Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teacher and Student Angsting in August: The Yearly Ritual

Everyone heading back to school is freaking out right about now, and probably no one more so than a teacher.

I first realized (or noticed) that teachers tend to lose their minds in August--those last few weeks before the new school year begins--when I worked as a TA in grad school.

The frantic e-mails began in July, actually. The worried-sounding conversations with the professors took place with increasing frequency. I was handed lists of dozens of books to buy and read before classes began (yeah, right; I read one at a time, as needed. It wasn't possible to do things any other way...not on such late notice).

I didn't know quite what was happening but then I was told, "Oh, that's normal. Most of the professors basically have nervous breakdowns every August."

I thought that was sort of ridiculous, at the time. But soon enough--when I began teaching--I completely understood.

People rip on teachers and professors all the time for "not working all that much," and other cruelly simplistic lies.  

"Yeah, wish I could get paid XX a year and only work seven hours a day, nine months out of the year!" some people who hate teachers scoff. "Wish I could get a nice, year-long paid vacation every few years. Sabbaticals, please!"

The line about "sabbaticals" is always delivered with a sneer that makes it perfectly obvious that the sneerer considers sabbaticals to include copious amounts of CNN-watching, web-surfing, masturbation, and maybe a few minutes a day spent working on a mythical book.

Here's what I know: writing is hard work, book writing is especially daunting, and many breaks are needed from the writing, though I have never been on actual, paid sabbatical.

Professors have been hired and paid to not only teach but to also develop profound thoughts and share those ideas by way of frequent publication. In order to really think and write, they need peace and quiet and time away from the chaos of teaching. 

And yet--the teaching itself can be so stimulating. If teaching did not include so much grading or paperwork, it would or could be a fantastical garden of learning and ideas on both ends, students and instructor.

If teaching didn't include a peanut gallery of people who seem to hate teachers, people who aren't even in the class, then life would be so much more pleasant.

No one is more watched or under more pressure than a teacher. Kids are watching, yes, but their parents are also watching behind the scenes, or "watching" by way of dinner table conversations about their children's classes. The administrators conduct frequent observations (which is fine and has purpose; it just gets very stressful).

It's more than watching, though. Every student in a class is intimately aware of every detail about every teacher s/he has. 

Case in point: when I first taught, I realized that someone had compiled an entire website dedicated to cell phone photos of my (clothed) rear end, surreptitiously shot when I was writing on a board. 

The older I get, the more amusing I find this, but at the time, I thought I would have a total nervous breakdown. I was so stunned, so mortally offended.

"They weren't even paying attention to me (and to the profound thoughts I believed I was spouting)!" I felt like wailing. "They were just waiting to get a good look at my butt!"

No harm was meant, of course. The homage to my bottom was a compliment--if twisted and entirely inappropriate (and it was immediately deleted after I was alerted to its existence). 

But still, it made me extra-conscious of how depleting it is, when you teach, to know that you are being stared at. You are being listened to, yes, but so much mental energy is also going into trying to figure you out. 

When you teach, your ears burn. Your head feels hot. You put on an intellectual show; you dance around like crazy; you do your best for 40 minutes or an hour; and then, if you're by nature shy and quiet like me, you literally think you're going to collapse.

In colleges, you can take a break at this point. Classes generally don't run together too tightly. But in high school, you're just running to the next class or barely getting a sip of coffee before a new group tromps in. This can go on for hours. 

Then you eat lunch fast and do it all over again.

Then you scrub desks and grade papers and talk to the students who need to see you.

Then you go home and get your kids and make dinner and check their homework and try to grade papers and put your kids to bed and grade papers and get ready for bed and grade papers and fall dead asleep, only to wake up super early to grade papers before getting your kids up for school and getting dressed, yourself.

I am so happy that I don't have to grade any papers right now. I don't have to attend any summertime workshops in foreign cities, or spend these last few weeks writing new syllabi and welcome letters and preparing new materials for new classes that were just assigned to me. I also don't have to stay up way too late or wake up way too early just to be prepared for these classes.

No, right now instead of angsting about teaching, I am just waiting impatiently for my own kids' school to begin so I can be a stay-at-home writer. So far, this job isn't paying much, but I consider it my sabbatical. My very, very, very well-deserved sabbatical.

I plan to get my first two novels out into the world, finish a third and complete a nonfiction manuscript.  Then, I hope to land a university teaching job so I can start angsting again (as has become my ritual) in August.

Meanwhile, to all the students out there who are bemoaning the re-starting of school (or waiting eagerly and anxiously, as my own kids are): know that whatever you are feeling, your teachers are feeling it five times as strongly. Maybe ten times.

August is a weird month for everyone. It flies by too quickly and too slowly. August is too humid and hot; it gets too busy at the end with errands that need to be run, last-minute business that must be taken care of.

(In my house, we are all ready for school. And I mean ALL READY. Backpacks are loaded; school clothes are folded in their specific drawers. New shoes are waiting; even pencils are sharpened. My daughter got a blood blister tonight from sharpening all the pencils...)

Everyone freaks out a little right now, but look on the bright side: in a month, you won't be worried about it anymore. You'll be in the zone. You'll be angsting about the all-too-quickly approaching end of the first trimester or quarter. And so will your teachers.


  1. I'm in the throes of the August angst myself (so well-put!).

    There was really a web site devoted to your tush?

    You absolutely have to write that teaching memoir. The world needs to read it.

    Miss all your wonderful stories.

    Your former student (now teacher)

  2. Thanks for your note.

    As I always say--well, as many people always say--"You can't make this stuff up."

    I'm compiling the stories right now, don't you worry!



  3. I loved this post! Can't wait to read the nonfiction book, and even the YA books, although I'm past that age.

    For me, teaching is a bit like doing a semester-long sprint followed by a few weeks of recovery, and then doing it all again. Industry has a different rhythm, maybe akin to endurance sports such as long-distance running. I think people misunderstand the intensity of the effort associated with teaching. Both teachers and non-teachers work hard, but differently.

    The business book "The Power of Full Engagement" by Jim Loehr argues that the "intense effort followed by recovery" model makes people more productive than the other one. The book gives advice to business professionals on how to achieve this.

    As for August angst... I'm in denial right now. I keep telling myself it's still July. Classes can't possibly start in 3 weeks.

  4. Hi Aurelie,

    You nailed it: after the sprint, you just have to bend over, hanging your head and catch your breath a bit before the race starts again. No one needs summer break more than the teachers!

    It's a totally different way of working--working really hard in short(er) bursts rather than a steady stream of, say, paperwork.

    Teaching, I find, also demands constant movement. I probably actually sat down maybe 20 minutes a day (so unlike most other types of workers).

    Thanks for the book sugestion; that makes total sense to me. I also find it's more stimulating to be fully engaged, fully exhausted and then to have some quiet time to get yourself back together...

    Denial in August is the name of the game, I think. On the one hand, you WANT to be back teaching (because that's what you do, and the students are generally great), but on the other, you wish you just had a little bit longer to get everything ready for the new, improved year that you have in mind...

    Thanks for reading!