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.

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4 thoughts on “Teachable moments

  1. Miranda

    Wow, I think secondary school teachers are amazing, brave and under-appreciated. There is no way I could stand up day after day before a (mostly) disengaged audience. Your holidays sound like they are well earned. Enjoy!

  2. David Galea

    Love reading your blog Linda, and share your sentiments. I too was kicked emotionally on the last day of term. My Forensics Science class (Year 9) was planned to be interactive and fun for the last day. The topic “Lies and deception” I engaged the students in facial movements, body language and Neuro Linguistics. One of my mentors arrived 30mins after the start of the 2hour lesson. He left soon after and sent me an email kicking me that I have a lecture model of teaching. He did not take into account, its the last day, I wanted to give the students a break and learn something they could use at job interviews. He gave me a scathing report, but end saying the students were engaged, well behaved and enjoyed the lesson. I hate the fact the the students and I ended on a high with high-fives and best wishes, only to be soured with a late email knocking my teaching model. This model was only used because the nature of the material could not be taught in only 2 hours, but to give the students a note to end forensics on a fun note.
    David “exhausted” Galea

  3. Pingback: Things they didn’t tell me when I signed up | Exploring life, parenting, and social justice

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