Burning the candle at both ends

I began writing this post on Thursday of last week, but life happened, and it got saved to drafts until I could pick up the torch and carry on.

January through late March/early April is the longest, break-free stretch of the school year for many teachers. The weather is gray and dreary. The students are feeling the pressure of the switch between first and second semester and some of them have begun to realize they are truly responsible for their grades. It’s no wonder that this is universally the time of year for teachers to feel burnt out.

But it’s more than the gloomy winter doldrums or the lack of mental breaks from the workload. There is an emotional toll to teaching that the average person completely overlooks.

First, there is all of the planning. My school has a 7 period school day that runs from 8am to 3:30pm. The class periods are 55 minutes with a 25 minute lunch. In theory, each teacher has a prep period, but in my case, it’s typically spent counseling seniors and/or calling home to parents, and fifty-five minutes flies by when you’re busy. Some teachers only teach one subject, all day, but I have five.

My current school day looks like this.

I wake up at 5:30am 6:00am 6:30am and struggle to get my rump out of the front door before 6:30am 7am to get to school by 7am 7:30am to have an extra 40 minutes of “quiet time” to work and get things prepared for the day in a leisurely manner while I enjoy my coffee or tea hurridly rush to be completely ready for the school day which begins at 8:00.

By the time that first bell rings, I must be prepared for at least 1st through 4th periods as my prep hour isn’t until 5th period.

In ELA 12 (1st and 3rd periods) we’re currently working through a unit on Public Speaking in order to prepare these students for their Capstone presentations as well as hopefully not embarassing themselves (and by extension me, as their teacher) when speaking to people on the job, at college, or in general. Over the next 6 weeks the students will each give an informative, demonstrative, and persuasive/argumentative speech along with a number of impromptu speeches to help them practice thinking and speaking on their feet. For exemplars and modeling, I give short speeches and use a mixture of videos from professional speakers (TED talks), slam poets (Taylor Mali, Sarah Kay, and others), and saved speeches from past students (who have given their consent for me to keep and use their work as models) to teach students how it’s done.

My 1st hour is mostly comprised of ESL students, so while the content of my lessons must be the same, I have to adjust my delivery and resources in order to ensure that the students are able to grasp and process the information presented. 3rd hour is an entirely different animal in that there are five seniors hell bent on not making it to graduation based on their delightfully maladjusted attitudes, another fifteen students overcome with apathy so intense it has enough form and shape to be another student in my room that I’d like to call “Huh?” and another five students who want to know what has gone so wrong with the educational system that they have to be in a classroom with the other twenty students.

Oh, and I should mention that both 1st and 3rd hour are made up entirely of male students. Needless to say, behavior management is an issue in both of those hours.

In AP English Literature & Composition (2nd period – mixed gender class), we’re busting through Of Mice and Men and The Odyssey in the remaining three weeks before Spring Break in order to a) cover content these students have never had, but should have had (Of Mice and Men) and b) cover deeper thematic analysis writing as it’s likely that the Free Response essay question will be a thematic prompt that can be answered by using either The Odyssey, Of Mice and Men, or Hamlet (which we covered in February, in four weeks, because I am a rockstar when it comes to teaching Shakespeare).

In SAT Prep (10th grade girls, in the average to low standardized test score group), I’m endeavouring to make non-fiction texts interesting and engaging by using the musical Hamilton as a hook (yes, I rap for my students), reading the non-fiction book Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in class, while teaching non-fiction reading strategies before moving into excerpts from The Federalist Papers which is the sort of Primary Source Documents that students are expected to have engaged with prior to the SAT. I call my unit, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” (thank you, Lin Manuel-Miranda) and I will also be having my students write autobiographical raps or songs about themselves by the end.

At the same time, these students are given 15 vocabulary words a week using Barron’s Painless Vocabulary to learn how to teach themselves vocabulary in context without the usual drill/kill methods. Students earn credit by using the words correctly in class or on written assignments, or by instagramming a picture of the words found in their books or out in the world and using my hashtag for the week. ESL students and non-ESL students also complete non-linguistic representations of the words, weekly, and they are hung throughout my classroom in order to help students create deeper connections to the words.

In my other SAT Prep class, I have a “small” group of 21 ESL students whose average reading level is between that of a first or second grade student. I have to teach them the basics simply because they do not have them. So, currently I’m teaching them genres of literature and we are currently working on fiction with fairy tales, but the language barrier along with a cultural lack of story telling in their homes is making things difficult. I feel quite confident that they can identify most concepts of Fairy Tales if given a new story they haven’t read yet, but do not feel confident that they can identify the theme or the moral on their own. So far we have read and analyzed simple versions of The Frog Prince, The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. Today we began watching The Princess Bride because not only am I so burnt out that I cannot continue to make lesson plans for 5 separate classes, but if I teach this group of 21 nothing else but to be able to quote this movie, I will have done a good thing.

The last period of the day I monitor a group of 38 students (yes, you read that correctly: 38 students) in the library as they take various online classes. I do not understand the purpose of the online classes and do not feel that the program our school uses is particularly effective at teaching anything.

It’s mentally exhausting. By 3:30pm I feel like a wet rag that’s been wrung out so many times it’s too stiff to be able to do its job.

After the planning, there’s the students. I mentioned that I rarely get a prep hour in order to get things ready, to grade, or to merely shut the door and eat chocolate in the dark – in the quiet. They knock, bang, and nearly bust the door down. They have questions and late work. They have to take make-up quizzes and tests. They need to talk about problems with their Capstone. They need to talk about personal matters and they trust me to listen.

Sometimes I answer the door to find a former student who swung by to see me.

Sometimes I don’t answer the door, only to have it opened by an administrator with a master key in order to tell me “there’s a student who awnts to see you,” taking away my autonomy and privacy by ushering them into my room.

I’m humbled that many students find my room to be a safe place or consider me their mentor or confidant, but sometimes it’s too much responsibility to bear. I have learned to say “no,” and to set boundaries, but the interruptions don’t stop simply because I’ve turned a few students away.

There’s also e-mail, Remind.com, Edmodo, and countless other ways to be reached and harassed. I had to take two sick days on Monday and Tuesday this week and you’d think that the world ended by the amount of “emergency” messages I received from students asking me to clarify the assignment (that was posted to the class website as well as given to them in hard-copy and explained to the sub by my classroom neighbor Mr. T), asking me if I was coming back (like I’d quit and leave all of my supplies behind?!? I have a LAVA-LAMP on my desk, bitches! I wouldn’t leave that behind!), or complaining that “the work is too hard, Miss, we’ll just wait until you come back.” With 42 student messages by 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon while I’m still under the weather my flight or fight response kicks into high-gear. It’s sensory assault via e-communication.

Currently, I’m struggling to keep up the momentum to get me through Spreak Break, after which it’s a 9 week sprint to finals and summer vacation with my family.

The bottom line: I’m not only a teacher to 150+ teenagers in Detroit, but a mother of two children, one a toddler (3yo) and one still an infant (11mo). I deserve and desire to spend time with them, for more than the few hours of their presence that I eek out in the evenings before bedtime. On average, I see my children for three waking hours each day, Monday-Friday, between when I arrive home, and when both kids are safely tucked into bed.

I’m also a wife, and my husband and I struggle to connect given the hectic pace of my work week and the familial obligations of the weekends. I desire time with him to reconnect, to speak about topics that are not our beautiful children, and to remember why we are so important to each other.

Being a good teacher doesn’t afford me that time.

Last year, right before my daughter was born, a fellow teacher shared a link to Danielle’s blog, Someone’s Mum and her struggle with being both a mother and a teacher where she wrote:

“Teaching is not family-friendly at all, I say, sadly. Maybe it was, once. For me, teaching is constantly in conflict with my family life. There’s just no way to be a mother and a teacher and to feel successful at both. Every single day, I feel like I am letting someone down. I am stretched thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. I honestly don’t know how long I can sustain it. I still love my subject, enjoy sharing that love with students and watching them grow and achieve – but, ultimately, I love my own children more and letting them down makes me hate myself.

So why am I still in the profession, I hear you ask? It’s simple: I am a teacher. I don’t know how to be anything else. I am also a mother and I can’t be anything else. Unless we can make teaching family-friendly again, I am doomed to be in conflict with myself indefinitely, or to leave the profession. Whether I can manage the huge weight of my conflicting responsibilities and pressures remains to be seen.”

Her words struck right to the heart of me. I cried by the end of it, and my husband and I talked about the possibility of finding a way that I could stay home with the kids for a few years. We have yet to find a workable solution, but in the meantime, I plod on.

Like Danielle, I do not know how to be anything but a teacher, but I also do not know how to anything but a mother. Trying to do both, to the best of my ability, isn’t sustainable.My family deserves better, but my students don’t deserve less, and I’m scraping the well dry trying to serve them both.


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