Getting Your Sea Legs, or The Secrets of My (Wobbly, Five-Year) Success

I know, you want to help people.  Change lives!  Reach out to the disenfranchised!  Create educational equality in an unequal world! My goal was to do all that, and to make it through five years in teaching.  More than half of our new teachers in America quit before five years.  In schools with lots of poor kids, like mine, it’s probably much worse.  I promised myself that I would quit if I was burned out or losing my mind.  I didn’t.  I’m now just a few months from achieving my goal.

Teaching has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Many times, I wanted to cry uncle and say the challenge was too much.  I limped through these times, half-blind or sullen or broken, and eventually felt energetic and optimistic again.  How can you help man the ship of education through its always-stormy seas?  How can you keep your balance and hold the vomiting to a minimum?  Well, here’s how I did, anyway.

1. Where you work is everything.  You won’t survive as a lone crusader at a dysfunctional school.  You can’t set the world on fire for learning if the kids set fire to it first.  Don’t try to be a hero.  You’ll do more good with five years at an okay school than with six months in crazytown.  My school has 80% poverty, but it’s a pretty happy, friendly, comfortable place.  Just because you want to work with kids who really need you doesn’t mean you have to get treated like shit, or feel unsafe.

2. Your coworkers are your salvation.  No one else understand what you are doing, and the kind of tired you are.  If your coworkers (teachers, but also janitors and cafeteria people and security guards and adminstrators) are assholes and you can’t talk to them, you are going to be miserable.  Once you’re there, invest in these people like they’re Apple in 1980.  You can’t do it alone.  No one can.  My coworkers taught me a lot of the rest of this stuff, and thank you, thank you again.

3. Devote yourself to a mentor you trust.  Teaching was my first “career” job, so it was my first experience with locating a Yoda.  I was lucky to have two wise mentors right from the start, one a fellow English teacher, and one a fellow freshman teacher.  I asked a million questions.  There was no question I was too proud to ask.  I revealed my mistakes and how bad things really were.  Otherwise, I couldn’t get help.  (This goes for family and friends, too, who have donated time and treasure to support me through some rough times.)

4. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a good time to skip meals or exercise.  I know, you’re so, so busy, and so, so tired, but you’re just going to feel worse if you don’t eat and sleep properly.  I’ve tried to get a massage once a month (a student massage at a place nearby is $30), and I really think those should be mandatory for teachers.  You have to exercise.  I have to go to church and meditate and do yoga and take long baths.  I can’t eat junk, or I will not have the energy to make it through the day.  Part of taking care of yourself is also attending parties, seeing friends, and keeping up your hobbies.  It’s better for you, and your students, long-term, to keep your sanity with a healthy lifestyle.

5. Don’t even think about teaching summer school after your first year.  I don’t care how poor you are.  Dig ditches.  Anything.  I would avoid summer school in the subsequent years, too, if you can swing it.  It’s a grand or three versus the risk of complete burn-out.  Dangerous.

6. Be patient with yourself.  There is no perfect teacher.  There is no perfect student.  You don’t know what effect you have on students.  It’s impossible to judge.  Life is too complicated.  You’ll never really know– for good or for ill.  All you can do is try your best and know you’re part of something positive in the world.  Be thankful you have a job that gives you a sense of purpose.  That has to be enough.

7. Take a day off. No one needs you that bad.  Get over yourself.  Let the kids go crazy with a sub and do nothing for one lousy day.  Take that day off, even if your pay is docked.  If you’re maintaining your healthy habits (and washing your hands), you can save your days off for mental health recovery, rather than physical health.  Get your head back on straight.  Sometimes when the kids think you’re being a bitch, you are, and you need a day off.

8. You’re not going to like this, but you can only control what you can control. See?  I told you it was rough.  The main thing that will waste your time and burn you out is obsessing and slaving away at problems you cannot fix.  Your time and energy are invaluable.  Think carefully before you take on an extra project.  Don’t do extra work to “save” a student who won’t work for you.  That’s not helping– that’s enabling.  Especially because students and administrators might not respect your time, you have to guard it carefully.  It’s more valuable than money.  Which you already knew, or you wouldn’t have taken this career path in the first place.

Getting A Grip

If, as Socrates said, a wise man knows what he doesn’t know, and if the blueberry of wisdom can only be truly savored when baked in the bagel of ambiguity (aint that the truth?), then I was wised up this week.  I went to chat with a colleague today, and I brought with me two things: one, a burning certainty of what we ought to be doing, and two, my general life goal not to be stupidly narrow-minded.

Teachers, like all professionals, have a few favorite rants.  There’s “these kids won’t learn.”  There’s the old “administrators ruin everything.”  I was on a “slipping standards, slipping standards” jag today.  Our standards are slipping.  Everything is slipping.  I can’t get a rope around things here.

So I explained what wasn’t working.  How I felt we were short-changing students and losing our vision and priorities.  Then I listened to why we did this, why we did that– some of which I felt fine about, and some of which made me very itchy.

And she said, “I think you’re doing a good job.  I think you’re accomplishing more than you know.  Even the kids who flunk are probably learning a lot.”

I wanted to talk issues and vision and problems with my colleague.  I wanted to push and lobby for where I think my school should go.  I also wanted to be listened to and open up about my fears: what if we are not fulfilling our mission?  What if we are selling the students short, sending them off to college when they’re still too shaky to succeed?  I didn’t want to insult anyone or complain, exactly.

Prophets have it even worse than teachers.  Or they did.  Are there still prophets around?  Prophets get a message from the big man upstairs (or the fates hanging out at their loom) and have to go rant the message until they are blue in the face.

A great deal of the time, no one wants to hear it.  They feel like they’re not accomplishing anything.  And sometimes what they are accomplishing is making the mess worse, or just pointing at the mess and saying, “Look at this!”  It’s likely no one, no matter what you say, will actually stay home on the ides of March.  I never have.

I don’t like to set up meetings without an achievable goal.  After a proper period of complaint, I want to get right to biting off a reasonable chunk of the problem and making a list of things to do.  That works a lot of the time.  Not always.

Sometimes venting is its own good.  Sometimes talking in with a defined problem or an agenda can blind you to the truth.  You can’t do that with people you don’t trust, though.  It takes a lot of care to avoid defensiveness and to stay open to new definitions.

“Slipping standards, slipping standards” will always be with me.  It does sound like a prophesy from a robed, scraggly figure.  I’ll probably find it laid out there in my cup, next time I check out my tea leaves.  Like most prophesies, it has a pattern of truth: standards are always in danger.  We always have to keep an eye on our goals and limits, double, triple-check them.  It helps to have another pair of eyes.  We look to the prophet because we feel nervous and weak.  I hope that the more interpreters we can consult, the more sure we can be of what to hold onto.

The Whistle

I’m going to take a couple of risks here: ranting about how other people should raise their children (bearing in mind that I have no children, to make it even juicier), and writing about a rerun on television.  Today Oprah’s show reran a feature on a 7-year-old girl who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  This time I got to see the whole thing, which riled me up even more than when it originally aired.

This little girl gets violent and sometimes has to be hospitalized.  What I couldn’t understand was why she is not always hospitalized.  We have facilities where people with all kinds of dangerous and/or high-maintenance disabilities can be tended by professionals in a highly structured environment.  Sheltering people who dangerous to others is one of their primary missions.  I’ve actually heard some positive things about these places. Just like all homes, I suspect, some are happier than others.

The little girl’s parents trade off days with her, living in separate apartments.  They never get to be alone together.  One parent is always with their other child, in that other apartment.  The girl is too dangerous to be allowed to live in the same dwelling with her own brother.

The parents say that they have to constantly engage the girl in conversation to keep her voices at bay, to keep evaluating her for danger.  The dad said he had gotten so overwhelmed and depressed by his situation that he tried to commit suicide.  The whole story made me furious.

Why should the possible happiness of one girl trump the possible happiness of two adults and their other child? And why are they so insistent that living at home with them, exhausted and depressed as they are, is better than growing up in a hospital with caretakers who are (comparatively) rested?  It’s not true that only biological parents can love and nurture a child.  And how about their other child being raised by parents who are exhausted and depressed?  Is it right to sacrifice his needs for hers?

But the main thing I realized was that watching tired people makes me mad.  Not just mad for them, but mad for myself.  I watched that dad talk about his suicide attempt, how he didn’t even go to the hospital to get his stomach pumped because he had to stay with the kids, I thought, give yourself a break!  Let someone give you a break!  It is too hard for you!  Admit it!  Take a break!

This is almost impossible for me to do.  I can talk the Italian vacation talk, but I am still a worker American.  I struggled today merely to admit that I could not get all my students’ projects graded over the weekend.  Sorry, guys, I said.  I had to have some time off.  I can’t always get the job done.  Sometimes I just crap out.

So for that dad, especially, I will not feel guilty about spending a couple of hours on the couch tonight, drawing and playing iTouch Skee-ball and eating popcorn.  I don’t have a desperately needy child, but I was very tired from my migraine yesterday.  And tired people should do their damndest to find time to rest: tired dads, tired girls with schizophrenia, and tired teachers with only nine days left in the semester, not that I am counting.