Glassware (Little Hits of Dopamine)

“You’d think that after, whatever it is, seven months, things would get easier. They’re nearly gettin’ easy. But it’s still so hard to be up on the stage, I find. The same sections of the set are still as hard. It’s either the spirit’s there, or the spirit’s down the road having a pint.”

-Bono in late 1987 (during the Joshua Tree tour; excerpted From the Sky Down)

It’s been a slog. So much so that at the time of writing this – May 1, 2021 – this will be my first day off since Dec. 27, 2020.

I’m not bragging. Part of the reason I switched careers was to find a little more balance. In the words of Little Guard Duck, “Whoopsies.”

But, you know, covid. Between trying figure my way through a new course (AP Bio), AND manage teaching online and live simultaneously, AND actually CARE about my students and provide emotional support (I do love my kids this year – they are good people, it’s been as rough on them as it has been on me), AND try to find funding for my lab next year, AND helping with scholarship letters, AND now try to prep them for their AP exams over the last month, it has been a real push. In some ways, this year has been as hard as 2016 was. I’m just better equipped this time around – I think.

I need to just acknowledge some emotions. I have been overwhelmed – and felt like a failure on occasion. The number of times I have sat in my car and cried before driving home since mid-March had gotten ridiculous (it’s actually stopped in the last 7-10 days). There’s been a lifting if you will. We’ll get to that. (Mom, I know you’re reading this – chill!)

I have found that during my first two years of teaching, the spring always gets busy. Working with the seniors and handling Advanced Placement demands means that this time of the year is always a push. (Side note, I’m learning to like The College Board less and less with each passing year. They have no scruples.) It would help to have an outlet for my stress – but it’s just hard up until, well, yesterday.

———-

I’ve tried meditating before. When I was on sabbatical, I could. And I did. I failed a lot when I did meditate, but I’d just start over and go back to the beginning. I could devote the time to the process. I suck at sitting still. I’m even worse at letting my mind sit still. The only way I can get my mind still is by beating my body to oblivion.

We had a professional development day before spring break, and our middle school and high school counselor did a session of yoga with us. I tried SO HARD to be in the moment. I really did. But I was in the middle of migraine and had plowed through 32 oz. of coffee. It’s hard to hold Warrior One when my bladder is about to explode. That’s MY FAULT, not theirs. (It really was a good session – just on a bad day for me.)

It’s why I’m so peaceful when I’m trail running or hiking. My body is moving, and I can just let my mind go. Failing that, I really enjoy splitting wood. Put a log on a chopping block. Swing a 10 lb. maul overhead. Hit the log. Pick up the two smaller pieces. Repeat. It IS very meditative. But it’s a tad destructive, and I doubt the McKinley Heights Neighborhood Association would appreciate a teacher taking down a maple tree near the school for the sake of my mental health. I question if they would be so understanding.

My mom is a cleaner. She’ll make a three bedroom, 900 square foot house sparkle if you stress her enough. Like “drink champagne out of the toilet” clean. (Please don’t do that to her, it’s bad for her lupus)

When this happens at school, I tend to clean glassware. Which is both bad and good. In my classroom and little lab, I have three sinks, but only one actually works. In the course of a school year, it’s easy to let the washing build up, because I don’t have any easy way to deal with it. This year, there aren’t even many students to help. One kind, young woman will do what she can – but there’s only so much that one extra set of hands can do.

As I alluded to above, I needed money for my lab for my students. I had a closet just full of old glassware that I inherited when I started in 2018. I pulled out enough to start doing what I needed to do when I took the job. I promised myself that sooner rather than later, I would go through the old and dirty glassware. I need to know what was usable, what wasn’t, what I had, and therefore, what I would need to ask for money in order to write grants and order. I had to fix 2 to 3 decades of neglect. Yay me. That was supposed to be March 2020. But, again, covid. Damn it.

PXL_20210413_114317627_2
My glassware, now that it’s CLEAN.

I had to decide when I got back from spring break. This year was far less than ideal. I was trying to be glue for my students. I have tons of great young people that I need to get to the finish line. I was searching for ways to keep them engaged and happy and interested (and realizing that I still had their back) while they are prepping for THE BIG NEXT STEP. But I also really needed to do the cleaning project. If I cleaned the glassware, and I found out that I needed to ask for a lot of money, that’s worth something. If I cleaned the glassware, and I needed to ask for less money – that’s good, too.

I figured I could still take care of my students and add one little more task to my plate. What’s the harm?

Hee hee hee.

———-

What students don’t realize – and I don’t know if I would have had the wisdom or maturity to realize at 17 or 18 – is that as an adult, I live for the excitement and wonder of doing something new and interesting, too. I need to feel like I’m on the cusp of something and doing something novel. Not all the time, but there needs to be the sensation of a WIN from time to time – or at least the POSSIBILITY of a win. That’s been hard this year. How do I give my students, and MYSELF, the sensation of a WIN?

One student of mine TAUGHT two classes in Anatomy. They rocked the house. I know that felt great for them. It felt good for me, too. A real collaboration – something new and novel.

I got to do some demonstrations for a fifth grade (all virtual classroom) for a friend of mine. That felt great.

I had some students tell me that they really liked a lab for AP Chemistry – and they were glad I didn’t torpedo it when we were crunched for time. Just the simple act of taking time was a good thing.

Or students, running their first DNA gel electrophoresis EVER. The excitement was real.

The problem? Too few students in the room, too few students to share in the moment. And no matter how hard I try to get more students to share in the experience, it’s just never quite enough. There’s always a sense of, “if I try just a little harder, I’ll get one more kid involved. And then they’ll just snap back into it.” And it never quite works out that way.

The students can still sit on their computer, cameras off. And for a profession built around interactions and relationships – oof. That’s a killer for me. It’s hard. I keep on hearing the voice of Andy Richter when Conan was on during Letterman’s last run and he KNEW that no one was watching their show. “This is DEATH.” I wish they knew that this year has been as hard for me as it has for them. Maybe they know it, but inertia has settled in. Inertia is hard to overcome.

Just like students, I need to feel good about what I’m doing, too. I need to have some sense of belief that what I’m doing is actually making a difference SOMEHOW. Where’s my landmark that I’m aiming for? Without it, the feel-good experience that I get to share with my students is sometimes harder to find.

The little hits of dopamine get fewer and farther between. That’s hard for everybody.

—————-

I started washing glassware like a madman.

I swore I was on an episode of Hoarders.

I literally had over one hundred-250mL Erlenmeyer flasks. We have about 75 students per grade.

How the hell did we get over 100 of the same damn piece for a high school of 300 students? It boggles the mind. Strike that – I don’t want an answer to the question. We have round bottom flasks – which are AWESOME, if one has a flame to heat them with. I don’t – I only have hot plates. About ⅓ of my collection of glassware, once cleaned, is in great shape.

It just has no practical use for me. But I HAVE it.

I need one 500mL graduated cylinder. ONE. Nowhere to be found. This should be funny. It IS funny. But it’s still a pain in MY ass.

I was amazed. It took me three weeks of just washing dishes (chemistry dishes, but dishes all the same) from 1 PM until (I won’t say when) to figure out what I had, what I could use, and what was not usable. Then, I still had my actual job to do. You know, helping students, providing emotional support, grading – being a TEACHER.

But something happened during the hours while washing dishes.

I felt a TINY BIT better. Just a tiny bit. It was akin to chopping a tree.

I was frequently worried about students – and I wouldn’t quite know what to do or how to help them. I was spinning scenarios forward. Then, my hands would get to work – washing beakers before the pile crashed to the floor (can’t have shards of glass in Room 314!)

And my mind would go blank. Just wash the dishes. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.

Don’t think. Just grab another beaker. 25 years of dust on this one. Scrub, scrub, scrub.

Damn, I wish I had more room in this sink. Make more room – wash another beaker.

After about 90 minutes of standing and scrubbing (and being hunched over – it did feel nice to feel “too tall” for my counter – it’s not an experience I’m accustomed to), I generally felt better. Partly because I stopped ACTIVELY thinking. And much like meditating, I could actually THINK again, or at least think productively.

Those students I was worried about? A solution – or at least an approach – generally presented itself. I had reason for a bit of optimism for the next day. Maybe not sunshine and rainbow-farting-unicorns, but a bit of hope. And certainly, if I had felt like crying when I started cleaning the glassware, generally I felt like listening to music (the “kindergarten” or “baby” version of Achtung Baby got listened to A LOT) and hashing out a plan for the next day or two – and beyond. I was back on track, even if it was just for the rest of THAT DAY.

I think I made a mistake in taking on the project. But I bumbled into taking on a project that was active enough with my body, that I shut my own brain off for long enough, that ironically, it was a good thing.

——————

It turns out that once again, that it pays for me to be lucky rather than smart.

By doing this project NOW, I probably saved myself a lot of time next year. And I saved money, because I didn’t order nearly as much glassware as I thought I was going to have to.

Actually, I didn’t write a grant. I put one project to our PTO – and they generously helped me out. I did two Donors Choose projects, and I’m a) amazed and humbled by the generosity of my family and friends to support my classroom and b) saddened me that crowdsourcing my classroom was really my best option. I’m humbled and grateful.

I made a note about The College Board and lack of scruples. We started class 2.5 weeks later than last year. Most of my students have been online all year; a handful have been with me for a semester. I have had fewer minutes in class with the students, and there have been instructional days cut out (for valid reasons). Some students have not been able to get off the starting line this year – online learning is hard. Others have had to really push to try and meet the same bar as in years past. And things were going pretty well (by covid standards) – until mid-April. I had to work like crazy to get them to that point, but we got there. And then they all hit The Wall. It wasn’t a gradual slowdown. And while I’m not in their same shoes, I think I get it. College and scholarship stress is still there. None of the enjoyment about finishing high school. And now a national test? With drastically LESS time to learn the same amount of material? My heart started to break for my students. Rigor is one thing, breaking my students would be another.

I decided to start taking my foot off the gas. I did it for them; I did it for me as well. They’ve been through enough, what they’ve done is enough; THEY ARE ENOUGH AS IS, and they need to know that. If I’ve been searching for a win, I’m certain that they have been searching for a win, too. I tell them that I’m proud of them, but in a year like this one, it bears repeating frequently and loudly. (If any of my students have found this blog, for the record, I am proud of you – and thank you for letting me be your teacher!)

SoniaAndAllisonAPBio2
Sonia (my wife) and Allison (our daughter) in my YouTube video that I will release to my AP Bio class before their test. I did one for each of my classes.

 

Taking some of the pressure off, ironically, made me feel a bit better about the school year. The year has been far from perfect. I think that I’ve been able to convey enough themes and ideas to my students that, both big and small picture, it has not been a lost year. Far from it. And I think they know I really do CARE – about their education, their well-being, about THEM. I don’t feel great about everything that’s happened. In every case this year that I can think of, when I had a choice between being a stickler or choosing compassion, I’ve chosen compassion. Maybe I’m being too much of a softie, but in a year like this, it’s a mistake I’ll happily make. In a year with few options, “compassion” seems like a reasonable default. Only time will tell if I’m correct.

This year has put in me therapy for anxiety. It’s the first time I’ve ever GONE to a therapist. I spent so much time trying to put my fingers in holes this year that I kind of lost my own way and forgot to take care of me (again), and that’s my own fault. I should have known better. I’m partly upset with myself, and partly happy to admit it. I should have taken care of my business during my year of sabbatical. I made the mistake of thinking that getting out of the old career would take care of all of my twisted and convoluted inner workings. 2017 went well because I was taking a stop-count. I should have known that at SOME POINT, the stressors would come back. I wasn’t banking on them being quite like this. Now I know what I should have known four years ago. I don’t believe in conveying specific advice in this blog, but if you are thinking about taking care of your mental health, and you are on the fence, just do it. The Devil will eventually come to collect if you don’t. 

The fact of the matter is that we all need a win. Or at least a path to a win – which might be enough to give the hope to keep going. I think just seeing the road to a win is more important than having a win, really. More than kinetics, or epigenetics, or immunology, I hope I’ve been able to do that for my students this year. I hope that I’ve been able to illuminate paths to a win (or multiple wins). I just want them to have the confidence and knowledge base so that when I’m done with them – that they can fight on their own. Of course – I’ll be their biggest cheerleader – a sage mentor to call in for advice on whim. We should equip them to fend for themselves, but stay ready to support. I want them to be able to experience their own little hits of dopamine – it’s enough to keep a person fueled with belief to keep them going in a positive direction.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

One thought on “Glassware (Little Hits of Dopamine)”

  1. I needed to read this today. You are enough and have a positive effect longer than you know. Even when you were a pediatrician you set my children on the right path to success. Alec who was diagnosed with Autism with your help now is enjoying AP chemistry, sadly the only class he is passing with the challenges of online learning, but it is because of teachers like you and his teacher who calls me regularly on his progress, they have hope for hits of dopamine.

    Like

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