The Good Thing: Sweetwater Trails

Today was an awful day. Like, a really bad, no good, awful day. There was far too much discipline involved, because far too much discipline was needed, and so much of that discipline felt ineffective. Students were snarky and mean and totally apathetic. By the end of the day, holding in my frustration at defiant and disrespectful students (who were being that way while my principal observed me), I was shaking when the bell rang for dismissal.

I’d planned to go on a run after school, and all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and not move. My friend, another teacher at the school, came by my classroom after school ended. We’d planned to run together, and after slightly exploding with frustration during our conversation, I grumbled that maybe I shouldn’t go on a run.

“Yeah, you should,” he said. “I had a crappy day too. We’ll feel better after the run.”

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He was right. We went to Sweetwater Preserve, which is on the backside of Saguaro National Park, for a short run. It wasn’t my best run, and it wasn’t my longest, but I felt like something had washed clean from my mind when I finished.

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Sweetwater Preserve contains a winding, continuously mixing series of trails and loops, and we took several of them to add up the distance. It was right on the brink of raining the entire run (which, in my opinion, makes the desert look just right).

Most of my day was frustrating and filled with pent-up tension. Less than an hour changed that. Note to self: Do the good thing. Whatever that good thing is for yourself, do that. Do the healthy thing for yourself. Especially when you’re mad, and always when you don’t feel like it.

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Reflections

Year: 2

Clearly, I fell off the blogging bandwagon.

The last month before winter break has been hectic. As, I imagine, it always will be. My motivation dipped significantly low and I focused, more than anything, on reaching winter break. For the last week, I have been in Michigan, spending time with family and relaxing.

This time last year, I seriously considered quitting the teaching profession. I had never felt so emotionally or physically exhausted; I felt like I didn’t recognize my body or my mind anymore. I’d actively dreaded the return to the school year, fantasizing vaguely about joining the Peace Corps or applying to jobs that I’d not previously had any interest in (and still don’t, really). I could not possibly imagine reaching the summer finish line. It seemed truly, painfully impossible.

But I made it. I finished the school year, both as a better teacher and (I think) a better person. My teaching improved, and though I could not have imagined a worse spring semester from the fall semester, I encountered the death of a student and a long, stressful statewide teaching strike. I moved through both, and I finished the school year.

And even though I am tired, and I am wishing this winter break were one week longer than it is, I am very cognizant of the fact that this winter break is about a million times better than the last winter break. My feeling of tired is much better than my feeling of exhausted. My knowing that I can get to the end of the school year is much, much better than my feeling of dreading the next part of the school year.

The first school year of a teacher’s career is unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and certainly not something I’d felt prepared to encounter. This year, only a few months separated, is so immensely better and more enjoyable. It is not perfect. It is not flawless or easy. But, man, is it better. And it will continue to be so with time. Cheers to the veteran teachers and to the new, and enjoy your winter breaks.

The Notebook

Year: 2

I am not about to discuss Nicholas Sparks, I promise.

We are deep into the season of stress and disappearing motivation. Although this year is (genuinely unbelievably) so much better than last year, it is still a time of the school year that is stressful. Students are behaving particularly rebelliously at the moment, and teachers are reaching a level of exhaustion. About a month ago, I began looking for new methods of stress-relief and techniques for maintaining a positive mentality.

There is now a notepad in my desk drawer. It’s not fancy, but it sits in my desk drawer, easily accessible. Every day, I write the date; after every class, I write at least one good part of the class. Most entries are silly or small (ex. “A student wrote “BUTTS” at the bottom of my class sign-in sheet). I’m not writing down life-changing teaching moments. I’m writing down the tiny moments that are so often forgotten in the turbulence of November and December.

I try to write down as much as I can for each class, but some days, I only scribble down one note per period. That’s okay. I’m not trying to get to a specific number of notes every day. I’m trying to remind myself how many good, funny, sweet, positive moments exist in a day of teaching.

It is such an incredible reminder, when I sit at the end of the day and glance at this notebook, how good days can feel like bad days simply because of stress. I’m stressed, yes – but, in reality, my days are pretty good. This notebook is just one small way to help keep a healthy perspective in mind.

Self-Care Checklist

It’s so easy to ignore personal health as a teacher. It’s so easy to feel too tired, or too busy, to take care of yourself. Considering that, I’ve made a “self-care checklist.” I try to do one thing for myself from each category, daily, to take care of myself.

Mental Health

  • Meditate. I try to meditate daily, in the mornings. There isn’t a ton of research about meditation (at least, not credited research the way we think of it in the West), but the research that is there suggests you’ll benefit the most from it if you meditate between 5-10 minutes a day.
  • Write in a journal. Vent, reflect, do whatever you’ve got to do.
  • Laugh. Watch a stand-up comedy, listen to a funny podcast, laugh with your friends.

Emotional Health

  • Call a friend. Real communication helps with stress immensely.
  • Go all out on a “personal night.” face mask, wine, favorite movie, whatever it is. Spend the night relaxing.
  • Go out. Get out of the house. Seriously. Depending on what you need, it may not be a night at home alone, but a night with friends.

Physical Health

  • Take a walk outside. Sometimes, I’m so stressed after work that I need a physical separation between my hours at work and my hours at home. Walking for 15-20 minutes helps with that.
  • Exercise. Anything, really, helps you when you’re stressed. I love running, biking, lifting weights, and yoga. (Generally, my rule is that when I really don’t feel like working out, I have to work out that day.)
  • Spend time in nature. A growing amount of research suggests that spending time in nature – even an hour or two a week – helps lower anxiety, stress, and depression.  Take a hike.
  • Eat healthy. This is one I struggle with frequently, but it is incredibly important. The food you eat can drastically impact your mentality, and the healthier you eat, the healthier your mind and body become.

 

One of the habits that improved my mental health, generally, during my first year of teaching was when I began giving myself regular “check-ups.” I started to become more conscious of my behaviors and thought patterns as they related to my health. I began paying attention to the signals my body sent me, trying to figure out what I needed most on different days. I tried as many different ways to be healthy and to lower my stress level, but I focused heavily on physical health because I knew how much it could affect my mental health.

Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

October: the month that lasts two years

Year: 2

It’s six in the morning, and as I’m making lunch for today, I’m listening to a Spanish playlist and wishing I were back in Chile. This week, I’m teaching an argumentative essay for the second time. I feel as though I’m moving through mud. It’s October, and I am feeling this month in every part of my day.

Writing anything about teaching during October, November, or December runs the risk of just being a string of tired (very tired) complaints. It is a very particularly difficult time of the school year because, as students get more comfortable and begin to act out, teachers are just wearing down their energy. We’re entering a part of the year when I have to become much more strict (I am already very strict) and I enjoy this job much less because of it.

My school’s fall break ended yesterday, and rather than feeling refreshed and ready to teach, I felt as though I were dragging myself through each class. After this week, the quarter should be much easier to get through, as writing lessons are typically less enjoyable for me than other lessons. The days following any break, but especially a break in the fall, are rough, and it will get better as I get back into the routine of teaching.  I’m trying to focus on that as I go into today. I probably sound like a broken record, having said this so many times, but self care is going to be even more important for me this week: to all the other teachers out there, I hope you’re taking care of yourselves, too.

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.