Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious on Open Salon
FEBRUARY 20, 2012 9:26AM

How I Saved My Teaching Career 2: Take Time Off

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One of my favourite quotes about burnout is from Bertrand Russell’s essay “Education and Discipline”:

… it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children.

In Thursday's post, I described the “confectioner’s apprentice” moment in my career. I no longer enjoyed anything about my students. It was as though I’d been eating nothing but macaroons for fifteen years; I never wanted to see a macaroon again. Maybe if I got away from the macaroons, I would remember what I’d liked about them in the first place.

I had to step away from the classroom.

I decided to apply for government arts grants to fund a semester of work on my current novel. If I got one, I would take a professional leave. This was a state of emergency, however; I needed a break NOW, and, the likelihood of receiving an arts grant being what it is, I needed a contingency plan.

The Husband (then the Fiancé) and I had a talk. If I didn’t receive funding, but could put aside a bit of money, would he be willing to pick up the slack while I took time off? He knew the situation was desperate, and he said yes, we’d manage. If I’d been on my own, or if we’d had children to support, I would have had to find another solution – applying for a temporary non-teaching job, for example, or putting off a leave until I had savings. But one way or another, it had to be done if I wanted to continue being a teacher.

He began stockpiling. (That’s the kind of husband he is; I recommend you get one just like him.) I began to budget as well, and it soon became clear that we’d be able to pull it off.

And then, an arts grant came through. I would be able to take a semester, plus summer and winter vacation – a full eight months – away from the classroom with minimal financial worries.

From the moment I opened the letter of acceptance, I began to feel the healing effects. For the rest of the term, I could see the quiet months of solitary writing work waiting for me, just a few steps away. Classroom difficulties, no matter how I handled them, would vanish in a matter of weeks. Everything became less dire.

When the semester was over, the papers were graded, and my leave began, I was already dreading returning to work the following January. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the leave was going to vanish from under me, and I’d be back in the classroom, gritting my teeth and snarling and counting the days to retirement. It was weeks before I could relax enough to take my novel manuscript out of its drawer and begin work on it again.

As time passed, though, and I settled into the rhythms of writing, my teaching life began to dissolve like a dream. I occasionally read an article or had a conversation about teaching, and impressed myself with my calm and detachment. I considered past classroom problems, and potential future ones, with very little visceral response.

This, I thought, is what people mean by a “vacation.” I hadn’t had one in years.

It took almost five months for the teaching cobwebs to blow out of the corners of my brain, and by the time they had, it was almost time to start preparing to return to work. To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to it. My course schedules gave me prickles of excitement. I logged into the online class lists and looked over the pages of student photos – I felt a bit anxious, but I didn’t feel dread. And in the weeks before class began, I didn’t have my usual “teacher nightmares” – dreams of broken photocopiers, vanishing classrooms, standing pyjama-clad in front of forty shouting hellions. Instead, I felt – was I kidding myself? – eager.

As I entered each of my new classes on the first day, I smiled sincerely at the students. I really was glad to see them. I think they could tell.

Throughout the term, there were difficulties, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed. It was as though stepping away from the teaching life had made everything about it – the class periods, the distance between midterm break and Easter weekend, the stacks of essays, the occasional belligerent student – smaller.

It was the best semester I’d had in many years. I was on my way to loving my job for the long term – if I could continue to get away from the macaroons from time to time.

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If you’re a teacher who’s feeling exhausted, you might want to investigate your school’s options for leaves. At my college, teachers can take unpaid leaves if we give appropriate notice. Tenured teachers can also arrange for “advance” or “deferred” salary – for example, we can spread two years’ pay over three years – or apply for a reduced workload. All these options have consequences for our pension, health insurance, seniority and, of course, income, but teachers who are able to accept those consequences can take steps toward greater sanity and efficacy.

If your school allows personal leaves, no questions asked, consider an aspect of your identity that’s been dormant while you’ve been giving your all to the classroom. Do you have a manuscript languishing in a cabinet? Do you need to spend a few months on a meditation retreat? If your school will only grant “professional leaves,” consider a project you’d like to undertake that you can spin as “professional development,” like travel or going back to school.

And then, of course, consider how you’re going to pay for it. If you can swing it, it will be totally worth it.

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Have you ever considered taking time away from your job? Did you do it? Why or why not? Did it help? Do you have advice for the rest of us? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday's post: finding and appreciating my community.

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The series "How I Saved My Teaching Career" was originally published on the TimesOnline's education blog, School Gate, in 2009. Thanks to School Gate's editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

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Comments

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I had a burnout year last year after 23 years teaching. I had a high needs class and it almost unhinged me. I was fortunate that I got to spend a summer chilling. I like your suggestion, but with a child I cannot do it- yet. Thank you for this post.
I'm searching for a job so different from the one I have now that I know it will feel like leave. I loved this post. It made me happy for you and jealous too.