Teachable moments

I have never been more exhausted in my life.

Never deserved a holiday more.

Never experienced such professional intensity – both euphoric and despairing.

Welcome to my first 6 months of teaching.

I am so drained I can barely find the energy to describe the stunning, astonishing roller coaster that is term 2 in a secondary school.

I was warned that term 2 would be difficult. My colleagues did their best to prepare me – there were no punches pulled. But the English language simply does not have the words to convey the drama, trauma and harrowing exhaustion that the last few months have rammed into my life.

Wilting at my desk, I can’t even begin to imagine how I could explain life as a secondary teacher to anyone who has not experienced it themselves. Nonetheless, ever the optimist, I am going to give it one desperate try.

Right now I am experiencing a bizarre combination of euphoria and despair. On the one hand I have survived my first 6 months of teaching relatively intact. Term 2 is over, no-one died, nothing went disastrously wrong, and most of my students seem pretty happy. (Those who are awake, at least. One of my students was so exhausted today that he was dreaming in class – to the extent that he twitched violently when the stairs he was climbing evaporated and turned out to be a table that he was sleeping on.)

On the other hand I am struggling to be the teacher I envision myself to be. The soaring heights of teaching perfection that I can picture so clearly in my head never quite materialize in the classroom. Wiser and more experienced teachers assure me that this is normal – that good teachers are always striving for something more. Stretching up for the glorious fruit that seems perpetually out of reach. However well today’s class went, it could always have been better. I could always have reached one more child, explained a concept better, or kept more careful track of every student’s progress.

Positive feedback, while deeply valued, gets swamped by my awareness of the goals I did not kick. The students I did not reach. The ones I didn’t motivate. The ones who didn’t speak up in class. The ones who didn’t do as well as they could have on the exam. The ones who didn’t submit their assignment. The ones who can’t or won’t ask for help.

We have provided amazing opportunities for our year 11s. They are working on cancer research, and with marine biologists. Their project work stands a good chance of being used for real science. They get to talk to scientists regularly, and experience amazing things. They did brilliantly on their exams, and a lot of their project work is seriously impressive.

There is a lot to be proud of in what we do. But here at the rump end of what I am assured is the hardest term of the year – chock full of exams, projects, marking, curriculum development, report writing and spectacular exhaustion – I find myself focusing in on all the things I wish I could have done differently. All the opportunities that were missed, and the students who didn’t quite make it.

And yet… I adore my job. Recently I underwent a particularly unpleasant medical procedure, and the nurse tried to distract me by asking me where I worked and what I did. She was visibly impressed by the way I responded. Put it this way – I suspect that the lights in the room were no longer necessary.

That’s teaching, I think. Talking to the talented, dedicated, wonderful teachers I work with, I haven’t yet found anyone who is quite satisfied. They don’t rest on their laurels and cruise through the year. Of course, this is no ordinary bunch of teachers – I do recognise that I am exceptionally privileged to work where I do. But I suspect it’s true of teachers everywhere. That irresistible urge to be better, go further, and do more drives the most amazing success stories, but it is a fine line between success and burnout.

I suspect that the trick is to stay on the right side of the line.

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

oh the news will travel slowly

over broken glass

and I’ll bet you heard that story

under the overpass

— Midnight Oil, Under the Overpass

The world is curiously resistant to the idea that the medium of communication makes a crucial difference to how it is received. It is very tempting to send email when dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. Far easier to type an email behind the safety of your computer than to look someone in the eye, or even hear their voice, when you tell them something they don’t want to hear.

Sending an email means you don’t have to deal with any reaction – at least not immediately. When the reaction does come, it is in text, stripped of the signs of stress and trauma that we are pretty good at recognising in faces and voices. It can depersonalise the whole experience, which is great if you don’t want to deal with the consequences of what you have to say.

Therein lies the problem, of course. Email can be a godsend when you have to announce something traumatic to the world – like a miscarriage – and you don’t want to go through the same painful conversation a hundred times over. For more personal, one-on-one conversations, though, it is stripped of all the emotional nuance and meaning that our bodies convey (even over the phone), and a single sentence can have 15 different interpretations. Meaning is suddenly in the eye of the beholder.

I recently attended a professional development session on the Autism Spectrum, and the presenter made the point that people with autism struggle with those subtle nuances that can change the meaning of a sentence. Meaning can alter dramatically based on intonation and emphasis. Take this sentence, for example: “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” Read it out loud, and put the stress on different words in turn. eg “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” “I didn’t say she wasn’t coming.” etc. Each sentence has an entirely different meaning. People with autism find those differences difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

In a sense, email makes us all autistic. The meaning stuffed into an email by its author can warp into something entirely different in the mind of the reader. Depending on mood, expectations, and even personality, different people will put those emphases on different words, and extract entirely different meanings from a single email. Indeed, the same person may read an identical email differently depending on the kind of day he or she is having (I can personally attest to this).

Got no time to weep for something

you may never get back

if you’re feeling cold and lonely

under the overpass

Email allows us to get everything out without interruption, but it deprives us of those cues in our listener that warn us to change our tune, moderate our tone, or explain a point. It allows tension to build like a pressure cooker missing its escape valve.

Like a game of chinese whispers, email can warp your message beyond recognition. It’s a way of talking to people without having to face them, but so much is lost in the process that the ultimate pain can be magnified out of all proportion. Far better to have that conversation in person, scary though it may be, and sort it out face to face.

I’ve seen many time bombs built and armed via email, and nearly as many defused by a two minute conversation. Email is a dangerous weapon. Use it wisely.

Just being there

I recently read this powerful piece on getting through depression. Seema Duggal writes eloquently of the power of support – of her need for friends to simply be there by her side while she struggled with her illness.

” It may have been my journey, but I needed people in my ring, cheering me on as I took the punches.”

Some people suffer more than their share of trauma in life. It is exhausting to care for someone like that – there are times when simply being an observer of that kind of life can feel like too much effort. I know I have sometimes felt that way about others – and I suspect that people have often felt it about me.

We have crazy, hectic lives. We tend not to know our neighbours, or even have time to hang out in the school yard meeting other parents. We fly by the school, horn screaming, slowing down just enough for the kids to leap in before we hurtle around the corner. Or the kids go to before and afterschool care, and there aren’t any other families around at pickup time.

With extra-curricular activities, both for kids and adults, the weekends are too full for play dates or coffee. It’s all we can do to keep the wheels of life turning before we crash, exhausted into bed. We have no time or energy to expend on supporting others.

I doubt that many of us would choose to setup our lives that way, or be up front about saying that we just can’t be there for anyone else. But there is probably more truth to the description than any of us are really comfortable admitting.

Supporting people going through trauma, especially anti-social trauma like depression, is hard work. Although it doesn’t necessarily take much physical effort – regular phone calls or extra hugs aren’t so hard to provide – the emotional effort can be huge. Yet the curious thing is that supporting others can actually be a way of supporting ourselves.It can make us feel connected and needed. That sense of community, of being there for each other, and knowing that there are people around you who will catch you when you fall, is increasingly absent, especially in city life.

hugging wombats

As an atheist, there is much about organised religion that I dislike, yet its power to bring people together and create communities is something that our secular society seems to have thrown out with the bath water. I don’t believe that religion is correlated with caring – there are good, caring people within and without religion all over the world. What organised religion provides is a structure around which community is easily created.

We are all quick to express our horror when tales emerge of someone dying, alone and forgotten, and not being discovered for weeks or months on end. We condemn the society that allows that to happen. Yet we are all complicit in maintaining exactly that sort of society, as we hurtle through our busy lives.

I don’t know what the answer is for society as a whole. I suspect it will take a radical lifestyle shift to change things, and whether that is even possible is more than I know. On a personal level, though, there is more we can all do to reach out to the people around us. To make time for phone calls and coffee. To ask for help when we need it – no easy task – and to step up when the people we care about are struggling.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by someone else’s trauma, and be paralysed into doing nothing. Sometimes that first step of reaching out can feel like jumping off a cliff – risking rejection, or being seen as interfering – but the rewards can be incredible. Some of the greatest friendships in my life have arisen from the fire and ashes of the worst times. Sometimes I have reached out to others, and sometimes they have reached out to me. Either way the bonds forged will last a lifetime.

Who have you reached out to lately?