When February hits.

Today, I said these words to one of my classes:

I cannot care about your education more than you do. Not anymore. I cannot carry your education–all 25 of you in this class–on my back while you bear none of the load. It is exhausting. You have to care just a little bit. You have to start carrying some of the care, too, some of the work. I’m glad I scheduled work for you to do independently because I’m not sure I want to stand up here in front of you anymore today.

Melodramatic, perhaps, but here we are. I said it, quietly and calmly, in my squeaky, nasally, congested teacher voice, emphatic hand gestures and all. And I meant it. I truly am quite tired–tired of feeling and caring and carrying so much. Not that I’m going to stop. But the fatigue is undoubtedly there.

I have all these grand ideas about teaching kids. I have these expansive conceptual plans, these statements of inquiry, these activities and some differentiation and intentional scaffolding. The students will learn how to analyze literature, and they will write with impeccable grammar, and when I teach them, they will be inspired to love learning, and–and yet, on the daily, I am met with the reality of my job. 20-30 students. And their stories. And their struggles. And their sufficiencies and inadequacies, confusion, fatigue. And their fears and doubts and apathy and angst. And I’m just me.

I have all these grand ideas about the kind of wife I want to be. The kind of friend. The kind of daughter. The kind of Jesus-follower. The kind of writer. Reader. Homemaker. Artist. And lately I’ve been feeling the heavy weight of just in, “I’m just me.”

Just me. I am just me. I am not any of the things that I wish I could be–the ever present, ever reliable, social and outgoing, giving and generous friend. The present and giving, supportive and selfless wife. The dedicated lover of art and the written word. The writer of words that expresses herself in meaningful, redemptive ways. The Christ-follower that champions truth and justice and mercy and grace and meets needs.

And don’t even get me started on teaching.

(I’m told we all feel like shitty teachers for the first few years; great. I have a long few years ahead of me, I guess.)

I feel so utterly inadequate to meet their needs in the way I feel called to, in the way I need to. How can I  give them the education they will need when I hardly know how to plan my lessons or curriculum? Do I have the brain power and knowledge it takes to teach them well, the social energy to get to know them, the emotional capacity to love them? When they move on to senior year or junior year, what the hell will they have learned from me? Do I have what it takes to be the teacher I want and need to be?

Yes? I mean, I surely hope so. I care, so maybe that’s enough for year one.

But they get to me from time to time–the students, I mean. I don’t let them see it, but I’ve been hurt by them before. And I get angry with them. Their incessant phone use irks me to no end, and the the way they flippantly ignore their work, the way they interrupt me or ignore me baffles me. Beyond that, I fall short in so many ways, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m failing them; I don’t grade their work expediently because I spend most of my time planning what I’m going to teach them that I don’t have the time I need to grade what they turn in to me. I don’t communicate as clearly as I would like. I’m inconsistent in enforcing classroom norms and policies. I’m not strict enough with behavior, but maybe I grade too hard. I’m too much this, too little that. To be honest, I’m not sure this paragraph will ever end; I think I could write a novel cataloging my type and severity all of the insufficiencies that plague my perfectionist mind.

Eh, it is what it is, and truth be told, I know this disillusionment and depression will pass, but it sucks when it’s here. I’m stuck here for a bit, and I just have to ride the wave. I knew teaching would do this to me; it’s one of the reasons I hesitated entering the profession for as long as I did. Can my mental health handle this? Am I mentally strong enough, despite the anxiety, despite the depression, to push through the inevitable triggering of emotions and still be a good teacher and more importantly, a healthy person? A friend? A present wife? And in the future, a loving and mindful mother?

I caught the respiratory bug that’s going around, so I was out on Monday. It was the head-cold, sure, but it was also the crippling depression and heavy anxiety that left me falling in and out of crying spells–the blinding, meandering kind that never really truly resolve but just sort of… Halt. It was like I was wringing myself out. A long, painful process that was cathartic and clarifying and much needed.

“It’s February,” I’m told. “The students look miserable, but it’s not because of you,” I’m told. “Don’t take it personally.”

Harumph. “Oh, I’ll try not to,” I say, knowing full well how that will probably go. (Cue eye roll here.) Sometimes I think my depression and anxiety make the “not taking things personally” stuff a bit harder for me–not to mention my personality (perfectionist, people-pleaser, peace-keeper, high-achiever, obsessive, sensitive…)

I told Nick once after a particularly depressive and anxious day of teaching, “I feel like this career makes more sense for someone without depression and anxiety. Teaching would be just a bit easier if I wasn’t weighed down by my own mental shit.”

Nick laughed. “Pretty sure everything in your life would be a bit easier for you if you weren’t weighed down by your own mental shit.”

I found it oddly comforting, really. In a way, it was an acknowledgement of the day-in and day-out battles I fight against myself and my own mind–of no true fault of my own. And it was also a challenge for me to accept, like he was saying, “Yeah, but what good are ‘easier’ things? They don’t make you stronger, and you’re gonna be tough as nails after this!”

Tough as nails, maybe, but not indestructible. But truth is, I’m never going to the completely unflappable, impenetratable, indomitable woman that is unaffected or unperturbed by the pressures around her, no matter how much I try to posture as such or how much I want to be. I’m simply not. And part of me is really bugged by that. My job is going to inevitably affect me in big ways.

But maybe there is a strength in being affected and allowing yourself to heal from that affection. And maybe, when February hits, you let it do its worst, but you come back swinging whenever you can.

(But really, though, when is spring break?)

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these days.

These days, there are swag days, days when I could not care any less about the shenanigans students pull. Days when their eye rolls, sass, and whining, their muttered comments, and their eagle-eye ability to notice all my mistakes don’t mean a damned thing, days when their attempts to ruffle my feathers merely make me chuckle. Days of swag when I’m able to trust that what I do in the classroom is important and effective, that what I do makes a difference, that what they think of or say about my teaching means little to me as long as they’re learning. Days when I march through my door with a stack of goals and notes and lessons and activities and a go-get-’em, yes-we-can swagger, and I don’t listen to the wailing and the whining. Days when I am not thrown off by apathy or anger or angst. Days when I don’t for one second take it personally when they roll their eyes as if I can’t see them. Days when I laugh when they say, “This is so boring!” and simply retort, “Sucks, bruh!”

And these days, there are other days (read: today). Sheepish days. Uncertain days. Murky and muddled days. Walking-through-mud days. Falling-on-my-face days. Anxious, timid, tumultuous, affected days where it takes every ounce of my mental energy to dispel the fears that I am not enough. That they roll their eyes because they don’t trust my expertise. That they scoff and whine because they don’t respect me. That they misbehave because they hate me. That they think I’m a joke, that my class is a joke, that I make no sense, that they don’t get who I am or what I’m about. That they see right through me and somehow have decided I nor my class are not worth their time or effort. Days when their jokes about my “boring class” cut me to the quick, and it takes all that’s left within me to dam up the emotional waters. I’m trying, I want to say. I’m doing my damndest to teach you, to help you, to engage and enthrall and educate you. Please just meet me half way. But I can’t beg. I won’t.

I am a perfectionist. I am sensitive. I am intuitive. Standing in front of a room of 30 kids can feel like drowning in swirling sea full of creatures and shadows that careen to and fro, demanding I take notice of them, appreciate them, see them, acknowledge them, understand them. I can’t help but try to process and make sense of them–the emotions, the attitudes, the affects, the scoffs, the eye rolls, the placid and tired expressions. Where are these kids? How are they? Am I doing something to make this worse for them? What can I do to make it better? Where am I in all of this?

You can safely guess that I have more other days than swag days. I have more days consumed with being “the best teacher they’ve ever had” than I care to admit (because it makes me seem selfish, self-centered, and proud). And today I am painfully aware of all the things I’m not doing as well as I would like to be, all the things that have fallen off the wagon along the way–the students that I am not reaching, the students that are not understanding, the accommodations I’m not implementing, the emails I’m not sending, the grading I’m not doing… the list goes on. I am painfully aware of the handful of kids in 8th period who don’t listen to a word I say. I am trying not to be hurt by the mutters of, “This is bullshit,” when I hand out information about their final. I am trying not to take it personally when a student rolls in late for the tenth time in a row and just scoffs when I ask him to sit down without disrupting the other students. I am trying not to interpret every little thing I see and hear as a sign that I’m doing something wrong to allow these things to happen.

Sometimes kids are just kids. Sometimes kids being kids is not my fault.

So I gently whisper to myself between sips of red wine and nibbles of dark chocolate (what am I, a perfume commercial?): It’s year one. The first year I’ve had a classroom full of 25-30 different minds and backgrounds and emotions and fears and joys and scholastic experiences.

The first year I’ve been responsible for their learning, their reading, their writing, their growth.

The first year that I–and I alone–have had to worry about the kid who was sick all last week getting caught up while also teaching the kids who have been here so they’re not bored while also handing back work while also getting ready for the fire drill while also redirecting 5 students’ behaviors while also answering a question while also trying to stay on topic while also trying to be personable and calm and composed and poised and funny and accessible and dependable and clear and accurate and eloquent while also trying to remember what my lesson entails while also trying to not be affected by the emotions and the tensions and the stresses and the expressions in the room that might very well have nothing to do with me or might have everything to do with me while also pushing aside my own thoughts and emotions while also paying attention to what I’m saying and doing.

The first year that all their successes and all their failures might be thrown right back in my face–for better or for worse.

The first year that every work day is personal as much as it is professional.

But. It’s also the first year that is hard in the only way that year one of teaching can be hard, and exciting in the only way year one can be exciting. It’s the first year that I get up every morning and follow the breadcrumbs of my calling and purpose to Room 215. The first year that I’ve felt my depression and anxiety as I always do but haven’t been crushed by it. The first year I’ve not had to call in sick because of depression or a panic attack. The first year I’ve received a paycheck that left me with enough extra to put some into savings.

The first year someone’s left a note on my desk that says, “Mrs. F. is my favorite teacher.”

The first year I’ve decorated my own classroom for the holidays.

The first year I’ve been able to say, “I’m a high school English teacher.”

And while I am not the best teacher they’ve ever had, nor am I as good as I want to be, nor am I the best I can be (yet), I must look back and realize that this time last year, this was just a pipe dream. This was a distant finish line at the end of a very long race.

And here I am now. Sitting at my desk in my own classroom surrounded by Christmas lights and a white board with a daily agenda and a stack of grading in front of me and a student who apparently snuck out of his 5th period class to “go to the restroom” but actually just wanted to come say hi to me. (Don’t worry–I very promptly sent him back to class.)

Here I am, (somewhat) in charge of my own classroom, and the place hasn’t burned down yet.

Progress is progress, right? If ever so (seemingly) slow.

If I’ve Taught

Teaching middle school students is exhausting in every imaginable and inconceivable, unpredictable way. Rewarding, never boring. But exhausting. You use every trick in the book on Monday, and your classroom is mischief-managed as a Mary Poppins Sunday School, and on Tuesday, you use all the same tricks, and Minion One squirts Minion Two in with a water bottle, spilling water all over the floor while you’re teaching them about theme, tone, and mood, and then he’s the one to throw a terrible-two-year-old style hissy fit when you and your mentor teacher say they can’t keep the bottles at their desks anymore.

“This is so stupid!” Well, we’re in agreement there, dear.

And you’ll try to remember Love and Logic and all that “pre-frontal cortex isn’t developed yet” crap, but you still catch yourself (too late) saying harshly and rather loudly, “It is not my problem that you yahoos can’t handle the basic privilege of a stinking water bottle, so don’t put this on me! It’s your issue, not mine!”

Some time later you remember to unclench your teeth.

They didn’t do so hot on their last grammar test. Maybe it’s them; maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s lack of learning, lack of teaching–or it’s apathy.

“I can teach you how to diagram a sentence, but what good does it do if you don’t care about your own learning?” I say.

Maybe at the end of the day, I can’t make a buncha hormonal and disoriented seventh and eighth grade kids care about nominative pronoun case or whether the -ing word is a gerund or a adjectival participle. I try my darnedest anyway.

They need to learn. I tell them that. I need to teach. I tell them that. But what do I hope they learn? And what do I hope I teach, between the laundry list of state standards here and demands of showing growth and data there? Past perfect progressive tense? Sure. How to articulate theme by hashtagging the literary work first and then turning it into a sentence? You bet.

But. There’s always a but. (Side note, don’t say stuff like that to middle schoolers or they’ll never come back. Also, avoid the number 69, the phrase, “Just do it,” and NEVER mention the whip, the nae-nae, or the quan. Netflix and chill is off-limits as well.)

If I’ve taught students anything these past 5 weeks of student teaching, I hope it’s that (1) they damned sure better have high expectations and standards for themselves and others and (2) they damned sure better extend both grace and consequences to themselves and others when the standards aren’t met. All is striving; all is grace. Life is striving; life is grace.

It’s a delicate balance, but a worthy one. And when you’re a hot mess and can’t quite put yourself together, you get up and do what you gotta do anyway, and you choose hope and honesty and humility even if despair and deceit and pride are the easier pills to swallow. And you say sorry when it’s needed, pick your battles carefully, and you treat people with respect even if they drive you bonkers, and don’t you ever call someone stupid, but if you slip up and say damn it, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.

One student thanked me for never assuming the worst in her and her classmates. I said thank you to her for doing the same for me. I think all they want is to be heard, to be respected, and to have great things expected of them. They rise to that occasion more often than not. Other times, you want to smoosh their adorable, enigmatic faces, and I’m not gonna lie, I’m smugly satisfied when I hear, “Guys, angry Mrs. F. is so scary.” I’m stuck somewhere between being the kind of teacher that lets students breathe and be while they learn while also being the teacher that demands respect. I honestly am not sure how to be both. I’m not even sure I know how to be just one or the other.

So I ask, “How come you zip your lips for her, but when I ask you for the zillionth time to shush, you keep on yammering on and on?”

Usually, they say something like, “Well, so-and-so scares me!”

Hrmph. I want to be scary. But I also don’t want to be scary.

This teaching thing is tough and existential and weird.

For all the times I’ve told them, “I am weary of your continuous choice to behave this way,” and, “In what realm is this behavior acceptable?” and, “None of us can be at our best when we are working against one another like this,” and, “I am struggling; is this hard for anyone else?” and “I want you to know I go home every day wondering how I can be better for you tomorrow,” I hope what they hear is, “I am for you, not against you,” and, “You are capable of more,” and “Whatever I expect of you, I expect tenfold of myself, and when we both fail one another, we both come right back the next day and try it again, and that’s what really counts,” and, “We’re only human, but we should try to be more anyway.”

Teaching is such a beautiful, chaotic kaleidoscope of a calling, and there are snares, bindings, and traps that catch us and trip us, making us forget why we chose this path. I have wondered if I have made a terrible mistake. I have called my mom, crying, “There is no way in hell that I am cut out for this because I am too weak, sick, scared, incapable, uncertain, depressed, anxious, fatigued–” you name it. I have been slapped in the face with the reminder as to why I dropped the education program in my undergrad: my body was exhausted and sick.

Truth be told, I have both inadvertently and intentionally (at times) let students see me as I fall, which means, too, that they watched me get back up and nurse my wounds and keep on marching. Because the spirit is stronger than the body when you’re on the path He has paved (or rather, left unpaved) for you.

(Is this why Robert Frost is in our poetry curriculum? Am I to learn alongside my students that the road less traveled makes all the difference in the economy of the soul?)

As one student said, “You can’t truly know good without evil. You can’t know what light is like without knowing what dark is like first.” Yes, honey! I am so glad you have that wisdom at such a young age–and I hope your knowledge of the light is more extensive than that of the dark.

I hope they know they are capable of both the terrible and terrific, that their propensity for the widest range of emotions and thoughts and fears is a beautiful and powerful thing, that they are worthwhile, obnoxious as hell, and they’ve exhausted and emptied me in all the best and worst ways because their souls and lives are imbibed with so much purpose, and I bear the burden and privilege that I am allowed to intersect with their journey along the way with great severity, consideration, and joy.