Saturday, January 15, 2011

the other hand that always holds the line

Hello, internet!

So, the last 2 weeks have not been the easiest of times in my classroom. The flu is making its vicious rounds, taking down everyone in its path. Mme Wendy, my aide, was away for 4 days last week, and I was away for 2 days of the week before. We have had between 12 and 15 (out of 20) munchkins at school every day. Most days, we have sent at least one of them home with a fever by lunchtime. The ones who have returned from being ill are often still coughing, irritable, and tired. Having only 60 - 75% of the kids at school on any given day makes it hard to contemplate introducing anything new. And, on top of all that, it has been so bitterly cold that we have had only indoor recess for 5 consecutive days. By Thursday, the bickering had reached record-breaking levels, the whining was shredding my ear drums, the sniffling and coughing and requests to get chapstick/water/coughdrops came in an endless parade. Having no aide meant I got very few breaks. The children were crabby and bored. I was crabby and bored. And there was still Friday to get through. Friday, which happened to be a Day 5, the day during which I have the fewest preps, and the children spend the most time in the classroom, with me. Friday, when the temperature was forecast to drop even further....

To digress for a few paragraphs: if you read my personal blog, you know that I worked at summer camp for a long time. Twelve summers, to be exact, in a situation where the children NEVER GO HOME. Quite some time ago, on that blog, I wrote a post called "Because of Camp". Number 45 on that list was "I know that the best cure for burnout is sometimes to work harder." The story behind that is as follows:

During one of my many summers at camp, I was the Assistant Director, and my dear friend Devil was the Head Counsellor. We had reached the point in the summer where everyone was tired and a little cranky: the adventures of communal living, no privacy, constant grubbiness, were wearing thin. Tempers were short, tears came easily... It was the time of the summer where camp management has to start looking after staff morale, because the staff's mindset, of course, influences the experience they provide to the campers.

One morning, in the lull between breakfast and morning activities, Devil came and asked me if I would please go do a lap of the girls cabins, to make sure the counsellors were getting their campers through cabin cleanup and toothbrushing and finding lost hairbrushes and generally getting themselves and their charges ready for the day in a pleasant and positive manner.

I didn't want to do it. That time of day was one of the ONLY lulls in my own long day. Once activities started, the inevitably gruelling string of questions and phone calls and crises that formed my job description would begin. Those 25 minutes, sitting in my office, still sipping my second cup of tea, might be the only quiet moments of my day. The last thing I wanted to do was start hoofing it up the hill to the girls' cabins, to referee bickering and enforce floor-sweeping. But... Devil was my friend. He and I had worked together, closely, for a long time, and I trusted him. I trusted that, if he was asking me to do something, it really needed to be done. I also knew that, if I had been asking him to do something similar, it would because: a) it really needed to be done, and b) I knew he would do it.

So, reluctantly, grouchily, and SLOWLY, I did it. In my pyjamas and flip-flops, I hoofed it up the hill. I checked on the staff and traded jokes about the quirks of camp life. I found a camper's missing sock. I braided a pigtail or two. I congratulated the teen leadership girls on the particularly glorious mess they had made of their cabin. I got hugs from 8-year-olds and danced the YMCA with 13-year olds. I tied off a frayed friendship bracelet. I got grateful smiles from counselors who were happy to interact with another adult. And, when the loudspeaker announced the beginning of the day's activities, I found myself... refreshed. My 20 minute loop through the girls' cabins had re-connected me to the daily magic of camp. I was smiling, and had more energy than I had had in several days. Working HARDER had helped me overcome burnout that I wasn't even really aware I had.

Clearly, the leap from that dusty California morning, to my frigid classroom last Friday, is not a big one. I knew, as I drove to school, that it HAD to be a good day, for myself as much as for the children. I could not close the week on a sour note. As my monkeys trickled into the coatroom, a parent happened to hand me a big bag of beautiful magazines, to add to our collage bucket. After an amazingly frank circle time discussion about the week we had had, and how we were ALL feeling (guess whose students now understand the expressions "cabin fever" and "stir crazy?"), we started talking about things that make us smile. Out came the magazines, poster boards, glue, scissors. For over and hour, we cut and pasted and giggled and laughed together, finding images that were undeniably smile-worthy: sunshine, ice cream, butterflies, snowmen, puppies, babies, bathtubs, rainbows, flowers, princesses, sports cars, birthday cakes, candles, campfires, beaches, hockey skates, swimming pools, ballerinas, jelly beans, swingsets, flip flops. We filled in any remaining spaces with coloured macaroni, sequins, rhinestones, and blizzards of glitter.

The collages took up most of the morning and part of the afternoon. The mess we made was unbelievable and never-ending. It seemed I did nothing but refill glue containers, find scissors that were "lost" in the pages of a magazine, collect gluestick caps from the floor, and control traffic flow to and from the glitter station, all while replying to a steady stream of "What is butterfly/beach/ballerina in French?". My clothes looked like Tinkerbell had thrown up on them. And yet, it was, honestly, the most engaged I had been with my students all week. When morning snacktime came, my boss offered me a break, and I chose to stay in the room and eat picnic-style on the carpet with the munchkins (the tables being completely covered by the still-in-progress collages) because I LIKED BEING WITH THEM. In the afternoon, we read extra stories, sang extra songs, and had a silly dress-up contest. (Sidebar: we also opened our class twitter account, so let me know if you would like to follow us!). They went home with stained uniforms, sticky fingers, and smiles on their faces. So did I.

It seems so counter-intuitive that, when I am tired or bored or overwhelmed by my job, withdrawing and taking it easy often do not help. Slowing down, moving more deeply into the moment with the kiddos, re-connecting with them and their world, THOSE are what helps. When tired of teaching, I need to teach MORE, teach HARDER, teach slower and more deliberately. I don't know if this is true in other fields. Do tired accountants need to ACCOUNT more? Regardless, while I have never doubted that summer camp made me a better teacher, it is always nice to have that link illustrated so very clearly. Because of camp, I am actually looking forward to Monday.