Willing to Read and Write: Reprise

Last week, this post – first published in September of last year – spiked in my blog stats.  It seemed a whole pile of people were reading it, but I couldn’t figure out who or why, although the search term “effort” had a corresponding spike.  Maybe now, at midterm, teachers and students are being hard hit by the reality of the reading and writing demands of college.  Or maybe it’s bots.  Regardless, I like this post, and am still asking myself these questions: is college the best place for students who find reading and writing a chore?  Is it a place where they can learn to love these activities, or at least see their value?

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Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

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Image by Peter Galbraith

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One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

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We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

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Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building: Reprise

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I’m not teaching The Catcher in the Rye this term, but I’m pre-planning next year’s course on novels about adolescence, and wondering whether to include it in the list.  The post below, first published in June 2009, grapples with the possibility that maybe it’s not the best choice for today’s youth, at least not those in my college’s demographic.

Do you love CITR? Do your students love it?  Should I make my students read it?  Give me your thoughts.

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Apparently, teens don’t like Holden Caulfield any more.

The New York Times published an article in 2009 about the demise of Holden’s appeal in the minds of the young. One teacher says, “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students…In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Another summarizes her students’ attitude as “I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.”

For years I began my course on novels about adolescence with The Catcher in the Rye. I reread the novel every semester and found myself gripped, shaken, and finally, reduced to tears. But many of my students stared at me blankly when I rhapsodized about Holden’s journey. When I asked one class how many of them HADN’T liked the novel, almost half of them raised their hands. “And why not?” I asked one of them.

He shrugged. “I’d like to show Holden what real problems are,” he said.

The NYT suggests that Holden’s alienation is less accessible to today’s teens because of changes in the way society caters to teenage boys.

Perhaps Holden would not have felt quite so alone if he were growing up today. After all, Mr. Salinger was writing long before the rise of a multibillion-dollar cultural-entertainment complex largely catering to the taste of teenage boys. These days, adults may lament the slasher movies and dumb sex comedies that have taken over the multiplex, but back then teenagers found themselves stranded between adult things and childish pleasures.

(What Holden would have thought, or SAID he thought, about slasher movies and dumb sex comedies is debatable, of course.)

Despite the naysayers, many of my students say they do like the novel – it’s easy to read, Holden is funny, Phoebe is delightful. So I keep going back to it.

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye lately? Do you still love it, if you ever did? Have you taught it, and if so, what did your students think?

Image by Barun Patro

Up and At ‘Em

It’s almost that time again.

I hope you’ve all had a great summer.  Mine has been thrilling, terrifying and exhausting, all on a small domestic scale.  You will hear about some of it in the coming weeks.  The upshot: school begins on Monday, and I am neither refreshed nor enthusiastic, but I am nothing if not dogged, so I am lacing up my boots and printing up my course outlines.

I AM looking forward to communicating with you all again, so, beginning Monday, I will return to regular posting!  Once again, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I am going to shake things up a bit.

Mondays will bring a current post on the events in Siobhan’s teaching life and/or the thoughts in Siobhan’s teaching brain.  On Thursdays, I will dig into the archives and re-publish a post I love that has disappeared from view, possibly with small edits and additions.

Look for the following new posts in the coming weeks:

  • Things I Learned From Buying a House
  • A commentary on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed (a previous post, “Fail Better,” explored an excerpt published last year)
  • Thoughts on introversion, and on Susan Cain’s book on the subject
  • More advice, solicited and non-, from Auntie Siobhan (send me your questions!)
  • …and of course, much much more.

As ever, I welcome your suggestions of topics.  Post them in the comments here, or visit this page to contact me.  And happy new school year!  See you on Monday.

Image by Dave Dyet

Who’s to Blame for the Student Strike Mess?

Does anyone know where this image originated? If so, please inform me.

Until now, I haven’t commented on the madness happening in Montreal streets concerning tuition hikes.  I haven’t commented because my feelings about the tuition hikes, and the resulting student strikes and protests, are, as a friend recently described his own, “nuanced.”

I am not in principle opposed to tuition hikes in Quebec.  I AM opposed to wasteful government and university spending, and I am most certainly opposed to the ludicrous Loi 78, a “special law” passed a few days ago which severely restricts the public’s right to protest.  This law, an attempt to quell increasingly fevered demonstrations around the city, has made things much, much worse, and it’s hard to believe that the provincial government actually thought the effect would be otherwise.  (Everyone else in the province seemed to understand, as soon as the law was proposed, that it was a really bad idea.)

I mostly haven’t commented because I haven’t felt clear enough about the issue to put my feelings into words, especially my feelings that I wasn’t entirely on the side of the people protesting.  So I was relieved, today, to come across this elucidation by (formerly local) curmudgeon, protesters’ darling, and wonderful writer Mike Spry.  He’ll break it down for you:

100 Days of Blame

At the end of his post, he explains the problems with the student argument and the perspective that the students needed to take from the beginning in order to win public sympathy.  It is helpful to anyone who feels conflicted.  I’m still not entirely clear about my position (except my position that Loi 78 is a stupid, stupid law – who does that?)  Spry’s article, however, has articulated a few things I wasn’t able to straighten out for myself.

What’s In a Name?

What do your students call you?  Would you rather they called you something else?

A couple of years ago, a reader named “Viceroy” left this baffling comment on a post that had nothing to do with his observation.

I notice that your students, who appear to be 17 & 18 years old, are required to addess [sic] you as “Miss”. Is this a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon education system where the student is required to humiliate himself/herself every time the teacher is spoken to? I’ve been teaching now for 25 years, and no student has ever called me by anything other than my first name. Makes I think for a much more relaxed and mutually respectful atmosphere.

After trying to puzzle out what he was talking about, I replied thusly:

What an odd comment. My students are in no way required to call me “miss” – in fact, I and many of my colleagues have struggled for years to get our students to call us by our names, even going so far as refusing to answer when we’re addressed as simply “sir” or “miss.” Most of us have given up the fight, as they persist in calling us by these titles, with no name attached, no matter what we do. I now tell my students that I prefer that they call me by my first name or by “Ms. Curious,” whichever they’re comfortable with, but most instinctively call me by the catch-all “miss,” and I suspect some would be hard-pressed to tell you my name if you asked them.

(The commenter’s choice of username – “Viceroy” – probably deserves some parsing, but let’s not bother.)

This exchange came to mind this afternoon, as my friend Susan and I were playing hooky from our grading and having afternoon tea (scones! cucumber sandwiches!) at the lovely Montreal salon Le Maitre Chocolatier.  Susan, also a CEGEP teacher, mentioned that she refuses to answer her students if they call her just “Miss,” and that after a few weeks of being ignored, they cave and learn her name.  She especially loves it when they call her “Miss Susan.”

I’ve never been able to stick to my guns that long.  And the truth is, although I did try for years to get them to call me “Siobhan” – out of some sort of anti-authoritarian principle, I suppose – I have always felt a twinge of discomfort when they do.  I still hate “Miss” as a generic teacher name, but I’m resigned to it.  “Ma’am,” on the other hand, charms me – I know some colleagues detest it, as it makes them feel old, but as far as I’m concerned, being old is an asset to a teacher.  And I do love “Miss Siobhan,” but when a student calls me “Ms. Curious,” that sits just right with me.  I sometimes wonder if I should instruct them to do so, and refuse to answer to anything else.

(At least one of my colleagues insists on being addressed as “Dr. _________.”  This has always struck me as insufferable, but if we were teaching university, I doubt I’d think twice about it.  Maybe I’m just a self-hating lowly CEGEP instructor.)

I believe we should all get to decide what others call us, but when it comes to choosing battles, this one seems less than pressing.  On the other hand, Susan says that when her students concede to call her by her name, it changes the tone in the classroom – the relationship becomes more reciprocal, and they seem to feel more of a responsibility to treat that relationship properly.

Do you have rules about how your students address you?  Do they follow them?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 4: Face Your Fears

This is the fifth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

When I first started teaching, I was scared.  Terrified, in fact.

I’d taken a job as a Second Language Monitor – a sort of assistant language teacher – in a small elementary school in Ottawa, where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree.  I’d never had any intention of becoming a teacher, but this was a well-paid part-time government position that would look excellent on a CV and that was designed for university students, leaving time for our studies.

I had terrible stage fright.  However, I told myself: It’s just a job.  If it’s terrible, I can quit.

As it turned out, it was not terrible.  Within a few weeks, my fear had turned to delight.  Not only did I not quit, but when my contract ran out in April, I stayed on until June as a volunteer, coming in to the school five days a week when I could.

Since then, the stages of my teaching career have all been touched by fear.

  1. I moved to a small town in Quebec to work full-time as a Language Monitor.  I was afraid I’d be lonely, but my job consumed me and I had no time for loneliness.
  2. While doing my education degree, I took an internship in a school for disadvantaged students.  I went to work every day terrified of the chaos that was bound to happen.  It did happen, but I survived, and at the end of my stage the students gave me a list of pointers on being a better teacher (“Be more strict!”  “Don’t take any crap!”)
  3. I took a job giving private English lessons in offices all over Montreal.  I was nervous about navigating public transit to distant areas of the city.  In the process, I got to see places I might never have traveled to otherwise.
  4. I moved to Japan to teach junior high school; I spent every day worried about some unfamiliar task I would need to accomplish.  I learned more there than at any other time in my life.
  5. Before I began teaching CEGEP, I worked as a substitute public school teacher.  Many days I woke up petrified of what was in store: a school I’d never been to, in a part of the city I’d never visited, with students who believed that giving me hell was their responsibility.  I told myself, “It’s good to do things that scare me.”  And some days were awful, but I always learned something.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I wasn’t scared.  I had a lot of teaching experience.  I was excited about teaching literature after so many years of focusing on ESL.  I found my young adult students interesting, and enjoyed being around them.

However, as the years passed and I became more and more tired and unhappy, I realized that I was becoming afraid of walking into the classroom.

My fear was the result of trauma.  Regardless of how many terrific students I had, I was confused by the students who cheated, spoke to me rudely, or refused to engage.  I’d had difficult students before, but I’d had more time and energy to break through their defenses.  Now, I was taking negative attitudes personally, and I was hurt.  I shut down, put up walls, and held all my students at arm’s length, to avoid feeling victimized.

My fears were threefold:

  1. Fear of being disliked.  In the past, most students had liked me.  I was young; I was good-looking “for a teacher;” I really cared about them and their success.  In most of my teaching jobs, I wasn’t responsible for grading or disciplining students; I’d rarely been obliged to say “no.”  All this had changed.
  2. Fear of confrontation.  In life, as in the classroom, I detest fights.  Aggression and displays of anger upset me deeply.  When I’m angry, I become icy cold.  When faced with inappropriate behavior – whether in a student or a friend – I tend to ignore it, at least outwardly, although I can stew about it for years.  I was afraid of confronting students who behaved inappropriately; I froze them out and ignored them, and this made things worse.
  3. Fear of doing a bad job.  My sense of identity was now tied to being a “good teacher.”  However, my definition of “good teacher” wasn’t accurate.  Until now, I’d rarely considered how much my students were learning – instead, I was concerned about whether they were enjoying themselves, and me.  I was afraid that if my students didn’t all love me, I wasn’t good at my job.  But of course, this isn’t true.  My job is to help them learn, not to win their approval.

Identifying these fears was a major step in recovering from my burnout.  As I unpacked them, I realized that I needed to change my conception of “good teaching,” I needed to confront classroom difficulties head-on, and I needed to let go of the fantasy that I’d one day walk into the classroom with total confidence that everything would go well.

Fear is a part of any important work.  We don’t need to get over it, but we may need to change our approach to it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss one way I tried to deal with my fears: I got more training.

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Have you had to confront particular fears in the course of your job?  How successful have you been in doing so?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Scott Liddell

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 2: Take Time Off

One of my favourite quotes about burnout is from Bertrand Russell’s essay “Education and Discipline”:

 … it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children.

 In Thursday’s post, I described the “confectioner’s apprentice” moment in my career.  I no longer enjoyed anything about my students.  It was as though I’d been eating nothing but macaroons for fifteen years; I never wanted to see a macaroon again. Maybe if I got away from the macaroons, I would remember what I’d liked about them in the first place.

I had to step away from the classroom.

I decided to apply for government arts grants to fund a semester of work on my current novel.  If I got one, I would take a professional leave.  This was a state of emergency, however; I needed a break NOW, and, the likelihood of receiving an arts grant being what it is, I needed a contingency plan.

The Husband (then the Fiancé) and I had a talk.  If I didn’t receive funding, but could put aside a bit of money, would he be willing to pick up the slack while I took time off?  He knew the situation was desperate, and he said yes, we’d manage.  If I’d been on my own, or if we’d had children to support, I would have had to find another solution – applying for a temporary non-teaching job, for example, or putting off a leave until I had savings.  But one way or another, it had to be done if I wanted to continue being a teacher.

He began stockpiling.  (That’s the kind of husband he is; I recommend you get one just like him.)  I began to budget as well, and it soon became clear that we’d be able to pull it off.

And then, an arts grant came through.  I would be able to take a semester, plus summer and winter vacation – a full eight months – away from the classroom with minimal financial worries.

From the moment I opened the letter of acceptance, I began to feel the healing effects.  For the rest of the term, I could see the quiet months of solitary writing work waiting for me, just a few steps away.  Classroom difficulties, no matter how I handled them, would vanish in a matter of weeks.  Everything became less dire.

When the semester was over, the papers were graded, and my leave began, I was already dreading returning to work the following January.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the leave was going to vanish from under me, and I’d be back in the classroom, gritting my teeth and snarling and counting the days to retirement.  It was weeks before I could relax enough to take my novel manuscript out of its drawer and begin work on it again.

As time passed, though, and I settled into the rhythms of writing, my teaching life began to dissolve like a dream.  I occasionally read an article or had a conversation about teaching, and impressed myself with my calm and detachment.  I considered past classroom problems, and potential future ones, with very little visceral response.

This, I thought, is what people mean by a “vacation.”  I hadn’t had one in years.

It took almost five months for the teaching cobwebs to blow out of the corners of my brain, and by the time they had, it was almost time to start preparing to return to work.  To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to it.  My course schedules gave me prickles of excitement.  I logged into the online class lists and looked over the pages of student photos – I felt a bit anxious, but I didn’t feel dread.  And in the weeks before class began, I didn’t have my usual “teacher nightmares” – dreams of broken photocopiers, vanishing classrooms, standing pyjama-clad in front of forty shouting hellions.  Instead, I felt – was I kidding myself? – eager.

As I entered each of my new classes on the first day, I smiled sincerely at the students.  I really was glad to see them.  I think they could tell.

Throughout the term, there were difficulties, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed.  It was as though stepping away from the teaching life had made everything about it – the class periods, the distance between midterm break and Easter weekend, the stacks of essays, the occasional belligerent student – smaller.

It was the best semester I’d had in many years.  I was on my way to loving my job for the long term – if I could continue to get away from the macaroons from time to time.

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If you’re a teacher who’s feeling exhausted, you might want to investigate your school’s options for leaves.  At my college, teachers can take unpaid leaves if we give appropriate notice.  Tenured teachers can also arrange for “advance” or “deferred” salary – for example, we can spread two years’ pay over three years – or apply for a reduced workload.  All these options have consequences for our pension, health insurance, seniority and, of course, income, but teachers who are able to accept those consequences can take steps toward greater sanity and efficacy.

If your school allows personal leaves, no questions asked, consider an aspect of your identity that’s been dormant while you’ve been giving your all to the classroom.  Do you have a manuscript languishing in a cabinet?  Do you need to spend a few months on a meditation retreat?  If your school will only grant “professional leaves,” consider a project you’d like to undertake that you can spin as “professional development,” like travel or going back to school.

And then, of course, consider how you’re going to pay for it.  If you can swing it, it will be totally worth it.

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Have you ever considered taking time away from your job?  Did you do it?  Why or why not?  Did it help?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday’s post: finding and appreciating my community.

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 The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 1: Take Stock. Is It Worth It?

This is the second post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.  For the introductory post, go here.

On Monday, I introduced my career crisis.  After teaching joyfully for many years, I was tired, discouraged and ready to quit.

But I paused before throwing in the towel.  I took a deep breath, and took stock.  Was it really time to look for a new job?

I asked myself some questions.  You might want to consider them, too.

 1.  Are these feelings new?

For years, the classroom had felt like my natural habitat: a place where I was more comfortable than almost anywhere else.  Even if a lesson was disastrous, I was INTERESTED in the disaster and how it had happened.  My students fascinated me, and I wanted to know and help them as much as possible.  This had changed only recently: I was now so irritated by students who were disruptive or disengaged that I was failing to appreciate everyone else.

I’d loved my job once.  Maybe I could again.

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

 Was it possible that I still loved teaching but would rather be teaching another subject?

I continued to love language and literature, but I was now less interested in fiction, my area of greatest expertise, and more intrigued by personal narrative.  I asked myself if I could incorporate more of these kinds of texts into my lessons.

I also asked myself – perhaps for the first time – why I thought literature should be important to my students.  Why should we read, write, study and analyze texts?  Did these activities have real value for students like mine, who rarely read for pleasure and who often resented being asked to engage with literature?  Could I do more to communicate my passion about these topics?

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

 I rarely meet a teacher who has anything good to say about grading.  However, some teachers find the pressures of marking so crushing that they leave the profession.  Teachers of literature, and other subjects that require mostly essay writing, are especially vulnerable, as are conscientious teachers who feel compelled to give students lots of detailed feedback.

One dedicated English teacher I know left on maternity leave and continually found excuses not to return, saying she might never go back to teaching because the thought of grading mountains of essays caused her to curl up into a fetal ball. Retired friends talked about how they missed everything about teaching but the marking.  It wasn’t just me.  Grading papers is brutal.

My own hatred of grading had gone from a normal aversion to two extreme physical reactions.  For one, I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hand, arm and neck – it had first manifested a few years before, the result of compulsive journal writing, but it was now so painful to write by hand that I avoided it at all costs, even at the expense of grocery lists and phone messages.  I had also seen an old problem reassert itself: hyperventilation.  I was literally suffocating each time a pile of papers landed on my desk.

I would have to find ways to cut down on the grading.  If this proved possible, I might be able to stay.

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

 When I talked to friends (teachers and others) who were dissatisfied with their jobs, a number of them told me, “I love what I’m doing, but my workplace is toxic.  I can’t stand my manager/my colleagues/the administration…”

One evening a few years ago, I called a friend, in tears over a student who was making my life hell.  She responded, “Imagine how you’d feel if the a**hole you were crying about was your boss.”

Her point was clear.  The staff, faculty and management at my college were supportive.  We often took refuge together in offices, union lounges and bars, talking about our difficulties or just enjoying one another’s company.  (For example, if you’d like to know how print shop employees can fill your life with sunshine, go here.)

A positive work environment is precious, and rare.  Did I want to give it up?

 5.  Teaching has many secondary advantages.  How important are they? 

Besides being around young people and taking pride in what we do for them, there are other perks to being a teacher.  These often include long vacations (even after the grading and prepping), flexible work schedules (we can do some of our work at home in our pyjamas), autonomy (in our classrooms, we call many of the shots), and eventually, job security (turning one’s back on a tenured/senior position is no joke.)

It’s important to me to have stretches of time to work on my own projects like fiction writing, studying, and blogging.  Creative and stimulating jobs are often less than financially stable.  When I fantasized about other possible careers – writing full-time, going to culinary school – I couldn’t imagine one in which security, freedom, inspiration and emotional reward would be so balanced.

Jobs are hard.  Period.  My teaching job was, by all objective and subjective measures, a good job.  Did I really think I would find a better one?

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We all know bitter, unsatisfied teachers.  The world doesn’t need more of them.  If I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like teaching, I’d have begun looking for other work.

However, this first step – taking stock of my real feelings – made one thing clear: teaching suited me.  There were serious challenges that sometimes seemed like too much to handle, but they were balanced by the rewards: the chance to do something meaningful, to be comfortably paid for it, to have time to myself, to engage with material that mattered to me, and to work with people I liked and respected.  I wasn’t done.  I was just tired.

I didn’t want to quit; I wanted a new attitude.  What I needed, I realized, was a break.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how I got one, and how it helped.

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Have you ever considered leaving your job?  What questions did you ask yourself?  What were your conclusions?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Introduction

A few years ago, I was ready to quit my teaching job.  But I didn’t.

I’ve been a teacher in some capacity for twenty-three years.  I fell in love with the profession when I was a college student and landed a part-time job as an assistant language teacher in an elementary school.  I was sure that I had found my vocation – that teaching would be a source of both income and happiness for the rest of my life.

I took an education degree and got jobs teaching English overseas and in Quebec.  Despite the difficulties I encountered, my dedication to the job never wavered.  Teaching inspired me.  The emotional rewards were immediate and powerful; the challenges were opportunities to learn and grow.

In 2001, I finished my Masters degree and began teaching English literature at a CEGEP.  Within a short time, I had tenure.  And for the first few years, my love of teaching persisted.

But teaching CEGEP was different from my previous jobs.  The responsibilities were greater, the marking load was enormous, and I faced many more classroom management problems than I expected.  Students cheated.  They failed and demanded that I give them second chances.  They lacked motivation and refused to follow directions, or were blatantly disrespectful and disruptive.

In the past, I’d found these pedagogical challenges interesting, but as the years passed, I became more and more tired, anxious, and discouraged.  The rewards seemed to diminish in proportion to the difficulties.  I began dreading the start of the school year, dreading Monday morning, dreading each class.  At 35, I began counting the semesters until I could retire.  And then I began concocting plans to leave teaching and pursue some other career.

But then I stopped.  I took some time to reflect.  I took some time off.  I looked around at what I had.  I examined what was really at the root of my problem.  I investigated ways to strengthen my skills and commitment.  I found methods to calm my mind and fortify my heart.  And I started to meticulously document my experiences, reactions, and options.

Now, a few years later, I’ve renewed my commitment to teaching.  I haven’t returned to my initial, giddy infatuation with my job; instead, I’ve developed a deeper and more sustainable understanding of my role and its rewards.  I don’t know for sure that I’ll be a teacher forever, but I know that I have a lot more years in me.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll outline some of the steps I took to regain my love of teaching:

Stay tuned!  Maybe my experience will shed some light on yours, no matter what your profession.  What’s more, I’ll present some general questions for you to consider if you are wondering how to love your job more/again/for the first time.

And please leave comments about your own path.  Have you struggled with whether your career is the right one for you?  Are you deliberating this now, or have you resolved the dilemma?  If you’re just embarking on your professional life, what are you going to do or stay motivated?  We’d love to hear your stories.

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by tinneketin