Teaching and the Body

A lego figure that’s been pulled apart

The night before the first day of school, I turn into a sponge.

Aware of the gauntlet about to begin, my brain, heart, lungs, and guts inhale every precious molecule they can before locking everything down for the coming school year. Then, come mid June, my body collapses, releasing the rictus grip it has maintained over the last nine months.

I don’t do this consciously, but it happens every year without fail. It has to, it’s the only way to survive as a teacher.

Because once the year begins, it’s a wrap. The needs are too pressing and the pace is too relentless. I say these things not to invoke some sort of martyrdom; it’s simply a part of being a teacher. Regardless of what else is going on, the kids are showing up like clockwork. So are the tests, the progress reports, the report cards, the administrator walkthroughs, the department walk-throughs, the central office walk-throughs, the schedule destroying meetings and the often enervating professional development. Each of these moments carries with it a unique set of demands, some overlapping and some contradictory.

The school year is a hulking assemblage that gobbles you up and demands more. There is never enough.

Normally at this point during the summer, my body would have exhaled. But it hasn’t. There’s no lessons to plan or student relationships to build, yet my body remains needlessly vigilant and amped up and on edge. When I think about it, I’ve been this way at least since Covid first upended everything three years ago.

My brain spent that first Covid summer obsessing over the upcoming school year. Would my district go all virtual or would it try hybrid? When would the decision be announced? What were neighboring districts doing? Would the governor get involved? How could I plan for something I’d never done before? The anxiety wrecked my sleep. Multiple times a night my brain would snap awake to scroll through the news, taking in whatever previously unthinkable things were now happening.

That constant panic continued into the virtual school year. I spent that fall and winter hunched over my keyboard, gesticulating wildly as if my carpal tunneled contortions and facial acrobatics could somehow shake my silent students into participating. When I wasn’t shouting into a black screen, I was wading through social media comments decrying teachers as lazy and selfish at best and responsible for increasing rates of adolescent suicide at worst. And when I wasn’t doing THAT, I was trying to juggle unpredictable child care, a constant fear of infection, and everything else that came with being alive during Covid’s first year.

My caffeine consumption skyrocketed. The prescription stimulants I take for my ADHD tag teamed with coffee to shred my nervous system. I had to GOGOGOGOGO until it was time to go to bed. In order to survive the night I started taking more prescription depressants to sedate my nerves. If there was time for exercise and meditation, I couldn’t seem to find it or make it.

Everything all of the time.

When spring came, my district yanked everyone back to their buildings for hybrid teaching. I now had to split my attention between my silent virtual kids and my silent in-person kids. I watched enough mandated professional development sessions about “best practices for hybrid teaching” to know that I was supposed to be implementing a “set it and forget it” type deal where the virtual kids would work independently while I checked in with my in-person kids. Then, after 30 minutes or so, I was supposed to switch.

That never worked for me. The only way to guarantee participation from my kids was to require them to do all of their work on an individual Google Slides deck that I had open on my desktop. That way I could track everyone’s work by cycling feverishly through 28 tabs in my web browse over and over again. It was physically painful to pivot my attention so many times between so many different things. By the end of the day, my brain had been cleaved into 100 different pieces and sucked dry.

That summer, family health issues kept me in and out of different hospitals.

All of this meant I began this most recent school year from a place of emotional, physical, mental, and ontological depletion. I wasn’t the only one out of sorts. Since I teach middle schoolers, the pubescent gangles of arms, legs, and odors that greeted me in August hadn’t been in a classroom since elementary school. These kids had yet to develop muscle memory for any of the dizzying academic, behavioral, and social calisthenics required by the average middle school.

Everything felt so immediate and raw and pressing. There was just so much to do. Do community builders! Wait, their September benchmark scores plummeted from two years ago; drop the community building and get to the content! Students seem to be struggling more than usual; better teach last year’s content while somehow “accelerating” this year’s curriculum! Be trauma responsive, but without any of the resources or routines or school-wide reflection that requires responsiveness! A merciless drawn-and-quartering of the mind and body with competing forces pushing and pulling in every direction.

Now, despite how the previous paragraphs may sound, I love my job. Like many teachers, I get a rush from thinking up new assignments and improving my practice through study and reflection. But that can’t mean being held hostage to a profession and a culture that never stops and never slows down.

One of my old principals used to say, “If everything is an emergency, nothing is.” To teach in this current moment is to experience the opposite. Everything IS an emergency. Not in a gross teacher savior type way, but in a “holy shit doing my job with even a subpar level of competence requires more than I could possibly ever give.” Brains need safety and predictability to learn, and we are teaching a time that feels neither.

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