small tasks

After writing my last howl of a post, I took a sick (read: mental health) day. What I learned from this is: when you are ready to smack your students, are so tired you can’t sleep, and experience more than one crying jag in the space of a few hours, it’s time to take a mental health day. It did me no end of good. I also went to bed at 10 the next night and took an over-the-counter sleep aid to minimize both tooth-grinding and dreams.

When I returned to work the following day, having thrashed some of my concerns around with the Boyfriend, I decided that I needed to set myself some “good teacher” tasks. The task for that day: I will not get annoyed with anyone, for any reason. No matter what happens, I will not glare, hiss or sneer. I will assume that everyone, no matter how rude, has the best of intentions.

As soon as I walked into my first class, a student cried, “Did you correct our essays?” She was smiling. The day before, I would have incinerated her with a single glance. Instead, I laughed, and immediately remembered that the previous week I had told them, “If I don’t give them back to you within two weeks, you can start harrassing me.” We had arrived at the two-week mark. What was more, she was kind of joking. And the essays were done. It was all ok.

When I returned to my office after class, there was a hoarde of students outside my office, waiting to get into the chemistry lab. One of them was standing directly in front of my door. I said “Excuse me,” three times, at increasing volume, before he stepped out of my way. There were bags and books lying in my path. Nobody moved them. Two of my colleagues, standing a few feet away, were outraged. “This kind of thing will make you insane,” one commented. True, I thought. But not today. Today, nothing will make me insane.

When I arrived at my final class of the day, the math teacher who occupies the classroom before I do was, once again, still there, talking to students and drawing diagrams on the board. It is the policy across the college that teachers need to free up the classroom ten minutes before the next class begins. This teacher almost always remains in the room until about one minute to the hour. This was almost my breaking point. As I was waiting outside the door, fully in his line of sight, it struck me that perhaps he is a new teacher and has never been told this policy. Perhaps, I thought, it is my task to tell him this policy. Perhaps I should tell him this policy today, but I’m concerned that if he is in any way resistant or impolite about it, I will lose my sh*t. So not today.

At the end of the day, I felt immeasurably lighter. I had sincerely and heartily laughed several times in each of my classes, something that hasn’t happened in a while. I had felt sincere and hearty affection for a couple of students who generally make me want to snarl.

So this will be my small task for the rest of the semester: I will not get annoyed. If I feel myself getting annoyed, I will simply take a breath, or, if necessary, do something to make the thing that is annoying me stop. This will not be an easy task, but if it is my only one, I can manage it for three weeks. Maybe at the end of three weeks, it will have become a bit of a habit. Or, if not, I can make it my overall task for next semester. If I don’t quit my job in a whirlwind of rage and hopelessness, I will have many semesters ahead of me to practice not getting annoyed. Eventually, I’ll get it right.

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5 responses

  1. I think you’ve hit upon the best approach in this situation. An attitude change can be surprisingly effective when circumstances cannot be changed. I am finding this to be the case more and more these days. When I make that shift, I’m shocked at how much less energy I expend, how much less frustrated I become and how much lighter my days are. I struggle and fall, but even when I do, I try to be easy on myself about that failure and pick myself up and adjust the attitude (like a skirt or nylons that keep twisting out of place!). You’ll probably find that it will impact your classes as well.

    Are you teaching two 101’s this term? If so, that alone is enough to wear anyone down. If a sabbatical term is not feasible at the moment, you may want to consider teaching only one or two courses next term. Given the course distribution, you may end up with two post-intros and that in itself may make the load much more manageable.

  2. Thanks, Maia. Yes, I’m teaching two 101-33s, and will be next semester as well. I chose this deliberately for two reasons: 1. the 101-33 is still new to me, and I’d like to give it a few intensive runs in order to tweak and perfect it, and 2. despite the challenges, the advantage is that these classes are half the size of a post-intro class. Having taught mostly (sometimes exclusively) post-intros over the last couple of years, I felt I needed a swing in the other direction. And I don’t regret that aspect at all.

    The difficulty comes, not only from the general ability level of the students, but also with the overall maturity level. Incoming 101 students, as you know, are, for all intents and purposes, still in high school. Compound that with the fact that these are not, for the most part, high achievers, and you end up with a stew of psychological and emotional obstacles to overcome. If they were all struggling but motivated and appreciative of the opportunity to learn, things would be very different.

    And then there’s me. I am, as several people have pointed out, burnt out. I’m doing my best to make financial arrangements to take, if not a full sabbatical, at least a reduced load sometime soon. I think often of Bertrand Russell’s assertion that teaching should not be anyone’s full profession. It is impossible to love teenagers continually if you never get away from them. At least parents have the luxury of knowing their kids will grow up – for us, the students are 17-19 in perpetuity, and we can’t be expected to find their weird emerging-adult brains delightful without cease.

  3. I think you took an excellent approach with this math teacher. But I was waiting to hear his reaction! What was it?

    Best regards,
    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  4. It’s really clear your students are learning a lot from you, from the girl who asked if you’d graded the essays (clearly waiting for your opinion on hers) to the Cree boy who spoke so well after a difficult semester.

    Best regards,
    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  5. Eileen: re: the math teacher: I didn’t approach him at all that particular day, but waited patiently. He smiled at me as he was leaving, and said hello, either because he was oblivious to the issue or because he wanted to assert his presence.

    The next class, however, I arrived to find that my students had simply taken over the classroom while he continued to talk and write on the board with a couple of his students. I unpacked and nestled my belongings on the few inches of desk not covered with his stuff. I chatted with my students while I waited. Then, when he was finally getting ready to leave, we exchanged hellos, and I said,

    “It occurred to me last class that maybe you weren’t aware of the college policy about class times. The policy is that we need to clear out of our classrooms ten minutes before the next class begins, so that the next teacher can set up. Especially when it’s the last class of the day, it’s problematic when we can’t start on time, because then the class runs long, and if we’re doing a test or something, it becomes a real issue. It would be really helpful if I could get in here and get ready about ten minutes before the hour.”

    He seemed a bit startled, and said, “But your students are here!”, but as I continued to explain as calmly as I could, he apologized, and said that he would try to be out of the classroom earlier in the future.

    Thanks for your words of support. I do hope that some of what my students are learning is due to me.

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