to find ways to nurture yourself so that you can remain patient and kind and open to all of the many things your students will bring to you in the course of the year. At the end of their time with you, they will most remember if you were nice to them. If you are nice to them, they will be far more likely to learn from you. So ask yourself, what will it take for me to be nice to them at all times? Be honest in your assessment, and find a way to take care of yourself so that you can be a better teacher to them.
And those are my survival tips for now. Hope they help!