I have heard it many times from people outside of the field of education: "But you guys get so much time off throughout the year!" I can definitely understand how someone who is not in the classroom can see our time off as a luxury. I often feel so grateful for that time off and how I get to spend it with my own children. However, what is not considered is the fact that 1. we never stop working, and 2. for some, like myself who love this job so very much, that time off can also be very challenging for our mental health.
Let me explain. First, we never stop working. For example, the other night as I put my head down on my pillow, I remembered that I had a student ask me for a q-tip as a painting tool for her project. As I went to go and find one, I was distracted by another student who needed help, then another. I forgot about it. The student never asked for it again, and I completely forgot and went on with my day. As I began to close my eyes, it was like a giant neon sign in my head had lit up to remind me of that one thing. All I could think about was how I had failed her. Yes, it is a dramatic thought that I would fail her by not getting her a q-tip, but for me it is about that trust and service factor. I am a teacher. A teacher does everything they can in their own power for their students. Yes, I did end up falling asleep with an attitude of "oh well, she will survive", but the point is, I am a good teacher. That is the work I do, and because I am in the business of serving other people, the work never stops.
This morning is a day off for MLK day. It is now 8am and for about one and 1/2 hours before I was in my bed thinking of all the things that I could be doing for my lessons, for my students, for my professional organization (that I am an active part of), and for the overnight field trip (leadership conference) I am taking kids on this weekend. That field trip is a whole other story, but nonetheless, it is a long weekend and before writing this, I was online submitting student artworks for an exhibition at that conference. I could go on and on about organizing an overnight field trip, but the minute details and liabilities would just bore you or make you totally anxious thinking about it all.
As for the breaks being a challenge for my mental health, it is complicated. I am a person who is programmed to do things to the best of my ability. For 5 days every week, the best that I can possibly do, I teach 5 classes for about 50 minutes a day. During my planning period, I am planning lessons, grading projects, writing birthday cards (I know, I know...that is sooo extra, but I love my students and love to let them know), writing emails or calling parents, organizing exhibitions and activities, filling out information for future IEP meetings (I have a class of 39 students including 11 special education kiddos two of which need an extra adult to supervise them the entire time), and sometimes in a required Professional Development meeting during that time. By 8:15am all of this is done and many times not completed. I have to plan for 3 different subject areas. I teach two introductory courses and 2 different advanced courses. Each of these subjects has its own instructional guide that tells me what artists, time periods in history, and art vocabulary to teach. Ok,ok...you get it...right? It is a lot. Prior to the breaks, I am making plans in my mind to do all the stuff I don't get to do while I am working like making my own art, and cleaning places in my house that I have been neglecting. Then, here is what happens when I go on the longer breaks throughout the school year like holidays and summers: I come to a complete stop. Its quiet. Then I wake up and have no where to be, nothing to do, no routine, no schedule. I am so tired that all I want to do is sleep so I take lots of naps. I spend a lot of time in bed. Then, the guilt begins to creep in about not being productive enough, not getting things accomplished. For people like me, this is hard. I thrive on the busyness. I thrive on the work. It gives me a sense of purpose. On break, I feel insignificant. I am working on this and working on giving myself grace. Girl, you have worked hard and need the time to decompress and sleep, and do NOTHING! You deserve to do NOTHING!!!! BUT accepting that is not easy, for me at least.
Over the years I have come to pull back a lot on the extra stuff I do. I still do some of it because I can't help it, but it isn't as much as I used to do. I can more easily set boundaries for myself, but it has taken some time. If I could plan a fantastic vacation every time I went on these breaks with lots of excursions and activities, it wouldn't be so bad as I would have a reason to wake up and a schedule to keep. That however, is a dream that I have with along with a larger salary so that we could save for something like that every Christmas, every spring break, and every summer.
I am back to work now in the 2nd semester in 2023 and I am back to being myself again. In my routine of going to work, getting my workout in, having dinner at the table with my family, and then the sleep in preparation to do it again the next day. This Christmas break really took a lot out of me. I am now thinking of the summer and how I can slowly ease my way in to the "doing nothing" part and accepting it as a necessary state of well being.
Last I wrote, I mentioned at the end that there would be an X-acto knife classroom story. Since that happened so long ago and is now at the bottom of my list of stories to tell of things that have happened in my classroom, I will give you a quick synopsis.
-Teacher assigns cardboard relief sculpture project
-Teacher teaches appropriate and safe use of X-acto knives to cut cardboard shapes
-Student takes X-acto knife and jokingly holds blade-side-up to another student's neck and says "here....let me give you a tattoo"
-Teacher takes X-acto knife and disappointingly asks "are you out of your mind?"
-Teacher writes a referral to an administrator
-Student says, "no...please don't write a referral"
-Teacher calls parent about situation, parent is supportive about current consequence
-Student is suspended and a tribunal is scheduled for further consequential action
-Parent claims the consequence is now too harsh since he was only playing
-Tribunal is cancelled, student is dropped from my class
There you have it. That's it. Many mixed feelings go through my head about this situation. The other 70 students working with the X-acto knives in that same course had no issues and made beautiful relief sculptures. They learned a great skill and created something cool. I stand on that to remember why I do what I do.
A seed growing in my brain is starting to take root. Today there was a moment to replant for more room to grow. Those moments are rare this season and I have to jump in and act. Otherwise they slip away and leave no room to stretch for another period of time. It is like the way I do yoga or think of Taco Bell. I don't always do it or think of how good it is, but when I do get into downward dog or drive through for a taco supreme, I am reminded about how good it is and wonder why I didn't do it sooner.
I am still working out where this blog journey will take me, but I know that I want to be on it. I want this to be a place where I can share encouragement for fellow art educators like me who want so badly to make time to make our own art, need to vent to other art teachers who understand the pain and agony of our status in this current educational system, and that just need to have a good laugh with other art educators about the madness we experience some days. I want to share the successes and rewards of reaching our students and making a difference in their lives as that is usually the reason we got into our beautiful mess of the art classroom in the first place. I want to provide a place where I can express those things that happen in the classroom that we can't make up....you know what I am talking about..... and have a good laugh about it. I want to vent when I feel frustration and when I just want to shake my head in disbelief and disappointment. Don't get me wrong, this is a no negativity zone because I don't take anything too seriously these days and nothing really surprises me anymore. I have been teaching art a long time (18 years) and to all age/grade levels, and the stories I have can go on forever. There is nothing like talking about our passion with others on the same page. It is refreshing to know we are not alone especially for new teachers and those that are on their little island on a cart, in a trailer, a room with no sinks, and no one else who understands the heart and soul that goes into what we do. I hope this will grow into a fun place to be because I like fun....life is too short, and frankly, this is one way I hope to stretch my creative roots and give them more room to grow.
My next post will dive into my experience last week with X-acto blades and immature 9th graders. Stay tuned!