A note to the first year teachers…

We’re almost at a point of the year when we can catch our breath. Honest. Just a few school days from now lurks that renewing stretch of time off that veteran teachers still call Christmas Break, at least when they talk with each other in the lunchroom.

You got a taste of some time away in November, first with the appetizer of Veteran’s Day and then the feast of Thanksgiving, but that first day off you were just making sense of the election and Thanksgiving involved a long drive and navigating conversation with relatives.

Winter Break is better.

It also marks the halfway point of the school year, not literally, of course, but …spiritually, or something like that. You’ll return in 2017, and you won’t be a brand new teacher anymore. The fall is over; now the getting back up and dusting yourself off begins.

As much as the time off, this sense of having finished the first leg of the race makes a difference.

But, ah, that time…

Rest.

Don’t grade.

Don’t assign the kids homework.

Renew.

Read something by PD James.

Make a meal, see a movie, go for a hike.

Those same veterans who still call it Christmas Break can tell you that they’ve become veterans because they’ve figured out how to balance work and life, at least a little bit. They still give more than people outside of education can imagine. They still care about their students like old world grandparents or biblical shepherds. They still spend August through June enmeshed in their work as educators, and…

…and they’ve also learned how to enjoy two weeks off in the middle of the year, how to separate enough to find themselves again, how to sip tea and read a magazine rather than a pile of papers. They have figured out how to take care of themselves so they can return to the classrooms they share with students ready for the wild rumpus that begins anew in January and finishes when mortarboards take to the air.

As a new teacher you’ve probably felt the elation and despair we all did in our first year or two, and if we’re honest we still sometimes do. I hope you’ve found some allies and even a few friends this fall, and if you haven’t yet, please know that they exist.

Education is full of kindred spirits, people who care deeply about making a difference, helping students learn, and making the world better one lesson at a time. It’s just that we get so very busy that sometimes it takes a little longer to find each other. Don’t worry. You will.

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Portrait of a hardworking, clueless first year teacher, me.

In my first winter as a teacher I pushed myself so hard that I got sick. It was December, snow covered the ground, and the world felt chilled. I knew my colleagues, but only a bit; it was so easy to get caught up in our own classrooms. I was a dedicated, out of balance twenty-three year old who came to work with a high fever and pushed through most of a day of teaching with the fervor of believing that my students needed me to teach them about romantic literature. Needed.

During my prep on that day of dizziness and chills, after stumbling through a lesson on Percy Shelley’s Zastrozzi, I found myself sitting alone at my desk shivering and feverish and not sure I could make it through my last class of the day. I called the front office and arranged for a sub for my final period, pulled my coat around my shoulders, and started shuffling toward the English workroom to pick up some essays I imagined I needed to go home and grade.

I made it halfway across the hallway before I had to stop.

The halls were empty, students in classes, and I stood alone for a minute, swaying with exhaustion. Then I heard my name.

Looking up, I saw our custodian, a nice man I’d exchanged pleasantries with but not much more. “You okay?” he asked.

“Sick,” I croaked. “Goin’ home.”

He appraised me for a moment, then stepped forward. “Can I pray for you?” he asked.

Did I look that bad? “Um. Yeah,” I managed.

And the next moment is one of those surreal memories that has never left me. He put his arms around me, closed his eyes, and held me silently for what seemed like minutes. I was cold, hot, pushed beyond health and only reluctantly leaving my classroom. Just a few years older than my oldest students, I felt waves of obligation, the pressure of being a professional, and the sickening realization that I could give everything I had and the job still might ask for more.

Standing alone in the hallway with this earnest and caring person, a person who had never seen me teach, but who saw in me a fellow human being who was having a tough time, reminded me that what I did, as important as it was, was different than who I was.

I needed to take care of that second part before I could be able to do the first.

The custodian let me go, backed up a step, smiled, and went on his way with a paternal nod. I shook off the awkwardness of “what just happened?” The experience wasn’t yet a lasting memory, but just one of those odd, unexpected happenings that I’ve grown to appreciate now but was too young then to put into perspective.

I turned around, essays left in the workroom, went home, and slept.

I don’t know if you’ve stood in front of a class with a fever. I’m not sure if you’ve pushed yourself too hard this fall or neglected your health or happiness in order to do your job as well as you’ve wanted to do it. If you haven’t, I’ll wager you’re in the minority. If you have, like me, then I hope that in some modest way you have something like that custodian’s prayer (earnest, reassuring, and maybe a little awkward) nudge you toward the understanding that all will be well.

Most of us who have been educators very long know the exhaustion that comes midyear and we can reassure you that by the time you raise a glass on New Year’s Eve (not too much, you have to teach on Tuesday) you’ll feel new again and ready for spring.

Every teacher was a first year teacher once, and like you we struggled as well as succeeded. Hang in there. Winter Break is coming.

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