"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 21, 2014


I started this school year with great hope and eager anticipation. I was rested and renewed, still full of canyon dreams and river memories. Missing kids and the satisfying conversations that can only happen with colleagues, I didn't mind going back. This teaching career that I've struggled with from the very beginning was starting to feel like the right choice after all. As I get closer to retirement and the thought of not being a teacher, it has been somehow easier to appreciate that I am a teacher.

In the early years I loved the weeks of preparation before kids. The bulletin boards and organizing and shiny new supplies. The list of students who were about to become my family for the next nine months. The sense of possibility and fresh start.

I didn't even mind the inservices and meetings, until somewhere along the line I got tired of hearing that everything I'd learned previously was wrong and the only way to be a good teacher was to abandon that and to drink the kool-aid of the latest pendulum swing pedagogy. Even then I managed to find nuggets that helped me improve my teaching, and I was always glad to see my friends after a summer away from each other.

The best part was always meeting the kids, seeing all the potential, carefully molding the group into a family, working to create memories that had the power to illuminate a life's path.

This year for the first time in a long time that flutter of excitement from the early years returned. We were moving into a new building. My room was on the second floor with huge banks of windows and killer views. For the first time I was sharing a hallway with only teachers of reading and writing. I was again going to get to teach the one thing that I've loved the longest, the thing that has save my life over and over again - the magic of our language.

We are three weeks in. Exhaustion is my constant companion, lining my face, blocking my thinking, and dragging me out of sleep at 1:00 A.M. to remind me of all I didn't get done that day. The cheerful flexibility I was able to bring to every new situation has stiffened like lava cooling into granite. Despite my every effort to stay in balance, I am tipped.

It is some consolation to see that much younger and less conflicted teachers than I am are equally tipped and tired. On Friday as I left for the weekend, a pile of ungraded papers and unfinished planning for this week neatly stacked on my desk, I realized something about the profession. Teaching demands everything, and everything will never be enough. And so it is up to me to find a way to be okay with not being enough, to decide for myself that enough is enough. To do the impossible for as long as I can, and to be okay when I can't.

I have worked hard in the last month (we were allowed in our new rooms for the first time on August 25) to focus on what really matters. Relationship. With myself, my colleagues, my kids, their families. Every time some new problem required time and energy I had allotted for something else, I'd breathe and smile and remind myself that by the time the rains returned, all of it would be distant memory.

No one problem during the beginning this year has been overwhelming. Furniture deliveries that weren't complete until a week after the start so we unpacked with no place to put our stuff. A shared printer that hasn't worked consistently since its installation. No access to the building without someone letting us in until a week after the start. Heat blasting from the system on the first day of school when it was in the 80's outside. New standards, new testing, technology changes we weren't told about. New teacher evaluation expectations. New routines for a two-story building. No paper towels. And for fifth grade, classes of 31 and 32 students with no relief in sight.

What feels overwhelming is the fact that accommodating all of that has left me drained and feeling like rock formations in the canyon pushed to vertical by volcanic forces too powerful to withstand. Tipped sideways when my natural self longs for the gentle and restful horizontal of sandstone and schist. As I consider the long list of tasks requiring my attention when I walk in the door tomorrow, my stomach tightens and my heart closes just a little. I remember the information I left school with on Friday, and my breath won't come.

At the very end of the day I learned that the one thing I never want to happen, happened. One of my students felt that I had shamed her (not her word, but my interpretation) for not completing work. That one piece of information was enough to wipe out all of the smiles, and hugs, and laughter of the day. The beaming pride on faces when my class, for the very first time, worked together to line up quietly as a surprise for me - faded out of focus. The coffee brought by a mom, the camaraderie at lunch, the joy I feel at the wonder of my spacious and light-filled room - all dust.

This is perhaps the core of what teaching does to me. It exposes everything, just like the winds and water of the canyon reveal eons of history. The fatigue and impossible expectations strip away defenses and decoration, leaving me to face my humanity and fallibility. Leaving me to question every time whether I'm suited for a profession in which my flaws have the power to do harm.

I will repair my relationship with that girl tomorrow, as best I can. I have some practice with this, and kids tend to be far more resilient and understanding and forgiving than we give them credit for. I will do what I can to be fully present and kind with each child I'm given, and to remember what's most important. My job is to help kids develop into whole people. That involves helping them manipulate words in meaningful ways. But more than anything it involves showing them how to access the best parts of themselves, and showing them a world in which they matter and have the power to make things happen.

Today I will do what I can to restore balance. I'll walk and absorb sunlight and the sound of a giggling river. I'll appreciate the stretch of my legs. I'll forgive. I'll laugh with friends, hug my husband, allow the feel of Toby's fur and Bunkie's purr to penetrate the stiffness. I'll remember the canyon and who I was there. Who I am still. Who I strive to be more than the person who forgets from time to time what really matters.


DJan said...

I so admire all the teachers I know today, and those who taught me. It does take everything you've got, Deb, and you've got a lot to give. This post just made me want to give you a big big hug (which I will get to do next month) and remind you how much you are appreciated for all you do. :-)


I cannot imagine what you are up against with so many rules and regulations and changes in today's world of education. However you have it down - what's really important. Each student, you and each moment. We all make mistakes. One step at a time. SMALL STEADY STEPS MAKE UP A GREAT DEED. Hugs and hugs and hugs. Big ones.

Barb said...

You write for so many teachers, Deb - that feeling of always being a few steps behind when you're running as fast as you can. Take some deep breaths - I know that you're not only enough but more than enough for your students. Concentrate on the good - as I read, I could tell there was lots of that, thank goodness. Hugs to you.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, you seem each time you post to dig down deeper and deeper into a wellspring of love for all humanity. That takes such a willingness to give away again and again the peace you found in the canyon.

But it is perhaps in the giving it away that we find its true essence and realize that it's grown a hundredfold within us. That it will keep welling up.

These words of yours need to be printed and put in every teacher's notebook: "My job is to help kids develop into whole people. That involves helping them manipulate words in meaningful ways. But more than anything it involves showing them how to access the best parts of themselves, and showing them a world in which they matter and have the power to make things happen."

Be gracious to yourself. You are known and loved. Peace.

Sandi said...

Oh Deb. My heart lurched - I know how it feels to be tipped, and of course we are tipped when it is least expected. You know I'm also feeling the immense drain this year is becoming - and that the slightest rustle of that wind can tip us over when we're fighting the gusts pummeling us to the ground.
I love how you refuse to be beaten. Remember Boppo the clown?? (Suddenly the picture came to mind, sorry!) You are a much more beautiful Boppo, but like ole Boppo, you will not stay tipped, you will continue to bounce back, and give more, and be more, and you will smile your beautiful smile and mean it! Love you!

tricia said...

Oh, I know you will turn that situation with the student into an opportunity to let her know how awesome she is, and it will end up being a gift to her and to you. You shine bright, Deb, no matter where you go. I miss that smile! =D

Linda Reeder said...

This post means much to me. I too came to realize that my job as a teacher was an impossible one, and all I could do was give it my best each day.
It's hard to find the balance when you are one who holds yourself to such high standards. I wish you well in trying to do so.
I have not missed teaching since I retired. I missed the intellectual stimulation and the problem solving, but not the pressure and pain.

kario said...

The mindful way in which you do everything makes you a spectacular teacher, Deb. The fact that you are willing to make amends and listen to a student who you may have inadvertently hurt is so amazing. I don't believe I ever had a teacher who was willing to admit they didn't know everything, much less consider my opinion as a lowly student. Please make sure you are taking time to fill your cup up because you give so much to these students. Love.

yaya said...

You are a wonderful teacher...your passion and love for the students in your care show that in this post and others I've read. I know you'll find that balance again.

Linda Myers said...

Looking forward to spending a weekend with you as you reacquire your balance.

Deborah Barker said...

I thought I was meant to be a teacher Deb - it's what I always wanted but I got side tracked and persuaded to go to Art College - by the time I had had four of my five children, aged 33, I was ready to take up the profession I had always wanted to follow - I got as far as being accepted at the College but the logistics and expense of childcare for 4 young children was beyond me at the time and I gracefully gave in. I don't regret it - it was my choice in the end. I do believe though, that the most important lesson teachers ever give their pupils is to teach them how to learn. If you have a thirst for knowledge and know how to get it - you won't go wrong. :-)

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I am always inspired by your generosity with your students, the way you establish relationships with them. I suspect this girl will learn an enormously valuable lesson about life (mistakes, humility, apologies, forgiveness, etc.) that many of us didn't learn until much later, if ever!

T. Powell Coltrin said...

At least you care that you (might have) shamed the student. Some would dismiss it and not care.

Working for a school is super stressful in any capacity. I think it's because you rarely get back what you give.

Hang in there.

Sally Wessely said...

Tipped. I understand that feeling when it comes to the classroom. You are still standing, but tipped adds to the difficulty of doing the job.

Truly, my heart lurched and became a bit angry when I read all that you were up against. I can only imagine all the little details that did not come together with the start of school in a new building. Been there, done that. Non-teachers have no idea what it is like to fight for the simple necessities of doing a job when you have an revolving mass of students coming in every hour to learn how to write.

I hope the routine of it all arights itself soon. If not, I pray you will feel centered and focused and able to determine what is the thing you can do and let the rest go. Hugs to you.