Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teaching school is like climbing big mountains

This past summer, I spent 9 days climbing some very tall and very steep mountains with two friends. The trip was harder than I had anticipated. The weather and company were excellent, but the trails were poorly marked and very rough. Sometimes we couldn't figure out where we were on the map; other times we could read the map but couldn't find the trail. Many days, it was hard to keep our footing on the loose rock or boulders, and the constant uphills and downhills pushed my legs to the edge of their limits. All of this was with 40 pounds on our backs.

After 6 days of this, I noticed I was having a hard time enjoying the beauty of the incomparable scenery around me. I was still mostly in good spirits, but I was worried a lot of the time about getting where we were headed without getting lost, injured, or caught in bad weather. I was surprised at the fact that I was able to keep up my spirits, laugh, and make good decisions, and that I hadn't cried. But on the morning of Day 7, from the bottom of a valley, I woke up, gazed at the jagged peaks we had to cross, and had a very whiny thought: "I don't want to go back up in those mountains!"

It's pretty unusual for me to look up at high, rugged peaks under a clear blue sky and not want to climb them. So I knew something was wrong, and I was pretty sure I knew what it was. My inner resources were low because I wasn't getting enough time to slow down and just enjoy the mountains. Every day, we were getting up early and getting going quickly, without those moments over the cookstove, waiting for the water to boil and watching the morning come. At night, we were collapsing into our sleeping bags and falling asleep immediately, without much time for reading, chatting, or watching the stars. During the day, even when we remembered to sit down and rest, we were worrying about the route and trying to decode the map instead of enjoying the canyon in front of us.

Most expeditions involve days like this, but partway through our trip I realized we should have planned a few shorter days in between the long days. When we had looked at the maps last winter, and read about the routes, we kept adding miles, days, and peaks onto our itinerary, because all of it looked so good. We didn't exactly bite off more than we could chew: we were capable of completing our planned itinerary. But we bit off more than we could chew and enjoy to the extent that it deserved to be enjoyed.

The first weeks of school are making me feel the way I felt on Day 7 of my summer trip. I've been keeping up with things at school, staying positive, and working well with my expedition-mates. I am excited in the morning, most days, for what lies ahead. But when I come home at night, I am sad. There aren't enough things nourishing my soul. I'm not taking any breaks. I'm worrying about what lies ahead, and if we'll make it. Things are getting done, but with little enjoyment. I could expand the metaphor even more, but you can do that for yourself: the trail is rough and uncertain, the map is unclear, and the pack weighs 40 pounds.

The transition back to school in the fall is a particularly abrupt and harsh one. In July, I went from a week of sitting on the patio of a rented house in a French village, consuming cafe au lait, wine, croissants, and cheese all day, to grueling days of climbing. At the end of August, I went from owning my own schedule, with languid mornings and warm, slow evenings, to being in my classroom from sunrise to sunset 6 days a week. I have lost the luxury of balance and free time, and that makes me sad.

Things will even out soon, and I will work hard to add some shorter days to the mix. In a few weeks, teaching will be more like a thoughtfully-planned expedition, with long, hard days mixed in among easier days with great views and mountain streams for swimming. Right now, though, there are few options other than to look up at the peaks and keep on trudging forward.


  1. What a good analogy!

    I think it's so important to be able to stop and breathe and enjoy and reflect.

    It's so hard to find that in the disequilibrium of the beginning of the year, isn't it?

    I want to hear all about it! And the new building -- I want to see pictures of your classroom! ♥

  2. How good that you have so quickly realized that you are feeling like you did toward the end of your walk in the Pyreenes, you know what you need and that before too long you will be able to breathe, enjoy and reflect.