A tale of three notes

It isn’t easy to be gone in teaching.  Wow.  So not.  Writing a decent lesson plan a sub can execute is oh so hard.  (Hey!  Life hack now that we’ve learned so much:  simply video record instructions to be played to the kids.  Send it to some key kids.  Trust them to do what you need and let the rest go.  Credit to the Tweet below)  

Getting a decent sub is another factor, particularly when you know your students.  I inevitably have a student or two that might flare when confronted with some sub’s dynamics.  This brings in moral distress.  Following up after a sub is its own labor. 

And then there is that thing… the very basic thing that we care about the job.  We care about the kids. We know teachers are integral; we want to be there.  But in reality, teaching  requires absences.  Teachers are parents and children who also have to take care of others.  And teachers need to learn how to take care of themselves.    Last year had extra extra complications.  In online ed, there was no ability to step back, really.  There weren’t any subs, for one, and the complications of the tech were an obstacle. In addition, time was simply more precious.  It felt more imperative to provide some consistency. 

Last year, when we returned to the building, there was this one magical day… yep, a TESTING day.  There were three testing days, to be accurate, but on one of them I had NO RESPONSIBILITIES.  None.  

So yep, I emailed my associate principal to say I was going to take a sick day to work from home, where I have a second monitor to be efficient.  I even had a desk at home, which I didn’t have at school because of social distancing/ construction.  I also qualified that by saying that I would be available via phone and actually, if there was a staff shortage, live close enough to be there in a minute.

And here, lightly edited, was her reply: 

Thank you for the heads up. Because I respect you so much, I need to share that I do hope you’ll reconsider.  The testing team worked so hard on this and one way we can support their efforts is to ensure we have staff here to cover in case anyone calls in sick. My concern is that if our Instructional Leaders are finding ways to avoid being in the building, their department members will follow that lead. 

The testing team added a list of available rooms. We have ample space for physical distancing and as long as we’re following masking and hand-washing protocols, we’re meeting health recommendations and guidance.

Happy to talk more – but between conferences tonight and my own duties tomorrow,  I’m afraid it will have to be after the fact.

And readers, you guessed it.  I revoked my “sick day” and went in.  I worked in the cafeteria a bit.  A desk here a bit.  A desk there a bit– an angrifying, inefficient and awkward day in the midst of a very very long year. 

Also, I am pretty sure I am going to throw up next time someone tells me they “respect” me. 

Here is a version of what could have happened: 

Thank you for the heads up and for being willing to come in at a moment’s notice if we are short staffed.  Take care of yourself and happy grading! 

And you know what would have been the best?  Something like this: 

Thank you for the heads up and for being willing to come in at a moment’s notice if we are short staffed.  If you are working from home, though, you don’t need to take a sick day!  Save them!  You’re doing the work you’d do here. Or better yet, step back from school.  Netflix it!  Bake!  Take those dogs for a walk!  Take care of you!

Three thoughts more on this: 

My first meeting with my new assistant principal this school year was me resigning as educational leader at the end of this year.  It’s been coming, regardless of the pandemic.  The “be here because you are a leader” email in combination with one other decision from last year’s departmental principal cemented the resignation letter.  And while I have rarely taken any personal days beyond funerals or parenting in the last five or six years, I made sure to take one already this year… I vow to make space to take care of myself in order to stay present for the kids and to maybe– just maybe– be able to stay in this field a couple more years. 

When I read my principal’s email with compassion, I recognized it as fear-based.  She wanted the testing to go well (and testing stress pervades our field).  In the context of similar comments and moves last year and this, though, that email did harm. 

I’ve had a range of principals in my career.  The main criticism of one of the top two in my estimation was that she didn’t take care of herself.  There wasn’t a sense of balance.  Being part of a good educational leader is also stepping back a bit when the situation allows it in order to be fully present when the system needs it.  I have often relied on those in leadership to help balance me.  

I take full ownership of my welfare now. 

At the end of April 2020, the district reported to the school board that there were 1,398 teacher absences up to that point when the 2017 year had 8,529.  The sentence provided was:  “the need for substitutes was likely less because of virtual instruction.”  I don’t know what I wanted to hear there, really.  Those numbers were teachers sacrificing themselves to be present on screen.  Those numbers revealed teachers exhausting themselves.  

A friend of mine runs a non-profit that pivoted to meet the pandemic while still actually growing their mission and clientele.  This spring, when vaccinations were in place, their board gave each employee each two additional weeks of vacation as a thank you and as a recognition of time spent pivoting.  

Education can’t quite do that– but I know of at least one school on one of the inservice days that said sleep in, take a walk, take care of yourself.  Don’t log in. Just rest. 

This post reminds me of this graphic, which came from the subsequent Tweet: 

Many students will remember me.  That is a benefit of teaching. 

But I am so very replaceable to the system. 

In that meeting where I resigned, the first question was who do I think is willing to step in.  It is a pragmatic question and I know from leaving leadership in one district to move to the next, any ripples from my absence disappear quickly.  

This is again why watching my mentor’s life resonates.  Life is short.  Prioritize.

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I f@#%ed up

I messed up at the start of last school year. 

My spouse had a medical event (non-covid) the first week of school.  At first I wasn’t allowed in the hospital, but then I was, and I discerned the room was ready for him to crash.  They were prepared for the worst.  They got some things figured out, rushed him to surgery, and I waited alone in a room for dawn and news to break. 

The next morning, I was in his ICU room on Zoom calls.  I swooshed kids to breakout rooms when specialists came to talk.  Ridonkulous.  It was the start of school.  I didn’t even know who to call to get a sub.  And I navigated.  And I am angry both at myself and the situation.  

I think to myself that he could have died.  It was touch and go.  It was a night sitting in a dark ICU waiting room all by myself and I was still “at school” the next morning.  

These past years then encompassed some genetic unknowns resulting from that medical event that heightened my alarms around covid for myself, for my partner, for my children.  And that took a toll on the online year, return to school before vaccinations for sure. It took a toll on me. 

This Tweet from last year breaks my heart.  

Before break, some virus was ripping through the department.  One day, at least five (that I know of as we are spread through the building) English teachers were out. 

There aren’t enough subs, but my school does a GREAT job of not taking non-volunteers out of prep time.  Still, a bit more falls to colleagues.  Regardless, take the days.  We need to. 

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She is still my mentor

When I was a young teacher (entering my eighth year of teaching and my third school), I was enveloped in care and compassion by the high school librarian. She was simply marvelous.  She had an easy laugh, a gentle heart, and an avid eye.  She still does. 

She knew kids.  She got books in the library that would speak to all students long before it was a thing to do.  She just did the right thing.  Over and over and over.  She knew teachers.  She was present without being interfering and she was the first person a new-to-the-building-person could safely reveal ignorance. 

She created home.  When I left that school to go to my children’s district and share their calendar, it is at her dining room table that the key relationships established continue under her abundant and beautiful southern hospitality. 

When she retired, she was at the top of her game.  Again, books on topics that soooo many forces are currently challenge were part of her unabashed offerings.  She stood for something.  

And she revitalized the entire library, getting a new user-friendly computer system that gave greater and easier access to all.  It wasn’t a small undertaking.  It was HUGE.  And the work was completed before she headed out the door in the pre-retirement years that many people put up their feet and coast. 

She was my mentor.  I told my husband that I wanted to exit the teaching field like this lovely, lovely mentor, Cara: I wanted to leave still innovative and engaged and essential. 

The first time I really got to know Cara was at a fellow colleague’s party.  Cara told me about the serendipity adoption of her son, Jonathan.  It was a story of love and grace and luck and destiny, and her face shone.  She was blessed to be a mother. 

Two weeks ago, I was thinking about Cara (as I do so often these days) when I walked the lake’s shoreline and listened to the shards of ice clang.  The music the ice sang was varied and striking.  

And it reminded me of how Cara told me of the wind chimes’ calming effect this summer as she was by her son’s deathbed.  And it reminded me of the weeks after, when she and her husband came home after wrapping up their son’s estate and noticed John’s, her husband, nausea.  Grief?  No.  Pancreatic cancer. 

In November, I attended a funeral for this lovely woman’s son and husband.  Lines from her husband’s obituary shine: John “felt the important thing in life was to love others and be loved and respected by others. His keen intellect, compassion, and sense of humor put others at ease. His kind heart welcomed everyone into his life with love.”  Cara is not only an amazing librarian, but a darn good writer.  I had the intention of asking John to think about mentoring the local robotics team this season.  John was a special human.  Their marriage was admirable.  The loss is staggering. 

And so Cara’s world mentors me again. 

What are my priorities? 

Teaching exacts a cost on a whole family, to be honest.  I have been an educational leader and noteworthy teacher pretty much all of my career.  I note the impact on both my physical and mental health.  And I notice when the weight and worries I carry of my students impedes the attention I can devote to my family.  

Time is short.  

For as long as I am teaching, I will not fail my students.  I will not let them down.  But I am not responsible for much of what I carry and it is time to put that burden down. Time with those I love is too precious.

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It’s not the work and it IS the work

Here’s a thing:  I have an over-developed work ethic. 

I feel responsible for pretty much every dang thing in the world.  This isn’t a skill or an asset.  I recognize I have not only allowed myself to be a martyr I have occasionally embraced it.  It’s a thing.  A thing I recognize and am addressing. And teaching?  It might be interesting to try to cast teaching with five archetypes, kinda like Breakfast Club did.  Martyrs would be one. 

Sacrificing for the work has long been a part of teaching.  No one goes into teaching for the money.  If anyone wants to actually be good at teaching, the summers off prove themselves a joke early in the career.  

I love to work.  I love the feeling of accomplishment when I put content pieces in order, solve a pacing puzzle, open a path for students, and meet the moment– after moment after moment.  I love learning.  I take wild and intense pride in my classroom and in seeing that magic of kids come to fruition because of the community and agency and benchmarks made visible. I love kids. Oooh, how I love the kid. 

The work, though, has changed.  Somewhere, rather than voluntarily (and yeah, I am going to work on it) martyring myself for a cause I believed in and gave me joy, I have become an exploited cog without agency. 

A colleague of mine I admire greatly sent me this article.  At the heart is this: 

High social complexity + low form predictability = stress reactive behaviors.

The pandemic + the most polarized society in my lifetime has completely upped the social complexity. 

The pandemic + the most polarized society in my lifetime has completely tumbled predictability. 

So stress reactive behavior?  Yeah.  I am there. 

But the trajectory was there BEFORE the pandemic.  The trajectory was clear BEFORE polarization became so entrenched. 

I know that in my oh-so-large-and-growing-school district, part of that is complexity.  There are more people between the classroom and the building office and then the district office.  The people who filter into my life now are learning coaches, data experts, SEL experts, deans, assistant principles galore, testing experts, tech coaches.  

The number of adults interacting with my world staggers me.  The constant turnover is a significant complication.  And being online (and then, for me, returning to a brand new building that broke social bonds in place), well, research says that impairs trust.   The time provided to interact and coordinate with these adults?   Nonexistent or it comes out of my classroom prep time or personal time, the two core elements I seek to protect. 

High social complexity + low form predictability= stress reactive behaviors. 

Then there is the fact that these people, often removed from the classroom if they ever were there, make decisions that impact my daily life.  High school teaching has fundamentally changed since the advent of the cell phone.  High school teaching has fundamentally changed in the cut-throat economic competition of college entry and test scores.  High school teaching has fundamentally changed with the significant increase of emotional needs, including anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, and ADHD.  And then there was a pandemic. 

High social complexity + low form predictability= stress reactive behaviors. 

The world of teaching needs us to work together to survive.  It is too complicated for a teacher to do solo behind closed doors.  A professional learning team helps that. 

Kids deserve a guaranteed curriculum.  They should not have grossly different experiences because of a computerized scheduling placement put them in room A vs room B.  A professional learning team helps that. I believe in it– and yet. . . 

A PLC means more adults in my world.  It means more interactions, dialog, compromise, and dreams.  The time provided to interact and coordinate with these adults?   Nonexistent or it comes out of my classroom prep time or personal time, the two core elements I seek to protect. 

High social complexity + low form predictability= stress reactive behaviors. 

My friend’s comments echo my world: “Many of us have held leadership roles that added a lot of extra time and work to our plates. The difference was we made those choices, and we were passionate and committed to what we were doing. We worked hard for a “purpose”. We’d be exhausted, but energized, inspired, and enthusiastic at the same time. Often now, it feels like we’re working to complete a task – but it may lack purpose for us. So even if we may be doing less, it’s stressing us out more.”

Yup.  There is more social complexity to teaching than ever before. 

This post covered only the number of adult complications that have added to social complexity. 

The fact education’s turnover is accelerating will increasingly add to the low predictability. 

I am not only no longer being energized, 

I am depleted. 

I fight to breathe and center. 

I fight to breathe and center in a world that ignores my reality while I try to see the realities of my students.  It’s no wonder something broke last year.

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