Michelle Bulla, March 2019
March is a month of change. It is a month of winds blowing – some bringing snow and ice, some sleet and rain, some the most gorgeous hints of a magical warmth and blossom to come. We are thigh-deep in the quicksand of the school year and our relationships with students, sensing change in the air. It is the hardest time of year to be a teacher, I think. We live with the mistakes and achievements of two-thirds of the year, knowing the pace of the work still ahead, and we know each other well enough that we are intimately aware of how painful and yet enduring (we hope!) that work will be. It is natural – so very natural – for us to feel as we do in this month. We feel rays of optimism when students look back on their work from the fall and say, “Wow. This could have been so much better,” and we feel sinking despair when we hear them groan, roll their eyes, silently screaming at our demands for more of their time and effort with each new week and unit and task.
I try not to be frustrated with them. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not. I too feel many days like I am just “done,” that I am – yet again – an ineffective teacher. That maybe they’re not learning that much. That my lessons are not as fluid or productive or compelling as I had intended them to be. That despite my best efforts and years of experience, I am still wondering about the best way to teach this topic this year. And then thinking, once the lesson or unit is over, that I didn’t choose wisely.
Looking effortlessly chic and composed never comes easily, so why should teaching? I’ve always wanted effortless grace to be my way and yet….it’s not so effortless to be or look effortless in anything. Not in loving, not in leading, not in learning, and certainly not in teaching. And I know this. I have preached it to teachers and students literally thousands of times! That it’s OK for it NOT to be effortless – that things worth doing well are worth working hard for. That it’s normal for things to not be easy, or effortless. That if they were truly effortless, they would bring little satisfaction.
Perhaps you think this is beginning to sound like a lot of whining. I promise you, it’s not. It’s getting the lead out, which is what I always tell my students they need to give themselves a chance to do in order to have a shot at writing anything truly meaningful. So I’m getting the lead out, something I’ve been reluctant to do because I’m afraid I might be on the verge of a mid-life crisis. A dear friend of mine tried to console me the other day by saying that it was most likely just a “mid-school-year” crisis. Totally different, and far less scary or intense. That this is the time of year that everyone begins to really struggle. I thought about it. She might be right. I really hope she is.
By this time in the year, my students know me a bit. They’re used to my humor and they’re likely tired of it. They know that I gear all my teaching work to facilitating their voices, which they know means they never get to come to class, sit back in their highchairs, and just take knowledge in; they have to work for it. They won’t get to avoid being on stage themselves, as they are called to channel their learning in ways they and others might learn from. They will be asked to do things they’ve never done before, not even in my class, as rarely are two projects the same. They know I want them to enjoy reading, but they’re busy being seniors, getting caught up in two hour delays and snow days and calculus tests and AP Euro homework assignments and – the most sacred of all causes of absences from class – the blood drive. They’re busy deciding which of the 17 schools they applied to is really their number one choice, now that the financial aid packages are starting to roll in, and now that they’re beginning to realize there might be a significant difference in asking / allowing their parents to spend $60,000 per year for school vs. $20,000. And some are having those same realizations over $20,000 vs. living at home and commuting. That they are “ready to get their real lives started.” Because – as their comments imply – senior year of high school just isn’t it because they don’t get to choose how they spend their time. Little do they know, what’s coming, of course, but still…there’s a critique in there, and we teachers all feel it even when it’s not articulated.
To combat these feelings of ineffectiveness, stagnation, frustration, and heaviness, I put together a list for myself of things to do or try to help to chip away at these feelings rather than wallow in them. I’ve been finding it helpful, and hope you might find something in here that will help you, if you are feeling my version of “March Madness,” too. They all center on NYSEC’s goals for this year: self-care, self-love, self-affirmation. We know we are our best selves with others when we are our best selves to ourselves. Warning: there’s nothing pedagogical on this list. We have tons of that, and I could and have gone on about how to recharge in those ways. But March is my birthday month, and as I reflect on aging and renewals, I’m making this all list all about my personal needs. Why not? I’m worth it. And so are you.
To me, this means taking care of my health and well-being.
Reach first for water
This is the time of the year when I start reaching more and more often for coffee to help me get through my day, and it’s a slippery slope to forgetting that water bottle is even there… I know I feel better when I’m better hydrated (no headache!), and all the health and wellness gurus say it’s number one. So…just do it. It’s an easy, tangible start, and I like those.
Stick to those workout goals
Not so easy to do in the darkness of the winter, but luckily now the days are longer, and heading out to the gym doesn’t feel like if we do it, the day is totally gone. The adrenaline boost, the dopamine rush, the sore muscles, the limbering up…they all contribute to me being a better version of myself, which means I might just have more tolerance for those things that can drag us down.
For this year, I’ve identified a few commitments that are helping me feel more compassionate toward myself. Interestingly, they involve deepening my connection with new and old friends. I’m learning that it’s easier to love me when I immerse myself in the love I have for others and that they have for me.
Make standing dates with friends and keep them
It’s sooooo easy for me to feel soooo busy and not have time for anyone! I’ve learned though, that the time I don’t think I have is often time I’m spending anyway, feeling tired or frustrated, and still not plowing through that to-do list. So I’ve made a standing date with a small circle of old friends for a “First Friday” happy hour. We spend about 1-4 hours together, negotiating the time slot and sometimes literally only being able to commit to one hour, but we’ve kept it, and I know I’m feeling more grounded and well-rounded because of it. Group text chats have nothing on the fierce in-person hugs and hours of laughter with those who know and love you at your best and your worst.
Make one date a month with a “new” friend or an old acquaintance
I have often lamented that I’ve either got no time to make new friends, or that it’s just never the right time. I told myself this was going to be part of the package deal, and I’m finding that I’m not only enjoying it, but I’m making more time for more “dates,” and loving every minute. This week alone I’m having dinner with a former student, and lunch with a woman whose workshops I participated in years ago, whose work is still part of my teaching today. These dates are neither convenient nor easy to fit in, but since I committed to this goal, I am adjusting my schedule to make them happen. I know I won’t regret it, and am looking forward to these hours.
A dear friend of mine recently said, “Take Space, Make Space” as a rule of discussion for her students in her classroom. I’m using her norm here in an abstract way, and I find that I’m loving it!
Choose a mantra and repeat it often enough to give you permission to “Take Space” for you
A few years ago I kept repeating “No mud no lotus,” the Buddhist-inspired mantra that helped me realize that all beautiful things must push their way through muddy challenges in order to reach the sunlight. It helped me. I had a gorgeous image of it I kept on my desktop that helped me to read it often and to remind me to forgive myself for not being perfect and for things not going well right away. This year, my mantra is “Choose happiness,” and I’ve written it on a chalkboard I see each time I leave my house. There are so many things that are ready to drag us downward, and while I learned long ago that happiness was a choice, I also learned it’s easy to forget that, especially as someone who is not so very carefree. Again I am finding that the more places I see this, and the more I read those words in my head, the more I am remembering how lovely it is to feel the ease of happiness, and that this is something I can work to choose more often. Sacrifices must be made for it, but they are worth it. For example, I’ve cut my news consumption down – reducing a harbinger of much sadness – to make time for audiobooks on my ride to/from work. What a difference a great book makes!
Accept compliments and acknowledge their truth, “Making Space” for perspectives of others
Boy is this a hard one for me! Like many women I know – and many who are absolute super stars in their fields – I have achieved a black belt in self-loathing that can only be considered a high art form. Got a compliment for me? I’ve instantly got at least three reasons why I’m actually undeserving of that compliment. Hello, awkward silence. Not so much anymore (ok, so I’m not at “no more” yet, but cut me some slack…I’m working hard here… ;). Now? I smile with true gratitude for the time and energy and loving thoughtfulness I know it took for you to share your praise. And I *try to* take a second to let your positive energy mix with my presence, and absorb it. You’ll rarely catch me loudly agreeing with a “Yes, I did just kill it!” exclamation, but I am working on an agreeing “Yes, I have worked really hard on this. Thank you for taking the time to notice and share that with me” response. After all, if I trust and respect these people, why wouldn’t I trust and respect what they think of me?
None of this is easy, and I know for some of us, taking care of ourselves is the last thing we make time for, despite knowing we need it, we deserve it, and we are better caretakers of others when we do it.
I wish you bliss in the thigh-deep muddiness and blossoming of your year and of your career. You will make it. We all will. Now is the time to take care of ourselves, to hold hands, to connect with colleagues and loved ones and with our determination and perseverance in choosing to continue doing our best work by taking the time to be our best selves. The promise of that warm, flowering breeze and the lightness of rebirth are around the corner. I wish you much happiness in your muddy madness!
“Thank you for writing a great article. This is a topic of great importance and is often overlooked in my opinion. As an Instructional Coach, I am acutely aware of the “mud” and the “lotus” (love that!) for my peers and myself. Thanks for sharing and shifting some of the focus!”
~ Brendan McGowan
“Perfect for this muddy transition to spring! March, we all know, is that month which just drags on and on, only to give way to Aprilmayjune, the 90 day month that seems to fly by. I love the inclusion of the Buddhist reflection, “No mud no lotus.” Shakespeare, too, recognized the yin-yang dimension of mud. Sonnet 35 tells us that “Roses have thorns and silver fountains mud.” And in Henry VI, Gloucester reminds us that “the purest spring is not so free from mud.” (Not sure if he meant the season of spring or a water spring, but it works either way!).