Several years ago, Michelle Obama said that she’s only as happy as her unhappiest daughter… at a recent department chairs meeting, a department chair said that she was only as happy as her unhappiest department member and opened a conversation about what that means.
In every school I’ve worked in, and at most of the schools my friends/peers work in, we have conversations about student stress and what we can do to alleviate it. Does that mean changing the schedule, building in more “down time” during the day? Does that mean creating customizeable experiences, allowing for them to pursue a passion rather than the cookie-cutter graduation requirements? Does that mean designing workshops that teach them time-management and stress-reduction techniques? What about working with parents to help students find a schedule that both “builds the resume” for college and gives them time to relax? Or convincing students to unplug before bed?
At MFPOW there was talk about teachers finding Flow – those moments when a class is going really, really well, when you know that this is what you were meant to do. The question of how to increase those moments is a difficult one to resolve, as into every job a little boredom must fall (personally, I hate shelving – I think I’ve mentioned that before). In some ways it reminds me of my response to a question while on a job search. I was asked “is this the perfect job for you?” (trying to assess my interest in the school, etc.) and I immediately said, “nope! The perfect job would pay me about three-four times what you’re going to pay me, ask me to work only 10-20 hours/week helping students do research, and give me the rest of the time to read… but since that’s incredibly unrealistic, this job will be a good substitute.” As far as I know, no one can be “in flow” all the time, but can you have a life that is more “flow-focused” than it is?
So, let’s get back to that unhappy department member. What is making them unhappy? The reality is that we, in schools and particularly in libraries, are not good at saying “no” to add-ons. In September, everything is cupcakes and unicorns, but by November we’re too busy to pee. Our “free” prep periods are filled with getting ready for a new class or helping students understand past material or grading. After school there might be coaching or club advising responsibilities. In independent schools we often advise students, acting as filters/buffers/facilitators between teachers, parents and students. Grades are often far more than just computing an average, they’re comments and explication (and if you teach and advise, you’ve got those comments to create after reading all the teacher comments). Committees – check. Department meetings – double check. Cover class for a sick colleague? Oversee recess or dismissal? Teach an extra section? check check check.
Where are the conversations about teacher stress? Yes, students are important and helping them manage their stress is important. But isn’t it equally important for us to work on how to be less stressed? isn’t it critical that we model good habits for our students? If we don’t know how to say “no” and work ourselves into an exhausted frenzy each year, are we really doing our students any favors?
What pleases me inordinately is that MPOW is willing to talk about this – perhaps we won’t come up with any real solutions, or perhaps solutions will differ per department and grades taught. But opening the conversation, recognizing that there are stresses on faculty that need to be addressed and examined is a great place to start. One challenge for all of us is finding time to learn something new in terms of pedagogy or technology, integrating it into our classes and practice, and that contributes to the stress. Another is all the “outside” stuff (the things we don’t learn in professional training or aren’t explicitly in our job descriptions) and finding ways to do a good job at those and at our “real” jobs.
I’m struggling with this – who isn’t? And as a department chair/library director, I’m also “unhappy.” Wouldn’t it be nice if, by the end of this academic year, there was a clear way forward and an end to the cycle?