"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, September 22, 2013


In a class once an instructor showed a graph of the emotional year of teaching. It started on a high with all the promise of a fresh start, new kids, and the renewed energy from summer. Then it gradually declined as reality and exhaustion and obstacles slowly wore away at the optimism of September. There were other dips and upswings throughout the year, although none as high as the beginning.

Four weeks into the year and the decline has begun.

The good stuff is still there: Teaching writing to kids is as much fun as I thought it would be. As a group these kids are sweet and funny and so easy to love. And I like only having to plan for one subject to teach instead of four.

The challenges, however, pile on like logs on a spavined donkey. None of them unusual or even that big a deal on their own. It's the one-more-thing aspect that makes getting through the days so difficult. Upset parents who go straight to district office when an email or a conversation with the teacher would have solved concerns easily. Forms to create. Forms to fill out. Letters to write. Emails to answer. Power point presentations to do. Curriculum night. IEP meetings and 504 meetings and SIP meetings and PLC meetings and PAT meetings. Special ed, speech, ELL teachers to listen to and schedules to accommodate.  Test data to analyze. All done in the midst of construction next door (more than once we've thought earthquake) and a ventilation system that works inconsistently and part time.

The log that has the potential to drive the donkey to the ground? Fifth grade leaves for outdoor school a week from today—yes, on a Sunday. On a mountain with 175 kids (two elementary schools), few amenities, a good chance of rain, and no real off-duty time. We return late Thursday evening and the next Friday is a regular school day.

This is the life of a teacher. It's no different than it's ever been, except the demands grow each year with little taken away to make room for the new. More to the point, I get sucked in every single year. Trying to do and be everything to everyone. Believing somehow that this year I'm strong enough and healthy enough—enough period—to accomplish the impossible.

I was startled on Friday morning as Walt and I walked out of Starbucks into a brilliant red-sky dawn.  Even though I could really use that extra hour at my desk, our Friday breakfast date is sacred and one bit of balance I've managed to cling to. The gift this day gave was far greater than quality time with my best friend husband.

A harvest moon smiled gently through a soft haze from the western sky. A mango sun lit the eastern sky and infused the world with pink. Fall flavored the air I breathed deeply in a sense of awe and wonder. Standing there, I remembered. Remembered that while I can't control the system or anything outside myself really, I can control who I am no matter what's happening. Not with determination or will or white knuckles. But with acceptance and surrender and prayer.

I choose to rest in the balance of night and day. To hold what's important closer than what's urgent. It's a choice I'll need to make every day, something I knew going into this school year. I forgot for a moment, but I'm deeply grateful for the moon's reminder.


Barb said...

Deb, Teaching is so rewarding (if it were just the kids) and so demoralizing with the bureaucratic demands. I don't think I could cope anymore. I hope that somehow you manage to keep what is most important in your life - you have such talent to share with those kids, but you need space to replenish yourself, too. I'll be thinking of you.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

The decline in my school started earlier this year. Teachers sobbing. Secretaries on their last nerve. Everyone a little more snippy than usual.

The worst of it all is that the sweet students are tired of school already.

It's all for the kids. :)

Anonymous said...

Do you have the problem in the States that we have in Australia, that our new teaching graduates are only staying in the profession for an average of 5 years?
Workload, stress and demanding parents are taking a toll.
It is very different to when we graduated with our teaching degrees over 35 years ago, and today's children with their expectations and demands , and sometimes complex emotional and medical histories, very different also. (Often the parents have complex emotional and medical histories as well!!)
My views may well be colored by the difficult schools in which I've taught over the years.
Generally parents are very thankful and appreciative of teachers, but some can make life very difficult indeed, and encourage their children in those wonderful (not!) subversive behaviours that take the shine off teaching and challenge classroom management.
My husband has been fortunate to work in the better schools and his experience differs, though I'm sure he can relate to the proliferation of meetings!
If we teachers can keep up energy levels and morale we're halfway there!

Linda Reeder said...

Your writing provides your readers with such wonderful lessons for living. Thank you.

DJan said...

This post is so, so lovely. Filled with all the chaos of the school, but also filled with the gentle reminder of what we can and cannot control. Your writing, dear Deb, always brings me into a space that I only visit when I'm with your words. It's one I cherish so very much. Thank you... :-)

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

You are very right about choices and balance and I salute you for yours.
Harvest moon just took on another meaning for me. Thanks.

tricia said...

You and your blog are such gifts to me and my perspective. Thank you for your always words of wisdom.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

"To hold what's important closer than what's urgent." Yes! I am printing that and posting it right in front of me on my desk. I wish I'd learned it, really learned it, back when I was still working. Thanks for another great post...it reminds me also to check in with my daughter and son-in-law to see how their teaching years are going.

kario said...

I hope that the outdoor school adventure was a fun one and that you were able to share your love of nature with some of the kiddos. I can't imagine doing what you do, but I know you were meant to do it.


writing and living by Richard P Hughes said...

It's sad that teachers are expected to do the impossible. I think you have the right attitude. Good luck for the rest of the year.

Sally Wessely said...

It is good to be reminded that the school year is cyclic in nature. In truth, I think that I was always caught a little off guard with how hard it is to adjust to the reality, and exhaustion, and obstacles that occur so early in the school year. I think I was already feeling these emotions by the second week of school some years.

Like Barb, I want to affirm the many, many gifts that you bring to the classroom. The students and their parents are so fortunate to have the likes of you teaching writing. I wish I had you teaching me how to write!

The demands are beyond reasonable these days. I went to a training for teachers a few weeks ago. I had no idea about the terms they were using. I was shocked at the increased demands. I know I could no longer teach because I could not deal with these demands. I want you to know that I am in your corner as you walk into that classroom each and every day. No, You can not control the system. You can only do what you can do, and know when it comes to teaching that is enough. It is more than enough. Unfortunately, the system expects more.

Balance is key. You are so right. Keep your balance. If your equilibrium is maintained, if your emotional state is calm in the midst of demands that want to upset you, if you can somehow remember what is important rather than what is urgent, then you will be walking into that classroom with greater power and productivity. I wish I could have been better at this.

Sandi said...

You hit the nail on the head with this one. I'm a week behind you (literally) and farther than that emotionally. Thank you for a few moments to remember, "To hold what's important closer than what's urgent."

I can do that right now, on an early Saturday morning, before I dive into the stack of journals I brought home to read and respond to. The real deal is if I can hang onto that simple thought after I walk into school on Monday!

If my calculations are correct, you leave tomorrow and into the heart of the worst weather imaginable for Outdoor school. My prayers are going with you. I know you, and that you will make once-in-a-lifetime memories for those kids, as you have done for hundreds of kids (and colleagues :) over the years. Love and wishes for dry spells to you!

Dee said...

Dear Deb, there's so much wisdom in your writing. I hope one day you'll be able to share your reflections with a vastly broader audience than simply a blog. You could do a memoir using these postings.

As to control: what I've learned in the past few years is that mostly I have control only in how I respond to life and its fickleness. How I respond emotionally and physically--in space and time. Peace.

My life so far said...

I can't imagine teaching children. I loved my own kids and find very young children, under five, amazing but having to spend all day with kids would not work for me.

I work in cancer care and probably most people can't imagine enjoying my job, but I do.

And the kids under five, I love because they are still free, still themselves.