January is almost over. We have elected a new president. We have for the first time in history a woman vice president. The COVID virus has several new vaccines, and they are slowly being distributed. My family members and friends continue to be safe and healthy. I should feel hopeful. I do not. I feel drained. I have taken on two positions at school this year – learning specialist and curriculum coordinator – two giant jobs, and back in August I was certain I could handle both if I kept myself in balance.
Now, I am not so sure. It seems that there is premium on students who need support. I am not the only one feeling stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a shoulder, outstretched hand, or warm smile. This week, a student cried giant tears, which rolled down her cheeks soaking her mask. “I always get in trouble at school,” she declared.
When I asked her to explain what happened to me. She said that she couldn’t but that she could draw it. So I gave her a piece of paper and some markers thinking she was going to draw the problem she was facing. Instead, her markers created brilliant springtime flowers, deep green grass growing wildly around a happy, fat house, with bright jaunty windows, a crooked chimney and a red door with the number 32 above it. When I asked, “How is this the problem you are telling me about?”
She looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “It’s not. You see it’s 32, not 42 like the school. I live at 32 Jockey Hollow Road and that’s where I want to be.”
I smiled under my mask. She was a clear as clear could be. She did something wrong, and she wanted to escape back to safety. And safety to her was to be at home with her parents. I was so glad she had a safe place. I needed to help her feel that way at school more often, instead of feeling like the kid who’s two steps behind and doesn’t know where she put her pencil again, and the teacher is waiting, and her classmates are saying her name impatiently. Again. So I listen and I problem solve, and I offer her some kindness. When we get back to the classroom, they are doing art. She returned to her seat and picked up her scissors and glue. Her shoulders relaxed. She had regained a bit of her balance.
I can empathize. I often feel like that student did: I’m going to be in trouble. I can’t keep up. I’m tossing all the plates, but I cannot catch them. I try in vain to create pockets of peace and pleasure, but they are fleeting. I remember my mother’s words: “Be good to yourself.” I try. I do try. I remember the list I made in August, a Zen Toolbox to keep me content and on track and not to slip into the girl with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, running from task to task, holding her breath. I look back at the toolbox and see the list of books, art, and music. They are useful tools, and I have returned to their pages often to gain some inspiration. But now, at this time of year, I need another plan. A more active direct plan, one in which I can push out the walls of my stress and create an artistic positive and more hopeful space.
I know it is imperative for me to do this. I’ve read the literature on teacher burn out. According to some recent research, 66% of teachers want to leave education and 41.3% of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years on the job. Given those numbers, I feel quite successful because I have been teaching for forty-two years. I must have a secret, some ancient wisdom I can bestow on my fellow teachers.
This week, I came up with these ideas. They are not so much RULES, as they are affirmations about who I really am and the important work I do each day with children. If I am to connect with my students and lift them up, I definitely need to make sure that I am being good to myself.
1. Create tissue craft paper collage studies. Do a couple a week. Remember to play.
2. Treat myself to flowers at work often. Do not make excuses. Buy them on Monday.
3. Whenever I feel stressed at work, pull back, go inside myself, take a walk, write or draw for 15 minutes. No one needs me for 15 minutes. Take the time.
4. Remember to stay professional. Be about teaching and not personalities.
5. Continue walking, exercising, stretching every day. Try to exercise before school – at lunch and after school whenever possible.
6. Make a list of writing projects and finish them.
7. Remember creativity. If I don’t do writing and art, my spirit dies and I become bitter. The best part of me is my childlike enthusiasm. Celebrate that!
8. Make a list of art dates – schedule a day each month to do some extended art dates: sketch, collage, print making, water color, finger paint.
9. Try something new every week: a new vegetable, a new shampoo, a new song, a new way of looking at the same things.
10. Be an observer. Go out into nature, breathe in calm, write what you see, write what you feel.
This is what I played with this week. Some reflections on nature and the healing power of trees, trying to find the quiet places.
Forest Senses The trail is laden with rain soaked stones - brown, gray, pale green and rust colored pine needles and last fall’s leaves now brown and brittle returning to the earth. The forest canopy - a colossal verdant umbrella letting the rays of the sun only in certain sacred spots. A huge elm has fallen, its two main branches now rest on its trunk like two great arms reaching out still seeking salvation. Shadow Play Clouds loom over the ridge line, Whipped cotton cumulus clouds Casting shadows on the hills, Dappled patterns, Bright patches On the forest floor, Moss-covered stones, Glints of reflected light On the river’s surface. Dark green cool spots, Rocky crags and uprooted trees Hidden in silent repose.