Balance?

Lack of growth and progress scares me. It is the antithesis of going into teaching. I’m here to help! Let’s get to work.

Why am I so keyed up about this? It’s kind of simple.

I don’t want my students to turn out like me.

I didn’t want to take away from the bulk of the post – but I did want to share and clarify my remarks, for those who are interested.

This is specifically following up “10 Things I Think I Think”. You don’t need to have read that piece to understand this one, but it will put this one in the appropriate context. Now that I’ve said that, let me revisit my own past once more. 

I’m going to be a little structured and rigid about this for a set reason. I’m going to use a story about me to make a point. I’m trying to make a connection from my past to a present day observation about a very specific and targeted issue. And I’m not really proposing a solution – because I don’t have a nicely packaged solution to offer. It’s tricky.

Here’s the issue I alluded to in my last blog.

  1. It really deals with undercurrents to points 1-4 in my blog – How do we appropriately PUSH students who are in varying situations? Avoiding work and stressors is not the solution – your brain learns to completely avoid DEALING with things it doesn’t like. That leads to stagnation and paralysis when trying situations arise and you actually need to be able to respond and function.
  2. Throwing people (and especially young people – with frequently inadequate support systems) in the deep end and yelling “SWIM!” doesn’t work. That just creates fear, anxiety, dread, and overwhelm. We set people up to fail – and ultimately, we fail students in the process.

Where am I coming from in all of this? Medical school was a lot of the latter (2) for me. In fact, my medical career was a lot of the latter. This past quarter of school was much of the former (1). As I wrote, I kind of get why the school year ended the way it did.

Lack of growth and progress scares me. It is the antithesis of going into teaching. I’m here to help! Let’s get to work.

Why am I so keyed up about this? It’s kind of simple.

I don’t want my students to turn out like me.

My consultant teacher from my first year complimented me on my “relaxed” demeanor in my classroom. Maybe it’s all the emergency situations I’ve been in during my life. Maybe it’s because I’m acutely aware of my above statement. Whatever the subconscious factors at play – it’s pretty simple. I’m trying to avoid programming them the same way I was programmed in higher education. I’m trying to avoid the same maladaptive mistakes. Let me give you a painful example.

I’ve written about my “subacute, prolonged panic attack” in 2016 before. Let me get more specific.

I had to navigate a very, very tricky patient care situation between a few colleagues, the hospital where I was working, DCFS, and some administrators – because I was department chair. I was able to do so by taking a baby on to my service to defuse a situation. It was fraught with a bit of peril for me – but it was the right thing to do. It was not fun having multiple people yelling at me when I was trying to keep the peace and just do what I felt like was right. I honestly wasn’t trying to take sides or cast judgment.

No one in the situation could have known that – I was nearing a breaking point about having recently been in a drive-by shooting. No one knew that I had put in a resignation letter and was pained about quitting. No one knew that I was completely stressed out of my mind from the sheer number of hours and taking call from the years just adding up. No one knew.

My veneer was calm, helpful, quiet. Same as it ever was. My internal thought processes were anything but. I had a 2-3 day window where I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. I thought I had gone mad. For the better part of a month, I would drive to work, and take a plastic bag with me so I could puke while driving at 5:30 in the morning. And if I didn’t puke all the way, I just swallowed it back down. Yum.

In that time, when I was leaving early in the morning or late at night – I would honestly look at concrete pillars and think about hitting my car with them at 80 mph – to overcome the air bag. Or, I thought about trying to flip my car over the guardrail on the Poplar Street Bridge, so I could take a nosedive into the Mississippi River. 

As soon as I thought about these things – I’d shake my head, and realize that a) that was absolutely the wrong thing to do and b) I never spoke of them – not even to Sonia – until 3 weeks before writing this piece. But it was several weeks of this before I acknowledged it and actually did something for myself.

Why mention this now? Putting my head down and to “just keep working” was wrong. I’m sure I will get some messages of “I never knew.” Yeah, that’s kind of the point. I was pretty good poker, and so are our students. And right now, they are remote and we can’t see them.

Too much stress without support = bad.

Avoidance = bad.

Long ago, when I began this blog, I wrote about what I finally did to begin getting better. I started taking medication – SSRIs. That made things somewhat better. What I needed to do was go into therapy. I didn’t, I couldn’t, it wasn’t an option, I was too stubborn – whatever. I limped and dragged my sorry ass to the finish line. I took one year off until I was human again. I guess that was my therapy. I retooled and I now teach. I’m very much better now – and I wouldn’t deal with a similar situation the same way again. I needed a real way to say “timeout” without fear of repercussion. At that point, I wasn’t damaged goods beyond repair – or hadn’t lost my passion for a medical career. I amazed, in hindsight, how quickly the final flickers of any desire to come back to medicine were extinguished.

So, if I got an email from a student talking about “feeling paralyzed”, “didn’t know where to start”, or “there’s so much else going on,” it sent a jolt of fear to my brain. I didn’t want school to be the added stressor that was the ultimate anxiety inducer – especially when there was little else I could do about it. In most cases, I had not been in the student’s specific shoes – but in my own way, I had been in something anxiety provoking and paralyzing. I had a reference point.

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The sunglasses were a gift from a student this year – for me to wear in school next year when I have a migraine. Our pet conure – Jalapeno – says “hi”. By that, I mean she has been screaming in my ear.

What our students need – everyone really, if we are going to learn, advance, and grow – are sustained, challenging experiences with tools and people around us to help and support us. It’s ok to take a breather. It’s ok if grad school takes you longer than the “average” person. It’s ok to take a “mental health” break. It’s ok if your homework or your test isn’t “perfect.” Come in, do your work, and recharge (and actually recharge), and take another swing. And it’s better if the recharge is more of “enjoy-my-time-because my-boss-didn’t-burn-me” instead of “I really need this break.”

I put this here if you need to see where I stand on the issue and why. Difficult = good. Support = good. Do these at the same time. Letting people suffer = bad. Not offering support = bad. If you aren’t sure, support over work. The individual is not using you – and will be better in the long run. And this is going to be critical in the upcoming year.

I don’t know what those supports look like. I do know that I am a first line of defense and an advocate for my students. I’m “eyes and ears”. I shudder when I realized that over 100 kids are relying on me to not screw that up – so it’s not something I take lightly. I do know that “eyes and ears” probably aren’t enough. I don’t know what else an educational system is supposed to do – as the past few months have grossly exposed the systems that “have” those that “don’t have”. “Throw money at it” can’t be the only response – but when I look at disparity between well-funded and not-well-funded systems, a little of that can’t hurt.

I do know that the 2020-21 school year can’t look like how this one ended. Again, I do not fault ANYONE for quarter 4 – the best plan was put into place on short notice. I think we ended up with the ONLY reasonable solution given the time frame and resources available. I do know that going forward – coronavirus or no coronavirus – it is a struggle to push students from tough backgrounds. If you don’t do enough academically for them – it’s harder for them to grow after they leave your building. If you do too much AND you don’t have systems in place for them – the result is the same. It’s a tightrope act. The margin of error seems thin.

For the record – I used what happened to me in 2016 as a reference point. I’m fine now. The piece written here is merely to inform and suggest that as we move forward out of “this”, whatever “this” is, striking the correct balance of “challenging without overloading” gives me a little pause going forward – especially if the upcoming school year plays out anything like is being projected.

There are people who are much better writers than I am about this. If I were a younger person looking to go into science for a career (that would need grad school) – I would follow Dr. Jen Heemstra or Dr. Susanna Harris on Twitter. They are by far my most informed follows on that platform. For the record – I follow them and they don’t know me, so you can’t (and please don’t) name-drop me. But they are smart, insightful, and a required follow for those interested in how science higher education SHOULD BE. And if I were a young woman looking into a science career, I think they are doubly important to follow. Just my two cents.

 

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children.

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