It’s not uncommon to approach November, downtrodden and fatigued, feeling as if you’re dragging every part of your body in and out of the classroom each day. It’s challenging to not succumb to the impending winter break, to assume that the mere three weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break are of little use. We’re teachers, after all, and we’re tired.
In the last few weeks, I’ve felt my exhaustion, and I’ve watched it overcome my consciousness. I’ve felt my patience thin faster than the days have lost light. I’ve felt my stamina slowly wane, while my anxiety waxes in parallel, upon the realization that, in fact, half of the year is almost over.
I reached a low just days before Thanksgiving break began, sliding into the end of the day the preceding Friday, feeling as though I had nothing left to give. Perhaps it had been two and a half years of working in a fast-paced, progressive school; or perhaps it had been the demands of working in the corporate, start-up world. Regardless, I felt my candle burning out, the tiny embers atop a blackened wick sighing their very last breaths. I felt depressed, like I’d lost my passion for teaching, like it was no longer feeding me.
And I’d been feeling it for quite some time.
I wondered what I could do. The following seven months seemed, at the time, insurmountable, the complexity of it all unmanageable. I fantasized about taking a sabbatical, living off savings, or tutoring for spare money. But I knew that none of these things would do. Deep down, I knew there was a problem lying at the root of my strife; I knew that there was something underneath that I needed to rediscover so that teaching could feed me again, so that it could leave me feeling empowered at the end of the day instead of frustrated, so that I could walk out the doors feeling good about the work I’d done, measured not only by academic progress, but by smiling faces, gratitude, and a sense of self-worth.
I spent that following Saturday mostly in bed, attempting to recharge my tired batteries. I began to ask myself what I could possibly do to feel re-inspired and rejuvenated. With some brainstorming and brutally honest self-reflection, I came to a conclusion: I was trying too hard. I was–and had been for quite some time–focused outwardly. I was worried about having an effect outside the four walls of my classroom, I was worried about publishing articles, and I was worried about my career trajectory. While all of these are valid, none of these warranted the worrying I’d invested into them, and few of these filled my soul the way teaching had in the past. I wondered if, perhaps, my ambition, which I deemed to be one of my greatest strengths, could have instead been my Achilles heel, leading to my current state of burnout.
This is not a unique mistake, either. Many teachers fall subject to this, especially those of us in the infancy of our careers. We want to be noticed for our work, and we want to push the boundaries of what it means to be a teacher. This is admirable, yet toxic, should one push these boundaries too far. For me, I lost sight of what truly was important.
I lost sight, temporarily, of what was right in front of me: the joy of teaching.
When I began teaching–just six and a half years ago–I felt like I had discovered this joy, and in the process, I knew I had discovered myself. I found a version of myself that had never before existed in tangible reality. I found emotional competence and critical literacy; I discovered mentorship, creativity, and spontaneity. For all intents and purposes, it saved my life, as I know it today.
And in this pursuit of ambition, of breaking new ground in education, of trying to be something, I’d lost some of those original pieces that I discovered as a brand new teacher.
And so I came in that following Monday, casting aside the ambition that had taken center stage for far too long, on a quest for presence of mind. I spent the morning working with the kids on building our ocean biome, taping brown paper to the windows to show a cross-section of the land of a coral reef and hanging blue paper to show the layers of the ocean. I spent my plan time affixing tissue paper to the ceiling and suspending jelly fish we’d made the day before, all to simulate the feeling of being underwater–all to make learning come to life.
My children came back in the classroom, after having just been at P.E. They looked up at the ceiling in wonder, perplexed at how our classroom had changed so dramatically in such a short period of time.
“Paul, that looks so cool!” one of them beamed as they looked up towards the ceiling. “Is that like the ocean?”
“You bet,” I said in reply.
I watched them walk in one-by-one, all responding with similar curiosity, their eyes lighting up at the novelty. It was these looks, the questions, and the unspoken appreciation that awoke a slumbering feeling inside me. I felt butterflies flutter inside my stomach, and a smile take over my visage. In those moments, I had rediscovered the joy I had temporarily lost in the pursuit of ambition. I had let things like this fallen to the wayside, and I had never felt so grateful for the approval and gratitude of my children.
I took a much needed break the following days of Thanksgiving, coming back mostly revitalized. I continued my efforts to intentionally rediscover the joy that comes from helping children feel excited to learn. I spent quality time with the kids–painting, building, playing, and conveying to them the joy that can come from the precious time we spend learning.
Because our time to learn is precious, and it is nurtured through building relationships, through curiosity, and through constantly rediscovering the joy that comes from novelty.
Closing circle came this past Friday, and we began our daily afternoon ritual of offering “shout outs” to people in our class, praising them for unique contributions or a job well done throughout the day. I called on one student to start us off.
“I want to give a shout out to Paul today,” one of my children said in closing circle, “because he let us paint and make a big whale for our ocean.”
I smiled, trying to shy away from the praise, all the while grateful for my student’s overt appreciation. Her gratitude filled me up full, and I left school energized for the following day, as opposed to tried and downtrodden, like I’d felt so many days and weeks before. It reminded me that we need not look far to rediscover the joy in our everyday lives.
Sometimes, it’s sitting there right in front of us, just waiting for us to see it.