Rough Waters

By Daniel Summers

My desk is a mess. I share my room with the Chinese Teacher and her students left my window open last weekend. Papers blew all over the place. Rain soaked my jacket. My favorite book of quotes looks like I fell asleep with it in the bathtub. That was six days ago. I haven’t reorganized anything. My desk is just sitting there like several layers of tectonic plates. Eventually there will be a shift, and then a quake, and then the inevitable tumble of nine weeks worth of “I’ll get to it later.”

I don’t know about you all, but I’m a little overwhelmed at the moment. I hate to complain, but I’m treading in some fairly rough waters right now. I was speaking with my colleague the other day about how organization and preparation only get you so far in our profession. Short of eliminating all personal time, getting behind is an inevitable truth of our occupation. By the second-nine-weeks being tired is a teacher’s aphorism. It probably goes something like this: “If you ain’t tired, you ain’t teachin.” Someone make a t-shirt. Anyway, my colleague made a good point. There does seem to be that magical breed of teacher who arrives just before the first bell, leaves empty handed each day–and yet, they still seem to be getting their stuff done. I told my colleague that these teachers were either part unicorn, or they were kidding themselves. She said, “Or, maybe they have a boat and we are just swimming.”

Boom. She turned my rough waters (metaphor? Analogy?) figurative language against me. Maybe my desk–and hers–look like burn piles waiting for matches because we only know how to tread water. We don’t have a boat.

All of this is to say: what needs to happen for a teacher to sail through a storm rather than get tossed around? To draw from William Ernest Henley, how do we become Captains of our soul?

I made a list. Please be aware that I barely practice what I am preaching here. Also, none of these things are working for me. Also, I am no expert. Still–I am capable of recognizing my own wisdom without feeling too egotistical. So, here is my wisdom.

  1. The Hull (Your co-workers)

Teaching is one of the few spaces where it is cool to have your primary friend base be your co-workers. We need each other. The thing that is most likely to keep us afloat is another person. When I feel overwhelmed, I need someone to talk to. Sometimes I can barely face the day. In those moments I need the reliability of my hallmates to give me advice, cover a few minutes of fourth-period, listen to my stress, or just be their consistent selves so that normalcy creeps into an otherwise abnormal day. The key, when building your ship is to keep it leak free. Surround yourself with positive people. The ones who are in love with the idea of teaching. Maybe it is okay to be overwhelmed–if you’re not alone.

2) The Mast (Your room)

At the center of everything we do is the space where we do it. Our room, or rooms, is the place where we manage all the directions learning goes. It is the hub around which it all turns. Make it a second home. Even a splintered mast can weather a storm if you are a good enough sailor. My best advice with the classroom: Fake it until you make it. Eventually I will clean up my desk, I will straighten the chairs and tables, I will hang the poster that fell yesterday, and I will update the objective on the board. When I do, my room with exude organization. It will be the envy of the hall. Teachers and students alike will flock into my chamber and be in awe at the pristine nature of my decor. Until then, I will remember that the room has character. It doesn’t have to be a symptom of how hard this job is. A slightly messy room can be a symptom of love for what we do.

3) The Sails (Your students)

It’s simple. Students catch the wind. They pull us through the day. They are why we are here. Who cares how hard it all is? If you are anything like me, when you are teaching you can feel each crest of every aha moment. Every hyperactive student who is testing their boundaries is one more relationship to forge. It’s like dancing. It’s like sailing. It is wondrous. It is energizing. My problems at the end of each day are rarely because of the students. It is the paperwork, the bureaucracy, and the politics of it all. When students try my patience, I just need to talk to someone and then I’m good. If you take care of your students they will carry you through almost any sort of day.

4) The Deck (Your School)

Take pride in your school folks. It’s a hall of learning. We spend a lot of our life walking amongst our school colors. Look out from the deck and enjoy the view. Sip some coffee and watch the madness play out. It’s okay.

5) The Rudder (You)

You steer this ship. It’s your show. Remember when I was talking about the mythical teacher who arrives and goes home on time? Great. That is their thing. You do your thing. Listen, maybe you need the two hours of grading every night. Maybe you actually like looking up ideas on pinterest on the weekends. It’s fine. You control the speed and the direction of your curriculum. SOmetimes leaders, students, and even coworkers will try to take the helm. But they can’t, you’re the rudder baby. You budge when you say so. Being overwhelmed is a state of mind. When in rough waters, slow down, turn into the storm and keep the ship afloat. That’s your job, and you are darned good at it. I know you are. I can see you out there, staying afloat in the storm. The truth is, we are allowed to be in rough waters. That’s what education is. And if you see a new, or seasoned, teacher out there treading water, throw them a life preserver, or a raft. We are in this together.

WVCTE is wondering, how do you stay afloat when you feel like it’s all too much? What supports do you use to stay calm and organized? Reach out to us on Facebook or on twitter @wvcte.

Leave a Reply