Friday, August 25, 2006

Post-Teaching Stress Disorder

I liked teaching elementary school, but it could be very stressful. So when I was on that helpful break in the summers, the first sign of school supplies on the store shelves always caused my throat to tighten a little bit. I knew I had better start the mad rush to get the classroom and plans for the year ready.

My issues with time, compulsion, attention, etc. would always conspire to make it a less than smooth ramp-up, though I always made it work somehow.

Since I went "on hiatus" from that profession these last years, I do tense up when I see those school supplies come out. Then, however, comes the sigh of relief and the little smile when I remember that September 5th will just be another day, and that my class size this year is again just 1 — or 2.

The subconscious, however, is less relenting. The night before last I had my second end-of-the-summer teaching nightmare.

Vicarious Nerves

My first one was caused by listening to my niece, who will be starting her first year of teaching this school year, describe what's on her plate in the next month. The first year is always tortuous, with little experience and having to set up everything without really knowing what you'll be doing. Moreover, unlike in some professions, you can rarely have someone just come and help you because all your colleagues are at their busiest exactly when you are. You close that classroom door on the first day and you're never alone, but you're on your own.

Well, getting ready for the first day and the first year is plenty. My niece is also coaching volleyball and has games before the school year begins. Right, not uncommon. But wait, there's more! She's getting married on Labor Day weekend. Not just an intimate little affair with a few family and friends. It's a weekend-long extravaganza at a YMCA camp up north, with lots of folks flying in from the groom's native country.

I think this particular niece is the most organized, practical person in the family, so if anyone can do it well, she can. As for me, the anxiety started buzzing just listening to it all. That night was the first nightmare.

Nightmare 1: What grade do I teach?

I arrived at school to set up my classroom. I wasn't sure if it was the first day of school or the day before, but either way I knew I was in trouble. If only I knew which grade I would be teaching . . . or which room was mine; that would help so much. I didn't want the principal — played in this dream by a former boss — to know, however, that (a) I was ill-prepared (b) I didn't even know where to go. So I wandered the halls hiding from her while looking for clues: an empty classroom with nothing set up, or the like.

I was too conspicuous and nervous; I was having no luck. I hovered discreetly near the office hoping to find the boss out. Then I could make a dash to my mailbox. Certainly something in there  would tell me whether I was a 2nd grade teacher or a 5th grade teacher. Of course, I dreaded notes saying, "Why isn't your classroom set up?" and the pile of paperwork I surely already needed to have turned in.

I never did find my classroom and was not in recent memory happier to wake up in our humid, messy bedroom, with my son moaning for his mama as if I was merely an intrusive butler. Not happier, perhaps, until this last teaching dream.


The school year had begun a few weeks earlier, but I was sick at home the whole time. I went to school for the first time after recovering the afternoon before I was going to start work again. I knew that my class had been run by a disparate chain of substitutes about whom I knew nothing. Though I again desperately wanted my mail, I avoided the office for fear of the very same principal.

All the other classrooms were embellished and organized nicely, with signs and displays on the doors and inviting bulletin boards. I arrived at my room. Someone had begun to put a display on the door, but it appeared to be made out of plain white paper and cut paper grocery bags. It was something about Hawaii. Most notably, on each classroom door the principal had put a label with bold black print that said, "PROFESSIONAL," except on my door. My door's label said, "UNPROFESSIONAL."

Inside, the room was organized chaos: desks oddly arranged, half-unpacked boxes used to organize stuff, piles of books and papers scattered about. Given the clues I saw, I believed last sub' was trying to manage by being "the cool teacher" but not maintaining control.

Before or during my absence, I apparently failed to get anything ready for my class this year. My principal hunted me down and sternly asked me what I'd been doing all these weeks. I said, "Well, first, trying to get better."

"Well, that's good; that's good, of course. What else?" she answered.

I mumbled something about some plans I had come up with, and said I'd be working there late that night to get things together.

She said that was a good start and left me alone. I stood alone in the disarray trying for hours to organize, to figure out what the subs had been teaching and to plan even just one lesson. Instead, I just ended up moving piles around, and becoming more and more muddled.

One of the challenging kids in the class stopped by. (He must have forgotten something.) His taunting attitude I felt was ominous. I debated whether I would be trying to get the little . . . whatever . . . on my side, or to come down hard on him with discipline.

The dream ended in the frazzled cloud of confusion before the next day's crashing failure had even begun. I woke up anxious but ultimately relieved.

Awake: Blessed "Boredom"

So again I feel blessed that my only lessons, of late, are largely spontaneous ones involving teaching common expressions so that Benjamin can appreciate certain knock-knock jokes, as well as learning the locations of various operational and disused railroads around town.

And, sometimes, I even get to abandon — almost — all responsibility and be the student, as yesterday, when Benjamin taught me a game involving bopping a beach ball around the living room. It was called "Nic Nic Nic Nic Nic Nic," and it's great therapy for PTSD.

No comments: