Teaching myself not to burn

Tomorrow I start work at 8:20am, teach solidly all day, including over lunchtime, hurtle home from work to pick up my kids, drop one to drama, scoff some dinner and then hurtle back for parent student teacher conferences until 9pm. Being part-time my interviews only run from 5:45 until 9, over which time I will conduct 30 interviews with students and their families. I will likely finish later than 9 – oddly enough,5 minutes is just too short for some conversations – at which point I get to stagger out to my car and try very hard not to crash it on the way home. We are two days away from the end of a term that has been, for various reasons, one of the hardest in my teaching career.

The thing is, I think I have said that about every term since I started – except for the first couple which were, since my teaching career was at that point quite short, the hardest in my life. I don’t remember a term where I finished bright-eyed, bush tailed, and full of energy and ideas for the next term.

And it’s probably true that every new teacher reaches the point where they realise that they simply do not have the resources, either within themselves or within their school, to teach the way they would really like to. There is not time to prepare. There is not funding for resources. We don’t have the time or the energy to give the care and attention to every individual student that they need and deserve.

It is true that I am absurdly passionate about my job. I give it everything I have, which is probably unwise. My boss last year described teaching as akin to fly-in-fly-out work – we work chaotically hard for 10 weeks, and then collapse for two weeks and do it all again. It’s not a healthy work model.

At some point it becomes necessary to pull back and rationalise resources. To slow down. To say no to some opportunities, even though you would love to make them happen for your students, because it would take more than you have to give.

And that’s terribly easy advice to give, but remarkably difficult to apply. “How much is too much?” is a question akin to Piet Hein’s famous grook:

There’s an art of knowing when,
never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes and then
twenty seconds less.

I think last year I toasted until I smoked. And I’m still wandering round dazed and rather singed. I’m trying very hard to adhere to the “20 seconds less” this year, but unfortunately it’s a measure that tends to only become obvious as the smell of smoke fills your nostrils.

This, sadly, is the school model we have built. We are burning our teachers. And every year the government demands productivity improvements in exchange for wage rises. And that sounds great. I’d like to see some productivity improvements. I’d like to see less teachers burnt out. I’d like to see less kids fall through the cracks because their teachers are simply too overworked to see them clearly. I’d like to see teachers ending the term with the energy to plan for the next one.

I’d like to feel as though I have the time to do my job properly, rather than having to settle for second best because it’s all I can manage. The system is so broken that I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. I’m ending the term in pieces – again – and I still have tomorrow’s insanity to go. Tell me again how I can be more productive?

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Please don’t say you love me

Dear Mum,

We almost had such a good day today. You were unusually lucid – I think you might even have known me. We walked up to your local cafe for lunch. You won’t go there on your own, but we always go when I visit. The owners are so kind and welcoming, and endlessly patient when you repeat yourself, or when you can’t read the menu. They even prompt you, because they know what you like. They don’t need to be told that you have a long black, and that you like to have it after the meal. They bring me extra hollandaise with my eggs benedict.

Every time we visit that cafe I want to hug them, because they create such a safe and welcoming space. A little island of happiness amid the trauma of our relationship.

Today it was almost peaceful.

You asked about birthdays, always afraid of missing one, so I suggested you write a card for Jane and James, your daughter and grandson. You looked puzzled and stressed, but still it was a hammer blow to my gut when you said “do I know them? Do they know me? Will they know who the card is from?”

For the first time my tears came before leaving you, instead of after. I had to excuse myself and hide in the loo, leaning against the door and fighting to breathe, to suppress the tears and be able to come out again smiling.

The rest of my visit was a whirlwind of anxiety. You wanted to go to the bank, but you didn’t know why. You wanted to get money out, but you weren’t sure how much. You thought perhaps you had forgotten that you were meeting someone at lunch. When I took you home and took my leave, you wrapped your arms around me, told me you loved me, and that you were so lucky to have me.

But I don’t feel lucky.

Just please don’t say you love me
‘Cause I might not say it back
Doesn’t mean my heart stops skipping when you look at me like that
There’s no need to worry when you see just where we’re at
Just please don’t say you love me
‘Cause I might not say it back

Please don’t say you love me  – Gabrielle Aplin

I am lucky, I know I am. Because along with your memory, the dementia has taken away a lot of your fear, and most of your anger. Now that you don’t always know who I am, you no longer reject me for every perceived offence.

You don’t threaten me with legal action much anymore. Before the dementia took hold you used to do that if you thought I had committed any of a whole range of crimes, from talking to my uncle – or sometimes even my sister – to asking about Dad’s health.

I’m not even sure if I love you, to be honest. I feel desperately sorry for you, but in truth life is easier this way. You’re calmer now. Maybe life is easier for you, too, without all that rage.

You used to be so afraid. Afraid I wouldn’t do what I was told – you said you wanted us to be independent, but disagreeing with you was a hanging offence. Afraid I loved others more than I loved you – now there was a self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one. Afraid people would let you down, or reject you – so afraid that you invariably rejected them – us – first. Your fear made you lash out, and even though your viciousness was objectively ludicrous, it reduced me to rubble every time.

You used to try to bind me to you with guilt. “If you loved me, you’d…”

“If you really cared, you’d…”

“We were up all night because you were so cruel to us… if your father has an accident and dies on the way to work, it will be all your fault.” I can’t remember exactly what caused that one – it was either someone offering me some furniture, or someone inviting me over on Christmas day. Both triggered massive meltdowns, which of course were entirely my fault.

The meltdowns are different and less frequent now, and they never last because you forget so quickly. I visit more often than I can really handle, but not as often as I feel I should. I wonder if it really matters because 5 minutes after I’ve gone you don’t know I’ve been. Still I feel guilty, because guilt is our currency of choice. All my life you have ruled me with the iron fist of guilt.

I mourn deeply, but I’m not sure that I mourn you. I mourn the mother I dreamed of, who loved me unconditionally and would never disown me. I mourn the mother who knew me inside out and loved me outside in. I mourn the mother I could talk to about my fears, who would support me instead of judging me, and who was proud of me even when I struggled. The mother I wished I deserved.

I don’t mourn having to choose my words with care. I don’t mourn fearing that you might find out I’ve been spending time with someone else. I don’t mourn the long silences that meant an explosion was brewing. I don’t mourn the fear.

But each time I drive away from your house I feel sick. I can’t breathe. Perhaps forgetting who we are is one final rejection that comes and goes almost daily, along with your memory. Maybe this is a new way to lose and re-lose the Mum I never really had. Maybe  everything is still my fault.

I just wish you would stop saying you love me. Because I might not say it back.