Saturday, August 30, 2008

Teacher Dreamin'

It usually kicks in sometime in August. Early August or late August, most teachers arrive at the point during this eighth month of the year when our job invades our dreams. I haven't as of yet met a teacher who didn't have it happen. I even knew about it before I was a teacher, or dreamed of being one. A good friend from college who began teaching at least 3 years before I did mentioned to me that she never slept well in August. Before she was even consciously aware of being anxious, she stopped being able to sleep. It might have begun in late July those first few years.

My younger sister, The Other Ms. Swamp, started her first year of teaching in her own classroom this week. I think it was late July or early August when she mentioned her first anxiety dream to me. "Welcome to teaching," I replied.

Last year, I caught a glimpse of what anxiety dreams could be on a whole new scale when Nina, the Queen Mother, and I were talking about them. Nina mentioned a dream she had where she came to school on the first day but her classroom wasn't set up at all. (I've had this dream at least 5 times.) The Queen Mother smiled. "I had the same dream last night," she said. "But in my dream, all the kids and teachers got here on the first day and there was no school building. Everyone was walking around outside looking for the school, and I was trying to figure out what to do." I laughed. Teachers dream about no classroom and 20 kids on the first day; the poor principal has to dream about no school, 350 kids, all their families, and 70 teachers!

Our dreams have come up already several times at school this week. One teacher came in my room in the morning to get something. "Last night I was dreaming about setting up my room," she explained, "and I realized I might have left some of the things in my dream here last year." Even while she was sleeping, her brain was working on her To Do list.

Of course, even worse than anxiety dreams is the insomnia. I've come by my insomnia and wandering toes (aka restless legs) honestly -- thanks, Dad. It's not just teaching that does it to me. But the quality of my sleep tells me a lot about the level of my anxiety. If I can't fall asleep at night, or wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, or wake up far too early in the morning -- if any of these things happens, and my brain can't shut off, I know I'm entering the land of the anxious. A land I often wander into in late August.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Progress that destroys

That's what the Queen Mother (aka the principal) said when she came in my classroom a couple days ago and saw the chaos: "progress that destroys." I kept telling everyone who came in and saw this:

that is really wasn't as bad as it looked. "I know it looks like a mess," I would say. "But it's all in piles!" And that's what the Queen Mother meant too -- I was making progress, but the progress sure looked awful.

Today things look a little better.
And actually, that was this morning when I first got there. When I left this evening, it was even better than this, although an outsider might not be able to tell the difference. Today I had a slow morning, even going out to a cafe for coffee, a currant scone, and the newspaper before work. But then when I got there, I started to get a little panicky. Setting up my classroom hasn't been this hard in years. I guess I knew that moving up to a new grade and switching classrooms would increase my workload. But I hadn't anticipated all the work that setting up would be. I certainly hadn't anticipated that I would spend most of the first 3 days of the week sorting through things left behind by last year's teacher, choosing what to keep and what to get rid of. I haven't had to go through someone else's stuff in years -- it's been mine, and I've known what to do with it and exactly how I wanted the classroom to look. This year, I've been moving furniture this way and that, trying to decide what will work best, in a way I haven't in years.

The good news is that I only cried once at work today. So that's not bad at all! And with the help of the Wailin' Jennys (which I accessed at school from my home computer via my Sugarsync backup!!), I managed to wipe my eyes and get back to work. I got the furniture mostly where I want it, and I set to work organizing books. Second grade books are different from first grade books, and I got excited about old favorites from when I was little: Ramona, Roald Dahl, Frog and Toad. It will be fun to see my students reading these kinds of chapter books and loving them the way I did a long time ago.

The other good news is that at least I have learned enough over the years to stop and go home when I can't handle it anymore. I knew the other day, when I looked at the math shelf and it seemed utterly overwhelming, that it was time to go home. "The math shelf is not overwhelming, Ms. Swamp," I said to myself, "so it must be that you are too tired and too hungry to stay here anymore." So I went home. And as I face the holiday weekend knowing that I will be in my classroom for all of the next three beautiful, sunny days, I just remind myself that I spent more than half of the past two months in my sleeping bag, in beautiful places. So now it's everyone else's turn to be outside and relax, while I work on my room.

We all just have to hope the progress I'm making doesn't destroy my mental health before I'm done. :) Good thing I have several Friendly Neighbors around who came by last night to bring me flowers from their garden, shuck, blanch, and freeze 20 ears of corn, eat a 98% local dinner, and watch Obama give his speech. That should be enough to keep me sane.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kids like us

At the open house for new kindergarten and first-grade students last June, there were two tall blonde twins who stood out. Mostly they stood out because they were white. (At my school, if you are a white child in a classroom you are in the minority. I usually have one, maybe two white students out of 20 per year.)

The first-grade teacher called them this week to set up a home visit. "Oh," said their mother. "We decided to send them to another school instead. We really love your school -- we think it's a great place. We love that you do home visits. But we decided we really wanted them to be in a school with kids from our neighborhood -- you know, kids from [insert the name of the whitest, wealthiest neighborhood in the area]."

Nina said she was at a loss for words. But when she told our principal, she didn't pause for a second. "Good," she said. "Let them go to another school. We don't want them." We all knew what the code stood for. "Kids from our neighborhood" means kids like us -- white kids.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Male Wilderness Instructors: Old School vs. New School

Having had the opportunity this summer to lead trips with several male instructors, and to observe their habits and behaviors in their natural environment, I now believe myself qualified to share my understandings of the two major categories of wilderness guys: old school and new school.

I worked my first trip with perhaps the archetypal old school outdoorsman. In his fifties, Uncle Jeff had a wide variety of wilderness survival skills. I fully believe he could have extracted us from most kinds of scrapes we might have found ourselves in.

There was also a high likelihood of him causing us to be in a disaster. Uncle Jeff was so disorganized that he left the kids' meds behind on the first day (a 7-hour drive behind) and could rarely find the (only copy of) the map. He chastised the kids for being slow, only to be the last one ready each morning, and he never once lifted a finger to help make dinner, leaving the coordination of that task to -- who else? -- the two female leaders, of course. It was important to his ego to be first, so he led the way, whether by canoe or on the trail, rarely looking back, and usually unaware of how the group was faring. He made decisions quickly and without discussing them with me or my female co-instructor; one day, when the two of us weren't around, he suggested to the kids that we spend our last day of the trip at an amusement park instead of hiking. Upon our return, I was left with the unhappy job of being the mean lady who ixnayed that scheme. (Luckily I am used to playing the role of the mean lady, so I didn't mind too much.)

Yes, Uncle Jeff was old school: silent, stoic, tied to no one. Also, dictatorial, defensive, and misogynistic.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I met Carl, my 24-year-old co-instructor for the second trip. To all appearances, Carl is your typical college student, concerned with maintaining a bronzed, muscular physique while still managing to consume as much beer as possible. But we had been prepping together for less than a day when he sat down beside me and announced, "I feel like we need to talk about leadership stuff." Carl, it turns out, wanted to discuss leadership styles: how we would make decisions together, how we would share responsibilities, our preferred modes of communicating and giving feedback, and when we would debrief each day. Yes, I was working with a new school wilderness guy.

Not only did he want to process each day with me in the evening and make decisions by consensus, he also wanted to check in, often more than once a day, about how we were working together. He was thoughtful, organized, and efficient, always keeping safety and Leave No Trace ethics in the forefront of his mind. When we agreed that there would be no place for homophobic comments on our trip, I asked that we also have no tolerance for the word "retarded." "I don't feel that way about that word," he responded. "But I have no problem pretending to feel that way to back you up." We were a united front. And no more evenings of the girls cooking dinner while the boys built fires: equality ruled in this partnership.

New school wilderness guys. They communicate. They check in. They process.

I may sound a little tongue-in-cheek about all of this, but the truth is, I learned a lot from this tan guy whose major interest in the frontcountry is kegstands. He set the tone, early on, of communication and mutual decision-making, and we worked well together. In fact, I am quite sure it was the closest I have come to what many couples with children experience as they make decisions together on a daily basis. The kids wanted to swim before dinner? "What do you think, Carl?" I would ask, and we would share our opinions before reaching a verdict. If I told them something, he backed me up, and vice versa -- we presented them with a united front.

At the end of the trip, I realized that this had been my first experience of teaching with someone as true, one-hundred-percent equals. I work and teach with other people all the time -- colleagues, community partners, student teachers, assistant teachers. Even when we strive to collaborate as equals, it is rarely ever the case that we truly have the same amount of power. I often work with others over whom I clearly have authority (student teachers or assistants). Or, in the case of collaboration between peers, one person often takes over as the de facto leader, whether out of personal style, experience, or just for simplicity's sake. To have the chance to operate as a true team, making constant decisions together and giving each other honest feedback, was a treat, and an unexpected one.

I didn't anticipate having that experience with someone still in college, and even less so with a guy. But that was my mistake -- I was expecting an old school outdoorsman. I had forgotten how well-trained the students of the new school are.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Still nothing of my own to say...

I mean, it really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that I have not one, but two smart and lovely teacher friends who also have blogs. But for both of them to write such insightful posts so close together, now that might seem a little less likely. (If you knew them, though, you wouldn't be at all surprised.) So, here's another little tidbit to read from Kirsten.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Since my teaching brain is still on vacation

Here are a couple of things to look at, not written by me.

From a smart and lovely colleague... She does such a nice job of summing it all up. Both the messiness of teaching, and the pay-off. And also, perhaps, why tidy tasks are so much fun, even if they are a lot of work? Tidy tasks that get finished, unlike teaching, which is never done.

And an article about the birth of children's literature from the New Yorker. It involves several of my favorite things, such as children's books, libraries, people from Maine, and E. B. White. In case you don't have time to read all of it, here are a few of my favorite tidbits from Anne Carroll Moore, the librarian who was so influential in the world of children's literature in the early twentieth century. Although she was most certainly controlling and closed-minded in some ways, in others she was far ahead of her time:

"Books about girls should be as interesting as girls are,” she said at a time when most books were written for boys. She believed that her job was to give “to the child of foreign parentage a feeling of pride in the beautiful things of the country his parents have left," instead of melting them into a pot of homogeneity. And, "'do not expect or demand perfect quiet,' she instructed her staff. 'The education of children begins at the open shelves.'” Still true today, say those of us who do not believe in silent classrooms.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

28 More Days...

...until the first day of school.

Like most teachers, I greet this news with mixed emotions. I love summer. It is good for the soul, the mind, the body, and everything else. I love the sleeping, the skimpy clothes, the fresh veggies, the cocktails, the ocean, the flowers, the tan skin, the free time. I love that I have time to read, or write in my journal, or chat with my sister on the internet, or go for a walk. I love that I am half-heartedly working on some projects for work, but only when I feel like it. I love that I no longer have anxiety dreams about the first day of school this early in August. I love that when I wake up in the morning, I shuffle into the kitchen, and it's already sunny out, and I open the back door so the sun and wind come in, and I get the paper, and I start the coffee, and then I sit and drink my coffee on the deck while I read the news.

So I'm glad I have 28 more days of summer vacation, although in only 19 days I'll be back in the school building, and my mind will be consumed with thoughts of pictures to laminate, folders to label, shelves to move, and endless last-minute trips to Staples. I fully intend to make good use of these last two weeks, and also to continue to live a less-harried life during those funny days when I have to be at school getting ready, but not with children. Those are my last days when I get home not fully exhausted, and can go out for a drink after work, and can sleep until 7:30 instead of getting up at the crack of dawn, and can stop at the bakery for coffee and a goodie on my way to work.

I recently read, in the little yellow book about happiness, that people who only work part-time are happier than those of us with full-time jobs. This correlates with the revolutionary theory, also put forth by the author of the little yellow book, that one way to be more happy is to spend more time doing things you enjoy. Just those little things, like enjoying your coffee while watching the birds at the feeder, or a cup of tea on the couch with a good book, or a crossword puzzle over cereal. Those moments are the ones I try to focus on when I am sad, when it's winter and finding something to look forward to is hard to do. And when we are teaching, we have less time for those small moments of just being. It's a fact: teaching is consuming, and most of us work very, very hard at it.

On the other hand. Today I was at school, industriously photocopying, when I got to see a couple of my students from last year. Or, rather, first-grade students from last year who will, in 28 days, be my second-grade students. Now, I am not one of those emotional teachers who clasps her heart and sighs whenever she speaks of her kids. Sometimes I love 'em, and sometimes they drive me crazy. But, it felt great to see these two. They came into the office to say hi, and smiled those shy but warm smiles of little boys who are really and truly glad to see their teacher again. We made small talk, we hugged, we talked about the first day of school, and then they headed out with their moms to go home.

It's been awhile since I've liked a class as much as I liked last year's class, and I remembered that today when I got those hugs and smiles. I have never before faced a room full of familiar faces on the first day of school, and already known their strengths and weaknesses and what makes them laugh and their moms' names. This will be a very different first day, more like a family reunion than an interview, and even though I love my summertime, I am getting excited for it.