Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.
On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.
“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.
Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.
Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.
At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.
At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.
I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.
I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).
I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.
When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.
That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.
Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.
That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.
This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.
I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.
It was traumatizing.
When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.
I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.
When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.
© Amanda Sue Creasey