Meltdown

If life is a field of spinning tops, all of mine seemed to falter at once this week, forcing me to dart frenetically from top to top, spinning, spinning, failing to keep pace–just keep spinning–until I landed in my boss’s office at 3:30 yesterday afternoon in a quivering mish-mosh of chest-heaving, lip-swelling, convulsive, ugly sobs (literally, about the sobbing anyway).  I have been on a crazy-train since Colorado that finally went off the rails and crashed unceremoniously into a flaming heap of un-professionalism.

Gah, I don’t even know how to explain it with out boring you to death with my violin orchestra of problems.  This teaching thing–it will devour you.  Someone told me when I was still a naive and idealistic student-observer that conscientious teachers burn out quickly.  She was right, but what bright-eyed, 23 year-old rescuer of mankind wants to hear that?  Anyone who watches the news knows that teachers have been getting the squeeze, which is really hitting a frenzied pitch with this year’s full-force implementation of Common Core and hardcore teacher evaluations.  Thing is: most of us were always trying. People have endowed us, in their imaginations, with wizard-like powers, and the new standards casually raised the expectation for reading proficiency by two grade levels.  Like, okay, here’s the new bar, but did anyone tell them that these are still the same kids, and no teacher has the ability to magically will a person to jump 3-4 grade-levels in one year?  And if they don’t?  They fail; you fail; you’re fired.

And the truth is, after 10 years in this racket, that the kids are becoming less (not more) capable year-by-year despite all that hard pushing toward educational reform since NCLB in 2001.  The coddling and spoon-feeding (at home, and then by way of parental pressure, at school) is so destructive that they can’t even handle basic tasks of self-management.  Example: a 7th grade girl in my homeroom walked up to me yesterday morning with a pass to the health office asking her to report “Now” for a vision test and asked, “What is this?”  I look at her quizzically; this is a “teachable moment” if there ever was one.  The conversation goes as follows:

Me: It’s a pass.
Student: Where do I go?
Me: Okay, M***, this is a life skill.  You have received a piece of correspondence, which will happen to you many times in life, and you need to be able to figure out what it wants. (trying with every fiber to be sincere and not patronizing)  What does the heading say at the top of the pass?
Student: “Health Office”
Me: So where do you need to go?
Student: To the health office?
Me: Right.
Student: Okay, but when?
Me: What does it say next to “Time”?
Student: “Now.”
Me: Right.
Student: So I should go to the nurse’s office now?
Me: Yes.
Student: Do I need a pass?
Me: That is your pass.

That’s a real conversation with a real 12 year-old who can’t process the meaning of a pass, yet Common Core wants 4th graders to demonstrate independence in reading and analysis of excerpts from Tolstoy.  But this is the new rule of law, and teachers are relatively powerless to influence it because we are the enemy: the lazy faction guilty of destroying American intellectual heritage and global competitiveness by way of our alleged apathy and lack of natural aptitude.  We have no choice but to respond to the new demands and raise the level of expectation while we try like hell to help kids close the gap even though we know quite plainly that many of them just can’t (we hope only to make as much progress as possible) and the rest of them are totally stressed out.  And the result is backlash from a bunch of pissed off parents, which is so often misdirected at teachers because, of course, in the everyday life of a household, the pain and frustration of Common Core comes from us in the form of poor test grades, difficult homework, etc.  I have been accused more than once in the past few weeks of being “mean”–not because I raise my voice, not because I put them down, but because the grades are poor (no matter how much I slow down the curriculum and do pedagogical cartwheels to help them “get it”) and English is making them anxious.  What’s a teacher to do?

And herein lies the connection to my meltdown: I was essentially dragged from the back of a truck by a husband and wife duo this week.  I won’t get into the details, but it was cruel, humiliating, and totally unfair.  I’m fortunate to have administrators who respect and defend me as one of the best in my department; who each said to the parents something along the lines of “…that’s the class I would want my kid in.”  But during a time when all the tops are faltering and demanding my attention, it was debilitating to have to spend all my free time during the school day planning and preparing and talking ahead of a meeting in which I was put on the spot to defend myself–against, among other things, lies the kid had told her parents, cutting remarks I never made, which, I’m sure, were her way to explain (under pressure) why she was struggling in my class–when I had truly done nothing wrong.

And also, report cards were due.  They were due after I was out for my cycle at CCRM, after which I returned to wade through a stack of student work 4 inches high and 130 projects.  All that needed to be accomplished in 2 weeks.

And also, my mother, who is a totally dysfunctional alcoholic with barely 2 nickels to rub together, needs to pack her entire apartment in the next 6 days and move out. Backstory: the house in which she lives has been in foreclosure for months, a reality she didn’t seem to really take seriously; the bank finally stepped in and started bribing tenants to leave ASAP, and the people upstairs (who pay the utilities) took the deal, leaving her imminently with no power or running water.  She is a hoarder of sorts, so the process of packing and moving her is excruciating.  I have been arguing with and worrying about her all week.

Also, I had my regroup with Spock on Wednesday afternoon, and because I have been so overwhelmed, I did not have questions prepared.  He is not forthcoming with information.  He was vague about whether he wanted to stick with protocol 6 or switch to 5.  He did not volunteer much explanation of protocol 5 or his rationale for choosing it, and he was a condescending prick when I pushed him for some.

Also, because these things have so taxed my schedule to the limits of capacity, I have barely been sleeping, subsisting on a wild cocktail of coffee, wine, and Xanax to force my body to cooperate with the demands.

Also, I had my pop-in observation during the last period of the day that grades were due, when I was so fried and sleep-deprived that I could barely spell words correctly on the board no less meet the demands of the rigorous new teaching rubric on the fly.

Also, as I limped to the Friday finish line, B and I argued last night.  According to him, I am self-absorbed and impossible to talk to.  At the sound of that (in an effort to prove him right, it would appear) I told him to shut up and walled myself off in the bedroom: okay, fine, but really…now?

Perfect.

13 thoughts on “Meltdown

  1. I’m sorry you’ve been having a rough go of it. Teacher’s often do take the brunt of the beating for a system that’s not their fault.

    I hope you can get a break this weekend to recoup some.

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  2. I’m so sorry! When I was trying to figure out how to get a job in the same city as C, I thought seriously about switching to HS teaching, but when I realized how much work it is, with how little say on what and how to teach, it terrified me. I have mad respect for you!

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    • Lol, stay in higher-ed! Anyone who talks to me about going into teaching (public school) at this point gets a run-for-the-hills speech from me. It has become thankless and unsustainable.

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  3. Oh my goodness, what a week. I’m so sorry. My mom and sister are also public school teachers, and I teach college freshman writing as part of my PhD program, so I have been very much in the loop about all the issues you discuss above. Your writing is so beautifully clear and your example of the 12 year-old stumped by the apparently incomprehensible hall pass perfectly exemplifies just how knotty this issue of “classroom reform” really is. And to have to deal with the situation with your mother and the ongoing struggle with infertility…well, it’s no wonder you had a meltdown! Thinking of you and hoping next week is better.

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    • Ongoing situations are still ongoing but at least the immediate demands of grades and parent-on-a-warpath have diminished. That’s enough to make life manageable.

      How is the writing at the freshman level? Is there a lot of remediation going on?

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  4. Thank you for not prettying the fucking nightmare of juggling insanities at work, doctors who have power over you who can be pricks, and the inevitable wear and tear on love relationships….wish I had a Magic Carpet for you to fly away on. I’d get on it with you for damn sure.

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    • I know…I keep trying to figure out what to post on your latest updates but I’ve got nothing. Sometimes we’re just on the ride: all you can do is hang on.

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  5. I can’t believe the standards are so much higher immediately.. It seems like the smart thing to do would be to implement them slowly so the kids had time to adjust. How frustrating for everyone involved!

    I’m sorry the week was so awful. I hope you and the husband made up and were able to improve one another’s mood this weekend.

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    • They keep using this analogy of “fixing the plane while flying” to refer to this reform, and I want to say, hey, if we’re using that analogy can we acknowledge how dangerous/impossible/inefficient a method that is for fixing a plane? And maybe some of that applies to reform as well?

      As far as mood: sushi, wine, and a good night’s sleep go a long way!

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