Sometimes it’s nearly 10 pm on a Sunday night and I’m doing things like reading “Seven Ways to Re-ignite the Spark in Your Relationship!” and mentally search-and-replacing all the parts about a significant other with teaching math.
I do think it would be worthwhile, at some point, to do something like catalogue all of the coping mechanisms used this year (consciously or not) to pull myself back tiptoe by tiptoe from the brink of burnout. “Try to keep problems in perspective!” “Try to relax after work!” “Take action to deal with problems!” “Plan ahead and prioritize!” “Recognize one’s own limitations!”
I can remember in my first year of teaching there was one student in particular I really connected with. She told me she never saw herself as more than a “C student” in math and had never enjoyed the subject. But she came to love my class, to love the “why” behind the problems, and the confidence that came with having a safe space to try, struggle, and learn. On one of my worst teaching days in my first year, I can remember getting so frustrated with a class that I skipped lunch and walked outside the school and called my mom. In tears, I confessed that I felt mediocre at best, didn’t know how to engage several of my students, and hated the exposed and vulnerable feeling that comes with being in charge of a group of teenagers as a lesson rattles off the rails.
She told me to focus on just one student. If I could just see the difference I was making for that one student and follow that story through in my head from beginning to end of the year, I could see how what I was doing day-in-day-out – the millions of in-the-moment decisions and details that were swirling in my head and threatening to drown me – could all add up to something that was worth it.
I was angry that I was tearful and thankful to have such an amazing mother but ultimately her words did stick with me for the rest of that year. I remember finding a four-leaf clover while I was on the phone with her, kicking at the grass and feeling tiny, and thinking it was a sign.
My first class of students from my first school are about to graduate college. I’ve spent another “first” year at a school feeling like I have tunnel vision, with no sense of how all of the days stitch together into a bigger story for my students. I’ve spent a lot of the time doing things like “trying to keep problems in perspective!” and “trying to relax after work!” and “recognizing my own limitations!”
I have to remember in the process of surviving this year I have grown in uncountable ways. Hilbert’s Hotel can’t find enough rooms for me. And as I finally make it to the end of the year, I feel myself gaining a perspective that sheds new light on what this year’s story really was about.