On the evening before school starts back for the year, I usually hit a patch of anxiety that keeps me awake into the wee hours of the morning.
Today, my brain has hit fast-forward and has dumped me in that patch just about as soon as I woke up.
I know it’s not logical. I know I am good at my job. I love my workplace, and a number of my colleagues are also my good friends. I love teaching. I’ve done my preparation.I know that I will go back tomorrow and everything will be okay.
Today, however, my brain is playing a different tune. I am plagued with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. I am fearful of nothing in particular and everything in general. I know I can do it but I feel as though I can’t.
This is what happens when anxiety, introversion and impostor syndrome get together for a wild party: they don’t get messed up, I do.
What many people don’t realise is that many of their own kids’ teachers go through the same thing every year and every term. Some experience it much more frequently, even daily.
To look at them, especially at work in the classroom, you’d never know it. But it is real, and it is genuinely awful.
I don’t know what the solution is. The only thing I know how to do is hang in there, try to take care of myself, and keep going like I always do.
I’ve been largely out of action here this week, because I have been on my annual personal personal pilgrimage attempting to scale Mt Marking.
You may not have heard of Mt Marking. It is a steep and imposing mountain, located right near Mt Grading and Mt Evaluation in the End-Of-Year Reporting Ranges. It is difficult to climb, and can quickly turn into a slippery slope if one does not pay attention to one’s preparation, time management, and self-discipline.
After several very long and arduous days, I have made it about half-way up. It is getting somewhat harder to breathe, and it is exhausting, yet I must persist. I find myself relying more and more on coffee and, while I have been careful about nutrition in past weeks, I find now that I need to supplement my diet with chocolate to keep my strength and attention at sustainable levels.
And when Miley Cyrus sang that “it ain’t about how fast I get there” and “it ain’t about what’s on the other side”, it was not Mt Marking she was climbing. There are deadlines, after all, and the dangerous, rapidly-flowing Reporting River is what awaits on the other side, with the broad and intimidating Planning For Next Year Wilderness beyond that.
I will be able to see it all once I stand triumphantly on top of Mt Marking. On a clear day, you can see almost all the way to the end of the term.
If this past week had a theme song, it’s definitely ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen.
The pressure of juggling job, family, and other commitments has been huge, simply because there was a truckload of stuff I had to get done and all of it had deadlines attached. The problem was that I was relying on other people to do certain things, too, and when that didn’t happen, I had to do more.
There was not anything I was willing to skimp on, or give it a “that will do” treatment. My students deserve to receive the help and attention that they need, and my elderly father deserves nothing less. Exams are approaching so papers have to be graded and feedback has to be given. Exams have to be finalised for checking, printing and delivery. I had a student teacher finishing a placement, so there was extra paperwork to do by Friday afternoon.
And this weekend is full of auditions for ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, which I am directing for Camperdown Theatre Company next year.
I am not complaining. I know I am not the only one who is busy, and these are all things I have taken on willingly. But that is actually part of my argument.
What I want to achieve in this post is to point out that life is full of demands and commitments, and managing one’s time is crucial. Whether a professional, a student, or in any other role in life, it is an essential life skill to be able to get things done to the best of one’s ability in a timely manner so that deadlines are met.
For me – or anyone else – to be able to do that, other people need to pull their weight and do what is expected of them. Nobody operates in a vacuum, and one person dropping the ball or refusing to pick it up in the first place has flow-on effects that they might not ever see.
The often hidden effect of someone not doing what they should is that others can’t actually meet all their obligations either.
On the occasions when my own students don’t get their work in on time, that puts me behind in getting their assignments graded and in giving feedback that would help them in completing future pieces of work. It can also put me behind in writing reports, which can cause other people further up the school “food chain” to be behind in what they need to do, too.
On those days when I end up working late at school to meet my own commitments because someone else has been slack in meeting theirs, it either means my dad has to wait for his dinner or whatever else he might need, or that my husband, who already works one and a half full time jobs and does all the things I can’t do at home because of my back, has to do extra at short notice. That’s not fair on either of them.
It isn’t always avoidable, I know. Some kids have issues that crop up, others have a lot of responsibilities. It’s also both fair and important to say that it’s not always the students who cause the issues, either.
More often than not, though, it’s a the result of someone’s laziness or poor priorities, and that tends to annoy me fairly quickly.
In my dream world, everyone would sort their priorities, manage their time, and get on with doing things to the best of their ability. Nobody would be let down, and we could all enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done without extra pressure making things harder.
Even though I am, like every other teacher, exhausted and keen for that bell to ring at the end of the day, I am still trying desperately to keep the kids on task and get things finished before then.
The problem is, they’ve already checked out. They just don’t care. They’re restless. They’re talkative. They’re twitchy. Their eyes have glazed over with the promise of freedom, of late sleep-ins and no school uniforms or restrictions on their social media life for the next two weeks.
If you’ve ever watched a squirrel running around in a park or a forest, that is the precise image of the mental and emotional engagement in my classroom today. One or two are evolving into chipmunks as I watch.
Except for that one kid at the back, who is working like a champion to get everything completed. I don’t have favourites, but today I really love that kid.
I am a person who takes others at face value. I don’t immediately classify someone as pretty or ugly, gay or straight, progressive or conservative (unless, either way, they are hateful or prejudiced – then the deal is off) , black or white or some other colour, blonde or brunette, or anything else. I don’t care if they’re plain or fancy, nor do I care if they’re pretty or not. I try to take each person as they are and let their integrity speak louder than their features. I like to get to know them before I make any decisions about them.
When it comes to fonts, however, i am nowhere near as open-minded. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of fonts I like, and many others that I will view with an open mind depending on context and purpose. But there ARE two or three fonts I really hate. I refuse to use them. I have handed back an assignment or two, asking for it to be reprinted in a more acceptable typeface. It’s true: I am Fontist.
I wasn’t raised that way. We didn’t really need to think about fonts back then. When I was growing up, it seemed as thought books were printed in two, maybe three different standard fonts. From memory, there was something like Times New Roman, a basic Sans Serif, and possibly another standard typewriter-style serif font. There was never a question of what typeface to submit our work in, because computers weren’t a thing and our school work was all handwritten. When I started university, assignments and essays had to be typed and double-spaced, so I used my parents’ typewriter. Of course, it only got to the typing stage when one or two hand-written drafts had been painstakingly written, proofread, edited, and revised.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad those days are over. I appreciate the ease of writing using my laptop as much as anyone else, and I’m happy for my students to do some – but not all – of their work on their devices. My underlying Fontism rears its ugly head, though, when someone hands in an assignment or broadcasts a presentation on the screen that screams “ridiculous font” louder than anything the student is trying to communicate. The same thing happens in meetings and seminars where the important information is obscured by the poor choice of font on the screen or handout.
You might think I’m overreacting. But consider this: I might read fifty student assignments in less than a week, or sit through twenty five student presentations in two or three days. When their font suggests I shouldn’t be taking their work seriously, that’s a complication neither they nor I need.
Right at the top of my hate list is Comic Sans. It looks childish, and gets increasingly ridiculous as the size increases, to the point where it is almost impossible for me to take anything printed in that font seriously. It is a font that should never be used for school work of any description by anyone older than six, nor should it be used for slide shows and presentations. Yes, it is “nice and clear for people to read”, but so are about 3000 other fonts one could choose. If your audience is not entirely in the First Grade, choose something else.
Another font I hate is Arial. Yes, it is also nice and clear for people to read. It is also entirely bland and unimaginative. Arial is the font equivalent of still having that original iPhone Marimba ring tone from 2008 on your new iPhoneX when you have 2500 different songs on your playlists. It is the font for lazy people who don’t care how their work looks. It doesn’t take much effort to switch so something equally clear but which looks a lot more polished and professional. In a word: boring.
The other fonts I really dislike fall into two groups: anything over-decorative and wrongly sized formatting.
Over decorative fonts have their place, but trying to read a block of text printed in anything full of swirls and flourishes or trippy lines and shadows will make a teacher’s eyes bleed in less than three minutes. Decorative fonts can work really well for titles, or for a special capital letter or character to start a page or chapter, but they fail miserably for anything that needs to communicate information or arguments clearly and effectively.
In a similar vein, text printed too small or too large is equally frustrating. If it’s too small and condensed, it’s hard to read and… you guessed it, bleeding eyeballs. At the other end of the equation, students may think they can fool me into believing their 337words meets the 500 word minimum word count if their work is formatted in size 15 Helvetica, but my teacher brain knows better. My teacher brain has been doing this a lot longer than they have.
So, I guess this is me coming out of the classroom cupboard and acknowledging the ugliness of the deep-seated prejudice that lies deep within me. It is equally as rampant and undeniable as the grammar nerdism that I make no attempt to hide.
Call me fussy. Call me Fontist. I’m okay with that. But don’t call me to complain if I’ve asked your teen cherub to reprint an assignment so that I can read it without tears. Trust me – it’s better that way, and I’ve tried to be nice about it. Well, I’ve probably been nice..
Unless they are a repeat offender. In that case, there are no guarantees.
One of the things practically everyone has said to me since I came home from surgery is “Don’t overdo it!”
I fully understand their concern. My back is still healing, I can’t sit upright for any length of time without pain, and it would be easy to screw up the progress I’ve made so far.
I, on the other hand, have been determined to see what I can do, given that I’m quite aware of what I can’t do. It’s also fair to say that I’m feeling the deadlines marching upon me like automatons trained to take me hostage until I meet my obligations for the end of the year.
Last week, I managed three days at school before I had to admit that I needed to rest. I stayed home on Friday and spent it recovering from three days in a row of doing more than I had done in weeks.
This week, all our students’ exams and assignments are supposed to be marked and their end-of-year reports written by Friday.
Sure. No problem. That’s totally achievable. *sigh*
I can honestly say I’m trying. Today I’ve graded essays and assignments, and written my evaluations of those tasks for the reports. I’ve had to do that lying in my recliner with my laptop propped up on my knees, because sitting for that long isn’t an option. My eyes are starting to blur, and my brain is mush. I can’t remember how I ever did this stuff on a daily basis without going mental.
But hey! At least I’m writing… something.
Today I talked with my GP about my progress, how I am healing, and what I can reasonably expect. She reminded me I had to be patient, to be kind to myself and not expect too much because my body has had significant trauma and I’m still healing. That’s actually where my body and brain are going to be expending most of my energy for some time yet.
I know she’s right.
My frustration is that it’s really hard to balance being kind to myself in that way with being professional and doing my absolute best for my students and my school. I don’t know how to make both things happen at the same time.
I know tomorrow is another day, but it’s also a day closer to Friday and those deadlines that it brings. And you know, they matter. The whole school has to work on the same timeline so that everything is done well and on time.
I don’t want to be the one to let everyone down, and I can honestly say that if it weren’t for the absolutely beautiful and generous heart of my colleague who has taken on doing all of that for my Year 11 class, I wouldn’t have any hope of getting everything on my “to do” list done.
In fact, everyone at school has been absolutely marvellous and supportive, and while I’m grateful, that actually makes it harder for me to ask for more time or more help. I don’t like asking for special treatment, and I hate the thought of it looking like I’m wimping out. I hate to admit it, but the work ethic in which I have taken pride for so long is actually not doing me any favours right now.
So, tomorrow I will simply head back to work and do what I can in the day without overdoing anything, and trying to be kind to myself.
The classroom is busy in a studious kind of way. Students are working on the task I have assigned them, and I am making my way around the room, checking in with each student to see if they need any help or clarification. The tone of the room is positive and the level of noise is low.
I know these kids well enough to know some of their hobbies and interests, which ones love reading, which ones are sporty, and which ones are the introverts who would rather work alone than in a group situation. Suffice to say, I know their names.
As I move toward the first girl in the next row, I quietly whisper to myself, “Don’t call her Susie. Don’t call her Susie. It’s Sharon, not Susie.” In the very next nanosecond, I open my mouth and say, “Hi Susie! How are you going with this assignment?”
Everyone in the room has heard me do it – again. A collective sigh, non-verbal but heavily laced with the essence of “Not again!” can be heard. One kid shakes his head at me in an awkward blend of amusement and newly-refreshed disappointment. It’s fair to say that this has probably happened to him before.
Sharon looks at me with an expression that shows she is torn between saying “I’m Sharon!” and rolling her eyes, pretending I didn’t say it, and answering my question.
“I’m so sorry!” I say. “I know you’re Sharon. I don’t know why that happens. It’s certainly not deliberate. It’s just… my brain. It hates me.”
Sharon nods. Unfortunately, she’s heard this enough times to know it’s true. I give her a pathetic, apologetic smile in response, and go back to talking about the assignment.
How can I remember the details of the Industrial Revolution or talk ad nauseum about the literary qualities of Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and still get some poor kid’s name wrong at least once a day?
It isn’t even always the same student. Occasionally, my brain/mouth coordination goes rogue, and I’ll call Kate ‘Lily’ or ‘Rose’, just to keep things interesting. Just once. Just to make things interesting, I’m sure.
This is one of the things that keeps me humble as a teacher. In my job, I’m required to talk to people and use their names in the classroom. And that very basic thing is something that, from time to time but far too often for comfort, I struggle to do.
The ironic thing is that I’m actually really good at remembering faces and names, where I met someone and conversations I’ve had with them. I have to remind myself that not everyone does that when I’m tempted to take it personally that someone hasn’t remembered my name, or having met me before.
I just don’t understand how the wrong name can come out of my mouth so often in every day situations.
The only thing I can put it down to is the brain fog I have carried since I contracted a delightful tropical disease called Ross River Fever in 2011, and which is also typical of fibromyalgia, which I have been left with as the legacy of the RRF. I know the fog is particularly meddlesome when I’m tired or my pain levels are high, but even at times when I am doing okay and enjoying otherwise greater clarity, some autonomous impulse to self-destruct in front of others fires off and I find myself apologising for calling Tom either ‘Dick’ or ‘Harry’.
I think I’m going to have to just start telling my classes at the beginning of each year or semester that it’s likely to happen, it’s not intentional, and I apologise in advance. It’s either that, or resort to calling everyone “Hey You” or just never using their names, neither of which is a terribly professional option, either.
I’ve been reminded of something important over the last few weeks: I can’t always actually do everything that I think I can. Well… at least, not all at the same time.
The past few weeks have been like someone who started juggling three or four cute, colourful hackey-sacks that could be dropped occasionally and picked up again without causing any trouble, and ended up trying to juggle five or six chainsaws that were both running and on fire at the same time.
Something had to give. And logically, that something could neither be my work, the show I was performing in, nor my mental health.
I knew things were going to get busy, so I tried to get extra work requirements out of the way early. As it turned out, it was actually a really good thing I did that, because it enabled me to find the time for the extra stuff that I hadn’t anticipated.
The show went off brilliantly, thanks to the efforts of cast, crew and a fabulous director who all worked incredibly hard to deliver a production that made showbiz look effortless. Even though last night was my first Monday evening at home in months, I spent most of it feeling sad that there was no rehearsal to go to, and missing my fellow cast members.
Even so, it’s a good thing ithat particular flaming chainsaw has finished it’s run, because the music director and I have already been running auditions for our school musical for the past two Thursday afternoons.
Rehearsals for that start in two weeks – at about the same time our semester reports are due to be ready for proofreading. No pressure, though.
All of this is why I haven’t blogged, read anything except my students’ assignments or written any book reviews. My social media has been reduced to that which I have planned and scheduled in advance, and I am very conscious of my poor engagement with others on those platforms. For that, I sincerely apologise.
Still, it’s all I can do to keep my head above water, so it is what it is. Those things will resume when I get my other priorities under control.
This week, I am going to attempt to conquer the out- of-control pile of papers on my desk that need to be graded, recorded and commented on in writing as constructive feedback for my students.
I’m also going to try to get one of my priority reads finished and reviewed.
I may even finish a poem that I’ve been working on in dribs and drabs when I’ve had a few spare minutes here and there.
Those may not sound like significant achievements, but each of them will be.
Here’s to setting goals and hopefully achieving them.
Last Friday, I gave my History class an essay question half a week in advance of their assessment task.
They were to prepare a plan and notes to use while writing the essay in class this week. I advised them that they could use their handwritten notes and their textbook while writing, but they were not allowed the use of any devices. All the information about the task was given to them in writing as well as my explaining everything in class.
I expected that today, when the students came to class, they would be ready to start. Happily for me, most were.
And then, because nothing ever goes smoothly, this happened:
Student A: “Can we type this?”
Me: No. No devices.
Student B: “My notes are at home. Can I use my iPad?”
Me: “No. No devices.”
Student C: “Can you write the question on the board please?”
Me: “I gave you the question on Friday.”
Student C: Yeah but I didn’t write it down.
Me: That makes me happy.
Bemused, I wrote the question on the board.
Student B: “What page is it in the textbook?”
Me: “Do you mean the pages you were supposed to read and study last week?”
Student B: “Yeah.”
Me: Speechless, I allow The Eyebrow to speak for me.
All the kids except two commenced writing. Students B and D, though? They’re still reading the textbook.
School has resumed after the six week summer break that we enjoy here in Australia. After completing my First Aid, Asthma/Anaphylaxis First Aid and CPR re-certs last week, followed by three full-on days of professional development and preparation, I had my first day with classes today.
The kids are great and, if the first day is any indication, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a good year together.
But holy beaverschnitz! I am exhausted. I don’t remember being this tired at the start of a school year before.
Exhaustion by Jessica Cross via Flickr
I’ve come home every evening this week, fallen onto my bed and wept until I fell asleep like a two-year-old who still desperately needs that afternoon nap. I honestly have no idea why they resist that so much!
This afternoon a colleague asked me a question about something that happened last year, and I told him quite honestly that I was having trouble remembering yesterday. I can’t do social media. I can’t read. I can’t write. It’s a good thing I did my preparation for the semester over summer, because there’s no way I could get it done now given the shape I’m in at the moment.
There’s a running joke in my house – okay, so it’s actually not much of a joke, to be honest – that my husband makes me a double shot in the mornings because it’s my kick starter dose of Vitamin DHP – “Don’t Hurt People”. That double shot usually keeps me going most of the day. Today, it got me to about 10.15am and then my grip on reality started to crumble. I focused on my classes, tried to make all the words make sense, and dragged myself to lunchtime, and then downed 600ml of Coke Zero in record time – even for me.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I know it’s part of my job and it will pass. I’m just trying to explain why the blog has been quiet, why I’m not active on social media, and why emails are going longer than usual before I respond.
The only thing I can do effectively right now is hope I snap back into the rhythm and routine of teacher life quickly, because the pile of essays and papers in need of grading is going to start mounting up very soon.
Until then, though, if you see me staring into space or collapsed at my desk, administer caffeine… and please, be kind.