Back in November of this past year, I hit my first major meltdown with regard to teaching.
I began suffering from what I can only describe as paralysis – an inability to do the things I’d been doing just fine for months before. I couldn’t get myself to plan, to grade, or to be excited about waking up and going to work. I hit a wall, and I hit it hard. I began to doubt whether I was in the right place. I was oscillating wildly between “I can work endlessly and I will never be the amazing teacher I want to be” and “oh, f*** it, I don’t care anyway” moments, both of which felt like betrayals of my identity.
Here was the problem, best as I have been able to diagnose in the months that have since passed. My first year of teaching, I had been working hard, and happily. I started the year in a new city knowing only one person (my roommate, also a teacher) and work was, at first, the thing that anchored me in this new place. It was just my expectation that my job would involve bringing all of my grading and planning home on the nights and weekends, because my days at school were so consumed with adjusting to everything new – connecting with colleagues, going out of my way to help students with any spare moment in my day, learning all of the procedures and events that I hadn’t experienced before. I focused most of my energy on trying to do the best job that I could, and I at the end of the year I was able to be proud of how much I had built up from nothing, in one year.
So in year two I had high expectations for myself. Now that I knew the ropes, I should know what to do to make things better. I had all kinds of ideas about how to tweak my classroom procedures, creative activities I would engage my students in, and how organized and big-picture I would be able to be. I was (theoretically) more confident in my “teacher persona” and I was excited to get my hands on a new class as well. BUT!
What I found out was that while year two wasn’t necessarily harder work-load-wise, it wasn’t any easier, either. And what was hard was realizing that for all the great ideas I had, I couldn’t seem to find the time I thought I’d have to put all of those ideas into action. I started to feel like I was working just as much and wearing myself down with little (or imperceptible – to me) gain. The thought of pushing myself harder exhausted me, but knowing that I had the creativity and ability to do more with my students than I was doing made me feel like giving up.
As I struggled with this, I realized that a lot of it had to do with perfectionism. In general, I find myself crippled in the execution of interesting ideas because I am worried they won’t come out in their full, complete, idealized form. (Ze Frank would call this being addicted to brain crack.) This was affecting my teaching as I would agonize over the most natural order to introduce different mathematical topics, finding the “best” problems to tackle, and feeling the need for any project or out-of-the-box activity I attempted to be programmed down to the minutest detail. Additionally, I would spend far too long being frustrated at the elements of my day that were outside my control – and reliving particular moments in my head thinking “I could have handled that better.”
On top of this I kept hearing this nagging voice in the back of my head asking me what the product of all of my labor was. I’m a creative person – was I putting my creativity to use? Should I have made a different career choice and sought other outlets for my interests? Was I “making” anything that was worth all of the stress and effort? I couldn’t see it – I felt like my teaching was, at best, pretty average, and was frustrated at a “product” that seemed to have too little of me in it.
What I think got me over the hump, in the end, was realizing (remembering?) that teaching is about process. I am never going to be able to create a “perfect” teaching environment in every aspect, and guess what? That isn’t really the point. Sometimes the lesson I had planned gets pushed aside because we need to stop and deal with more pressing issues – mathematically, or even emotionally (I’m thinking of one day in particular where I threw out my plan to have a class powwow over an emotional topic the school had been focusing on.) Sometimes I don’t make the right choices about when/how to push a student, and when to sit back and give them some space. And I certainly have miles to go before I will have developed the kind of solid, creative, game-changing curriculum that I aspire to create. But in the meantime, I’m there day in, day out, bringing my own (unique!) energy and enthusiasm to the table. My product is not the classroom procedures I devise, the lessons I develop, or even my best and coolest activities. My product is that unquantifiable change that occurs in all of us (my students, and me, the teacher) through the year’s worth of time we have together.
And I am proud of that. I have time, and I will learn to be a better teacher. I don’t have to get there today. It is a process – one that I am excited to continue to engage in.