Sleep, Now.

I once had someone jokingly ask if I was a vampire.

“How many hours of sleep do you normally get a night?” The question comes from everywhere– doctors, coworkers, my parents. “Eight” is always the preferred response, most people respond that they six to seven, with a sad sigh and a wave of the hand, a universal symbol that says, It’s not enough, but it is what it is.

I, however, was always proud to respond, “Oh, four or five. Six if I’m lucky, but I’ve never slept more than eight unless I was sick.” I would smile, proud that my body seemed to need less rest than other’s, and nonchalantly shrug when people seemed surprise. Maybe my internal processor was just churning too fast to rest much; maybe I just recovered quickly. Mostly, I just enjoyed the small sense of self-importance.

Cut to the last month, where it feels like I’ve been doing nothing but sleeping as many hours as I can. I nap often– wrapped in a blanket on my couch, after working for an hour on a weekend morning, curled onto the tiny bench in my classroom between classes. If I can find a spare ten minutes, I’ll turn into myself, let my eyes go soft, and shut down.

I’ve been trying to understand what’s been happening to my body, since I’ve always struggled to sleep, including a two-month bout of insomnia a year ago that knocked the life out of me in a powerful way.

Since overcoming that insomnia, I had still never become much of a deep sleeper. I’d get my six hours, normally waking up midway through, to the dismay of my partner. Recently, though, my body has been in a perpetual state of sloth, as though I am trying to recover from some kind of illness.

Maybe I am. Over the past four months, I have reverted to many of the same, problematic behaviors I had a year ago. I move so fast I forget to breathe. When I finally am forced to sit still– on a long flight, for example– the air whooshing into my chest hits me like a bucket of ice has been emptied over me. Without warning, events that I had moved through as quickly as I could wash over me, and I am left sitting stunned as I review the tape of my life over the past days or weeks. Was that really me? I ask myself. Did that really happen?

Of course, it’s not as dramatic as all that. I’m known to need a little storm to settle me down sometimes. There aren’t any huge problems in my life, and generally, the process of settling into my seat and reviewing my life has been overwhelmingly positive.

I suppose, if anything, my descent into a week of rest has allowed me to enter into the dream world of my subconscious that I had left untended for too long. Sandra Cisneros, when asked about writing when she presented at my school, said that we need to take solitude to sleep, dream, and look into our own imaginations to be able to write.

So, this is just a reminder to breathe, to rest, perchance to dream. As I prepare to board another long flight home, I am immensely grateful for the week to be surrounded by so much love and care, and look inward. It was, then and now, the time to sleep. Tomorrow is coming too quickly, and I need to get ready.

 

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This Is Your Body on Teaching

The first thing that gets you is the lack of sleep.

Well, it’s not inherently a lack of sleep. It’s actually the fact that you have to wake up early now. Very early. Long before the sun comes up, your alarm is blaring whatever iPhone sound you’ve chosen (some days it’s something soft like ~Bamboo Forest~ but most days it’s that one that sounds like the submarine alarm because you know that fooling your body into thinking we’re on the brink of nuclear disaster is the only way you’ll get up).

You groggily reach for the phone, hit the button, and look at the time. You groan internally. You’ve never had to get up this early before. Years of college have softened you, and you’ve been living in the magic land where you create your own schedules and can ditch class when you really need to. Your body still thinks that if it crashes at 11:45 PM after just-one-more-episode of Stranger Things, you’ll be able to skate through your alarm clock to get the 7 or 8 hours of sleep you know you need.

That’s not an option anymore, though. Now, you know that at 7:45 AM, for better or worse, 32 sets of eyes will be looking at you. 32 heads will be craned towards you, wondering what they’re supposed to be doing next. Now, unless you want to stand there, mouth agape and unknowing, you have to get to school by 6:30 at least to handle the myriad tasks necessary to try and engage 32 adolescents in whatever shenanigans (and, yes, even the best, most effective plan becomes “shenanigan-esque” when 32 kids get involved) you have put together.

You roll out of bed onto achy joints. Maybe you stretch a little first– the whole “walking the room” thing does, in fact, work for classroom management, but it’s doing a number on your legs (“At least you get your steps in,” your friends muse at you). You crunch your toes into the rug before slinking across the room. You go through your shower-clothes-coffee morning routine and grab your bags– always more than one, always one with papers/supplies/books– and head out the door.

This time in your car is some of the only solace you’ll have for the rest of the day, so you try and enjoy it. Some days, it’s a hilarious podcast to take your mind off things, or NPR to help you understand why you do this work. Some days, it’s just silence– you let your mind wander at the million-hour pace it now functions, crunching numbers, figuring out activities and assigning the minutes they’ll need, wondering what to do with that one student. The stoplights and turns are on autopilot now, and before you know it, you’ve parked your car in the parking lot.

Stop. Close your eyes. Breathe. Again. Good. 

Here we go.

The day passes in a blur. Your body, in some ways, is a machine now, or at least it has learned how to be efficient. You have learned the time it takes you to run to the bathroom hurriedly in between classes. You can eat your lunch in 22 minutes while walking around monitoring a make-up quiz, listening in on the small anime club that meets in another corner of your room (sometimes, that “lunch” is leftover Halloween candy bars from the break room). Your vocal chords finally adjusted a few weeks ago– up until then, the consistent projection they had to produce caused them to crack by 6th period. You shake out your arms from hours of jazz hands, reaching to the top of the board, tapping on a kid’s desk, handing out papers or receiving the high-five from someone smaller yet so much stronger than you.

By the end of the day, you finally flop into your chair. The squishiness in the seat is sinking, but it feels good to relax in that moment, to feel your low-back and legs release some of the tension they held. You rub your eyes for a second and hear your phone buzz. Your friends will want to go out for a drink tonight. It is a Tuesday. You know you will have to decline. The most you might squeeze in is a quick run or a hurried dinner with a coworker. Then it will be back to the grind.

As you hear footsteps fade down the hall, you cannot help but notice the way your life is different now. This job is not at all what you thought. You see you friends and a partner– if you’re lucky enough to convince someone to stay through this with you– less. You are more drained at the end of your day.

It’s physical, yes, but it’s emotional and mental too. Your mind works harder than you ever thought it would– the knowledge is there, but you are forcing yourself to re-remember how it got through to you in the first place. You now learn how to deal with being “on” for the majority of your day, often unable to take a minute to yourself, except for a few hurried breaths in the bathroom. The stakes feel higher (even if your paycheck doesn’t show it).

So, you sit at your desk now and think about these things– the changes, the struggle, the process. Then, you hear your door open, and a kid peeks their head around the corner of the door, and waves at you.

You smile, genuinely. An inquisitive kid is always the sweetest image, and it fills your chest a little.

“Hey kiddo, how can I help you?”

They smile and bound up to your desk with a question, a comment, a thought.

A veteran teacher once told you that, when you are a teacher, every morning your alarm goes off, it’s a call to lead. You didn’t fully understand the sentiment at first, but now it becomes clearer.

It’s not a call to “lead” so much as it is the space to “guide”– every morning, you know your work is to create space and clear the way for your students to shine, to grow, to question and struggle, perhaps even to fail so that they can rise far higher than they thought. Every morning is a new one that fills the space in your soul with some of God’s purest joys– the laughter of children, the pursuit of discovery, the warmth of community.

So, when the kid comes into your room at the end of the day, you can’t help but smile a little deeper into your heart. And, when someone asks you how you’re doing, you can answer honestly: My body is a little tired, but it is well with my soul.

 

 

 

The Long Game: Teaching as a Career, Not Just A Job

So, here’s an honest confession:  I’m feeling really burnt out this school year. I’m tired. I’m so tired that it’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday, I’m having a drink, and I honestly cannot come up with some pretty introduction to this post. After staring at the white screen of my computer for a few minutes, the only thought running through my mind is that I’m really freakin’ tired right now.

There’s a whole host of reasons why this is true. I’ve completely changed my workout schedule, and the hours I put in at the gym have admittedly made it difficult for me to do, well, anything at the end of the day.

Still, I think I’m finally starting to understand what it means to teach as a career, not just as a job.

For the first time, I’m in my third consecutive year (fifth year overall) in the classroom and, frankly, at any job I’ve ever had. This is the first time I’ve stayed at a position this long. I’m a little like the bachelor who has jumped from relationship to relationship and finally decided to stick with someone past the honeymoon phase.

Honestly, that’s what the past two years have felt like– the honeymoon phase. I loved every minute of my job. I was always thinking of ways to try something different and new. Just like in the first few months of a relationship, I was eager to spend all my time focused on impressing my partner(s) and giving them the best.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still eager to give my students my best, and I still love my job. But after two years it’s much easier to become complacent with the routine of your classroom. You’re able to read the room better. You run into similar problems and pitfalls from the years before. Yes, the kids are different and wonderful and marvelous in their own way, but it’s easy to rest on your laurels and continue on your merry way down the path you forged for two years.

Just like any relationship, though, I am fighting stagnancy and complacency as much as I can. I don’t want to end up getting so burnt out and bored doing this work that I forget all the reasons I returned to the classroom in the first place.

Here are a couple of things I am trying to do in order to make sure I stay sharp.

  • I am reflecting on my work as often as I can. My school allows teachers to conduct academic research as part of our workload. This year, I am researching how narrative writing affects identity development, and taking a critical eye to my practice will help me improve it in the future. Caveat: you have to ensure that you actually make time for this. I failed to set aside time at the beginning of the quarter and am having to play catch up now.
  • I am extending my work as much as I am capable. This sounds crazy (and frankly, is a little bit) since teachers are busy enough as it is,  but it also allows me to connect with other educators and, again, consider my own practice.  Beyond writing for EdWeek, I’m still a Hope Street Group Fellow and now working as a community manager for Sevenzo, awesome education incubator. Does this mean less quiet, sitting-around time? Sure, but by putting myself in spaces with innovative and inspired teachers, it helps me make sure I feel that way myself.
  • I am spending less time online. Now, I had mixed feelings about sharing this one, because I think the time I spent in online spaces like EduColor is what helped me return to the classroom and helps me be a better teacher to begin with. That said, I have spent the large majority of my life operating in mostly digital spaces. This is the first year I’ve really felt involved at a more face-to-face level as an educator, and I’ve been trying to be a better friend/partner in the physical world. A lot of my life last year, if I’m honest, revolved around doing a thing for the photo op. Now I’m just… doing it. It is new and, frankly, exhilarating. I still want to return and engage more in the digital space (I miss my people!), but this has been a new avenue of my life to learn to balance in.
  • I am trying to make space for and be kind to myself. This is the hardest one. When you first enter into a relationship, you end up losing yourself in it. You want to spend all your time with it; you every waking moment feels devoted to it. That’s how I felt about teaching when I re-entered the classroom. That’s no way to have a healthy relationship with anyone (or anything), though. I am trying to make sure I still am a person outside my classroom with the fitness and making space for human relationships and the acting. The next one should say, “with the writing,” but I’ve been horribly slow on that front.

 

It admittedly hasn’t been an easy road. Yet as I sit here finishing up this post on a Wednesday morning while my 7th graders do their own freewriting, I am reminded just how blessed I am to be around these kids who consistently make me feel hopeful.

In a world that has been increasingly more frustrating, my students have been the anchor that makes me feel sane. They are a reminder that I am playing the long game– it’s not just about surviving this day but building a relationship with them that hopefully helps them make the world a little less frustrating in the future.

 

Intersecting Stories

There are two stories I want to tell you.

The first isn’t really a single story, but a collection of them. It’s from the first three days of my classroom, and of being in the fifth-year of my teaching.

There’s the story I want to tell you about what it felt like to hit my stride. There is a moment where body, spirit, and mind connect and there’s a momentary, explosive bloom, like watching stars explode in space— it’s not violent, but graceful.

I turned towards my students on a too-warm August morning this Monday, started talking with them and thought, Oh, this is it. This is what I’m meant to do. My chest opened and the tension of uncertainty that summer brought melted away. This is it.

There are the students, who are already making me laugh harder than I have in weeks, whose stories are already burning so brilliantly inside them that I see sparks of them a few days in. It is the pop-crack of first flame at the campfire; it is the first rumbles of thunder in the storm waiting to break for hours. It is wild and unfettered.

It is perfect.


There’s another story I could tell you.

It’s about the fact that Panic is a sneaky bitch.

I think I’ve outrun him— taken every self-care precaution, immersed myself in joyful work— or kept him at bay. I’m so sure that I can sense his arrival, I let my guard down. Oh, I know he’ll show up, but I figure I’ll hear his footsteps down the hall, see the flashes of his fingers at the corners of my mind.

So, when Panic hits on King St. late on a weekday night, on a day where, for all intents and purposes, things are fine, it’s a little jarring. Panic does all the normal things he does— squeezes my chest; makes me cry; reaches down my throat and plays my vocal chords like a harp so I make squeaky, whimpering animal noises while I try to keep him at bay. I grip the steering wheel hard and grit my teeth, trying to ride the wave of his terror out, playing the scared bystander-under-desk to his Godzilla-rage.

I finally make it home and sob in my car harder than I have in months. There is no reason to it. The detailed inventory of my life is, at least, joyful. You’re fine. You’re fine, I think to myself, desperate to use that as an anchor to some kind of rational-self.

There is no logic to it, though.  There is just loud, unabashed wailing, each cry letting some of Panic’s power out of my system. I let myself weep in hopes that the more I let this wild rumpus continue, the longer I will be free from it.

The two stories seem juxtaposing, but they are not parallel universes. They intersect within me. They are consistently warring, forcing me to walk a tight-rope, a knife’s-edge worth of stable ground amidst two worlds that, if I am not careful, could swallow me whole.

Hitting the Wall and Moving Forward

Many thanks to Doug Robertson and CUE for letting write a little about how running a marathon is a little like teaching.

We all know the moment: you are moving your way along a trail— real or proverbial— and all of a sudden, the thought pops into your head:

“I don’t want to do this anymore. I would like to stop now, please.”

And with that, your body hits what runners know as “The Wall”: your legs get heavy, your shoulders hunch down, your chest feels like it’s weighed down with a bag of lead. Your entire being is telling you to give up, to stop whatever you’re doing, and surrender to failure.

Teaching has Walls too. I hit one in my first year of teaching- in October of 2012. The Wall was called DEVOLSON, otherwise known as “The Disillusionment Stage.” To be fair, I didn’t set myself up for success: instead of starting the year off with a plan, I assumed I’d be able to coast by on charisma and good execution.

Boy, was I wrong.

Read more here.

Head Above Water: On Self-Care

Side note: I wrote a piece about meeting with my students re: recent events over at EdWeek that, for me, is a companion to this.


“They identified the shooter in Dallas last night,” I am on my phone, wrapped in bedsheets, reading the news to my boyfriend, Chase, as he gets ready for work. My thumb brushes page after page upwards, the blue glow wrapping around my face in the early morning light. I scroll quickly, almost compulsively, through information.

“Oh, yeah? Did they catch him?”

“No,” I reply quickly, eyes still glued to the screen. “They killed him in a standoff.”

We talk a little more about the shootings. All the news this week– the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and now the execution of Dallas cops who were doing their job with care— leaves me with a pit in my stomach. My heart races as I read accounts, hear gunshots in videos, see images that stay behind my eyes longer than I’d like. The weight of it all can envelop me, wrapping me in gray and following me for the day.

Chase leans over me on the bed, takes his hand to the side of my face, and strokes my hair. The act makes me tear my eyes away from the screen and look up at him, handsome in his Navy uniform though he hates when I say it. I catch my breath. I have not yet told him, but feeling his hand there– fingers intertwined in my hair, palm heavy on my temple– is one of my favorite things.

He searches my eyes for a moment, before kissing me lightly. “Don’t read the news today,” he entreats softly. He kisses me again, nips my bottom lip. He is clean and Listerine-mint to my sour morning breath and tousled hair. “It makes you sad.”

My gut instinct, the twenty-one-year-old wanna-be activista, balks. Ignorance and silence are compliance, a voice in the base of my brain quickly beats back.

I know he is advocating for neither, though. He simply doesn’t want to come home and find me there still, wrapped in bedsheets and paralyzed by my own personal melancholy. I look up and give a slight nod. “Okay.”


I thought about that this morning when my department chair, Marybeth, sent me an email asking for resources not just for our students, but for herself. She noted that engaging with the news is frankly overwhelming when she is also taking care of two young children at home and, you know, being an excellent teacher and mentor.

Once you “go down the rabbit hole,” she explained, it can feel impossible to get out. “I can’t let that happen since I need to be able to care for my kids. But I decided… I need to allow my students to think and converse about this since, otherwise, I am still part of the problem.”

The email hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what it was to go down the rabbit hole. I knew what it was like to get lost in its darkness, like there was no bottom,  like there is just falling into greater depths of our own helplessness. I knew the hours I had spent reading, listening, wondering, feeling helpless.

Of course, we’d be mistaken to not see our own privilege: I am not Black. I don’t live in a highly segregated city (arguably I experience as close to the opposite as exists in the U.S.). While I have certainly experienced racism, my experience can’t compare to what other people have seen last night and for generations.

I write a lot about being up front with students. After Orlando, after Mizzou, when the system failed to indict. Even just this morning, I wrote that we must talk about it.

I still stand by this, but I want to make it clear that none of us, myself included, are built to handle seeing trauma 24/7/365. Processing trauma is not an Olympic sport. There is no correct form for it. Simply because I know that many people have it worse doesn’t mean I beat up anyone who decides to take a break to care for themselves. I am getting better at trying to include myself in that.


It’s a weird thing, sometimes, sharing piecemeal on this site, in my other writing, on various social media platforms. Like anyone else, I suppose, I only share the parts of myself that I’m willing to– because they make me happy, or they feel important (and safe) to share. As a writer (who even sometimes gets paid to write), I also admittedly think about my audience, what will be interesting, or what people will actually care about.

Yes, I am the girl at the top of the story with the handsome boyfriend who reminded me to take care of myself. It’s a sweet story with a nice ending.  I also watched him close the door, and had a lightening-flash of worry. What if something happens to him at work?

Then, I buried my face in my hands for five minutes and cried, still wrapped in bedsheets. I cried because I was sad that I had thought that. I cried because I was still terrified that it could happen. I cried because there are people who fear much worse every day.

I’m a huge advocate for being vulnerable and upfront as often as possible. Still, please  don’t think for a second that I don’t have parts of myself that are hidden and scared. I hope I never paint a picture that I am not terrified at times, that I have no idea how I will discuss this with students or, one day, my own children. There are days where I worry that I simply will be unable to.

There are days when I can’t stop crying, and there are days where I close my computer and decide, “that’s enough.” It is a privilege to be able to shut it down, I know.

I also know, though, that if I don’t, my ability to also be the girl who sits in the diner and hears her students talk about these topics, or encourages them to write about it, or tries to elevate their voices when they raise them, can get washed away in tears.

Those are the days that I don’t always write about, but those moments of quiet self-care, of seeking out light in the darkness, that are just as essential.

When Higher Ed Means Going Through Hell

This post originally ran in Education Week.


 

 This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Sydney Brady.


“Take martial arts,” my mom says, “or you’re probably going to die in college.” While this is obviously hyperbole on a very inappropriate level, it is true on so many others.

What are the statistics we, as high school seniors, look at when we apply to colleges? Acceptance rate, rejection rate, graduation rate… and date rape? While there’s a 14% chance I’ll get accepted into the school of my dreams, there’s a 25% chance I’ll be raped or sexually assaulted while I am there.

And isn’t that horrifying?

On Pinterest, the college survival kits for girls recommend not only cute pens and notebooks but also Mace to, at most, frighten off my inevitable attacker.

When you enter “how to prevent college rape” into the Google search bar, the third article that pops up is from The New York Times. It says that the risk of rape was lowered in colleges when females took a class on how to protect themselves from potential attackers. But measures like these only allow women to be reactive once a sketchy situation occurs. These techniques fail at one key aspect: they don’t teach men to be proactive and not rape in the first place.

And isn’t that horrifying?

I read a draft of this speech to my mom and asked her if it sounded good. She replied with a grimace, saying, “It’s horrifying… but true.”

And isn’t that horrifying?

The woman who has raised me for 16 years has come to accept the fact that for me to advance my education, I will have to go through hell. My mother has accepted that the pearls on the gates to my dream school only bedazzle an iron frame that locks me into a one-in-four statistic.

Shouldn’t I have the right to walk through campus, free from gripping my bag a little tighter when I leave the library at night, free from being scared of footsteps behind me, free from having worry about screaming, and Mace-ing, and rape-whistling? But the reality is that I won’t be free.

And isn’t that horrifying?

So while I will protest martial arts, as I hate them and am uncoordinated, I will reluctantly go. After all, statistics show that I may be gearing up to enter the most traumatic experience of my life.

And isn’t that horrifying?

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Sydney B. is a junior at Kauai High School. She is a diehard fan of J.K. Rowling, and a self-proclaimed master of Harry Potter trivia. When she’s not in school, she can be found running at the track or feeding her fish slices of cucumber.