Teacher Self Care and a Finals Week Playlist

I won’t lie, this quarter has been rough.

Being an adjunct for a living means that I have to bounce back and forth between schools, and since “rent” isn’t one of those optional costs, I end up having to take classes that I otherwise wouldn’t. Like this quarter, where I somehow ended up with a three day weekend ever week, and four 15 hour days in a row. Sixty hour weeks in four days. My body has become a battleground between sleep deprivation and caffeine fighting it out for supremacy on a daily basis.

To the individuals who have asked me what I do for a “real” job:  fuck you and your supercilious selves.  I help people think critically, achieve their dreams, and I can keep a room full of people interested and engaged in the subtle sciences of math… and I make it fun. Go back to your banal jobs and your white-washed racism you fuckwits.

My classes have been pretty good, with the occasional exception here and there. Fall quarters I always see students biting off more than they can chew, and new students have the fun job of trying to learn how to balance being a student with living the rest of their lives. For whatever reason this quarter my students’ families have been dying off:  I have had at least 4 students lose parents or loved ones (that I believe), and dealing with that is devastating.  Not all bad news though, I have also had several become new parents as well.  So I know that I’m not the only one dealing with sleep deprivation.

Remember those 3-day weekends I got this quarter? Imagine trying to cram the rest of your life into that.  Trying to recover from exhaustion, have meaningful relationships, exercise, dealing with medical issues, deal with car issues, and trying to have any creative outlet. Oh yeah: also add trying to prep enough meals to survive on during your crazy week!

I should note: I have an amazing partner. She has somehow managed to juggle things that I normally wouldn’t ask of her, as well as caring for me in ways I never knew that I needed.

All of this is pointing to how important it is to have some regular forms of self-care.

This quarter I have had a few consistent things to keep me sane:   podcasts (for my 10+ hours of commuting per week), baking (to force myself to slow down on the weekends), and gaming.  Interspersed with these are my usual mix of running, too many books, and various shenanigans that I can cram into my time.

My podcasts this quarter:  The Scathing Atheist offers a wonderful mix of humor (NSFW!!!) and brutal roasting of the religious bigotry and misogyny, and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe offers wonderful lessons of skepticism and gives me more hope for the future than I had before.

And now:  here is my playlist for grading this quarter.  I’ve only managed to kill four red pens this quarter.  I should sharpen my fangs a bit more.

Good beats for when I repeatedly stab a stack of finals with my red pen.  Metal keeps me sane-ish.

Questing for Questions

My students know that I love questions.  Little questions, big questions, rhetorical questions, and even smartass questions.  Fewer things make me happier than answering a question.

Mostly, I think I admire what it takes to ask a question.

Asking a question is a vulnerable act, but a powerful one.  

As much as we like to think of ourselves as blank canvases awaiting a (ever increasingly complete) picture, our brains rebel against “blank spaces”.  For many people, they will use their imagination to fill in these gaps.   I am constantly fascinated how people will invent memories/details/conversations to fill in things they don’t know. 

We know that these mechanisms are there, and it takes a certain amount of humility and self awareness to recognize that what a person “knows” is incomplete or incorrect.   It takes courage to say “I don’t know,” even though it is by far the most intellectually honest answer, and one of the most useful statements that leads to discovery.  

Now, hopefully when it comes to quiz time our students have at least a minimal idea as to where to start.  But even if they don’t know where to start, I’m happy to receive these questions. 

I think the most powerful emotional experiences as a teacher is looking at my class I realizing, at some level, all of my students have said to themselves “I don’t know this, and I want to.”   When I am looking in despair at the world that pretends to knowledge it doesn’t have, I get to work with people who understand this about themselves,  and are working to improve themselves. 

I sometimes talk about how frustrating it can be to grade papers, or go to pointless meetings, or figure out yet another way of explaining my subject matter.  Ultimately, I love my students.  They deserve answers, as best as I can give them.

Encouraging Words

Teaching is so much more than being a subject matter expert.  

This isn’t the first time I have said this, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.  Teachers are part entertainers, counselors, dictators, researchers, event coordinators, and cat-herders.  There is always more for that a teacher can improve to help out their students, and there are almost no limits to what we’ll do for our classes.  I have spent time, money, and raw emotion and brain power trying to make my classrooms a safe and fun place in which my students can learn. 

I do all of this for an embarrassingly small salary.  I actually had someone ask me what I did for a “real” job.   I was polite enough not to stab him in the dick.  (The truly awful thing: he had been a school administrator)

All of this means that there needs to be more recognition given to teachers.  During the last few months around the nation teachers have gone on strike to get some fair pay and working conditions.  And we have made some progress, but the vitriol that has been directed at teachers has also been epic.

As a teacher, I recognize how much my words can impact the lives of my students. I work hard on being kind and encouraging, because in no way does impatience or frustration help. I have had student’s weep with gratitude when they realize that they have someone who won’t give up on them as they struggle with the class material.

So, why is it so hard for people to thank teachers?  To elect school boards and congress people to pay teachers?  To get school boards who don’t try to force teachers to teach from a broken ideologues point of view (I’m looking at you, Texas)? To support teachers or students financially (I’m looking at you, Ms. DeVos)?

Morally bankrupt billionaire

I’ll wait here for your response to these questions.  This homeland homework will not be graded on a curve, you don’t get points just for trying, we want to see real results.

Please submit your final answers at the ballot box.

Snark Week, 2018

Summer quarter attracts certain types of student:  those who are driven to get things done before Fall quarter begins, and those who like to think that “Summer” quarter means that classes should be easier (or optional).  For my younger students who are changing from high school transitioning to college can be a culture shock – the workload is higher, and just showing up isn’t enough to allow you to pass.  For my older students who have a work ethic, this can mean that I expect you to unlearn some of the mistakes that you have been practicing over the past 5 or 10 years.

Try showing up to class more than half the time.

Which is to say, that at the halfway through Summer, the excuses are piling up.

The majority of my students are working hard and learning well, and for those students: thank you!!!   I have a special few who seem to have a singleminded desire to fail, and attempt to bring others with them.  So for this special Summertime edition of midterm misanthropy:

  • It would be nice to get overtime to answer questions… that I had just answered 5 minutes ago.  Payable by the student.
  • …with interest (rates go up with respect to the student’s level of disrespect to the class).
  • Sharks can be very educational.  For example, I think it would be educational to have students swim with a shark that was last fed at the due date of the homework they are turning in.  So a student turning in work 3 weeks late could swim next to a 3 week starved shark.
  • For students doing the previous while neglecting their current work, I think multiple starved sharks would be motivating.
  • With this in mind I may give the nickname “chum” to students who show up late on test days.
  • Students who only show up on test days may have their legal name changed to “Chum T. Unemployed.”
  • Dead eyed students who inexplicably ask for a passing grade (or grade increase) without earning it could be used as an extra in the live action remake of “Sharknado.”

I will not kill my students and wear their skins. I will not kill my students and wear their skins. I will not kill my students and wear their skins…

Feedback Loop

It is amazing how much my opinion of the world improves after I finish grading.

There are a lot of positives to being a teacher, but grading can be one of the more difficult pieces. I can think of at least three reasons for this:  it is tedious and repetitive to look over an assignment 30 (or 50, or 100) times, it isn’t easy to watch the people you care about struggle with a subject that you care about, and it sometimes can feel like your students haven’t been listening to your lessons. Beyond that, there are students who feel that grades are negotiable, as if their performance on an assignment was not input enough and there should be some other types of merit that deserve credit on an algebra assignment.

I can’t remember the person who told me “You don’t have to take it personally to take it seriously.”  I have tried to pass that on to a few of my students who took my feedback as a personal insult rather than as a guide to improvement.  I have to remind myself of that at times, especially after a marathon grading session. Giving feedback is an important piece of teaching, and being able to find your own mistakes isn’t an easy exercise for people of any age.  This also goes for me as I have to grade… I remind myself that I have taught these lessons dozens of times, but they may very well be learning it for the first time.

Feedback can be a bitch

As teachers, we need to remember that our voices get amplified.  We speak from positions of experience and authority, and that can be devastating if it is heavy-handed, and quite empowering if it is encouraging.  I have said it before:  patience isn’t a virtue, it is an absolute necessity.

Which is to say, I need to forgive myself for getting frustrated by my recent round of grading.   Holy crapnuggets, I don’t know for whom it was worse: them for having to do only semi-understood material or for me to go through and try to give them feedback.    And I feel that restraining my sarcasm may deserve some sort of medical intervention some days.

So when grading:  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  And remember to swear to yourself.

Burn it Down

Some days in teaching are beautiful transcendent days where students and teacher are in an almost mythical harmony, exchanging ideas and bringing goals ever closer to fruition.  Days where progress is palpable.

This is not one of those days. Today, I feel stabby.

This is a day when multiple students misunderstand that Summer classes do not mean optional classes. Or that a short quarter does not mean less work. Or that scheduled meetings with your instructor should be honored. Or maybe just saying that they will do their homework isn’t the same as turning it in on time.

Today is a day where I have to either listen to death metal or turn on a slasher movie to keep from grinding my teeth while I grade.

Today I get to unleash new levels of academic invective at poorly executed problems. The red ink will flow, and I will direct the flood.

Today I lower my expectations, because I don’t want to be disappointed later by student entitlement coupled with laziness.

Today, I want to watch the world burn.

Tomorrow, I will remind myself that however flawed they are, the students want to better themselves. And I will remember that as frustrating as a few of them are, they are not the majority.

Love hurts y’all.

It must be nice to have Summer off

Of all the banal and untrue things said to me, this one garners a balanced reaction between laughing maniacally, sobbing hysterically, or calmly and thoughtfully stabbing the speaker while explaining the realities of an adjunct on “Summer Vacation.”

First off, the reality of being an adjunct instructor (at least in my state) is that if you aren’t teaching then you aren’t getting paid.  Unlike full time professors our pay doesn’t get distributed over the entire year. Our contracts are limited to one term at a time, which means that when finals are over…. hope you have savings!

While it is technically true that an instructor can pick up part time work between quarters, it isn’t a simple prospect.  Also, you can collect unemployment … but you can count on unemployment agencies to misconstrue having classes lined up for the next quarter as having “a guarantee of work.” Washington State has privatised, which just seems to make them less helpful.  Tip for instructors:  you will need to emphasise that classes are a provisional offer of employment, based on enrollment, funding, or program changes, and do not construe a reasonable assurance of future work.  I have taken to bringing copies of class cancellation notices to these meetings. Also, if you are teaching less than half time you can (hypothetically) collect part of your unemployment as well.

Shut up Wesley

So once you know you aren’t going to starve, then there is the other difficulty: you will need to work on prepping your next term. Teaching isn’t just lecturing and grading, there is a lot of planning every single term.  Buckle up, because unpaid overtime is coming!  For me, it means scheduling my topics, setup of my online resources, and writing/updating my exercises.

Teaching often has odd hours, especially if you teach at multiple schools, so there are a lot of other projects that we put off until between quarters.

My “time off” is spoken for this Summer.

So maybe instead of saying stupid things to teachers, why not buy us a cup of coffee and thank us instead.

Finals Week Playlist 17, grading drama edition

Something that I was never warned about as a teacher was how dramatic grading a final can be.  As much as I can play up how important it is for students to have the option to fail, it doesn’t help to watch as they do.  I’m not quite as callous as I would let my teaching persona be… which is to say, I feel invested in my students lives.

Beyond the regular frustrations of grading there are also the almost marathon aspects of final grading.   There is a swell of last minute assignments, as well as the time pressure deadline of grading (in my case) comprehensive exams.   One test took me over 5 hours to grade.

There is also the part where I’m looking forward to a week where I don’t have to get up at 5 am to come in and teach.   So… lets just say, I’m ready to be done.

And I still am me.  I like my students more than most other people, but I’m at heart a misanthrope.   I don’t suffer fools gladly.  So now I give you this quarter’s grading playlist:

Enjoy you Summer, if you have the luxury of having time off.

Patience/Forgiveness

It seems only appropriate that we follow up last few weeks posts with a few notes about patience.

Patience in teaching isn’t just a virtue, it is an absolute necessity. A frustrated teacher sends all the wrong signals to your students: that they aren’t trying, that they are stupid, or that they aren’t worth teaching. As a teacher, learning to control that reaction for long enough to find a new explanation for a topic or to track where the student’s understanding stops.

There are reasons for students to have difficulties, and reasons other than academic ones for a teacher to get irritated. Both in school and outside of school, one thing that has perplexed me.  People constantly apologize for biology.  Needing to use a restroom is natural, so why apologize for it?  Everyone poops… they even made a book about it.  Just don’t fart at me, and we’re cool.

Similarly, people apologize for their brain chemistry. Anxiety, depression, autism, or executive function disorders…. so long as it doesn’t become a get-out-of-work-free-pass, all is well.  I can understand why people apologize here, even if I feel it is unnecessary.  Thoughts-as-symptoms can feel very personal, and behavior around them can not entirely feel like it is under control… and it certainly can feel abnormal compared to the perceived social “norm.”

It is with situational things that sometimes I need to periodically remind myself to be patient. This is where I need to remind myself that everyone’s journey is their own, and their own experience has got to guide/teach them.  Students will oversleep, traffic happens, and sometimes childcare falls through… but unless it becomes a persistent excuse that I stop believing that people haven’t changed their behavior to adapt to ongoing circumstances.

Why do I need to read the syllabus?

For students who are clearly telling tales in a futile attempt to get out of work… you are cheating nobody but yourself.  I just won’t let you turn in 5 weeks late homework after you didn’t show up or bother to email me.   Just sayin’.

But being a student means that you are still a human being. So I understand that things happen. Sometimes.

 

Sadism: Reflections on being a Teacher

“I only hurt you because I care.”   Every sadist, ever… also every teacher.

I have said before that teachers all engage in a special form of schadenfreude.  I love to make my students think, and push them beyond their comfort point to where they are questioning what they think they know, or think in entirely new and novel ways.  And I love doing it over, and over again.

This is part of the job of being a teacher.  You have to push people in order for them to grow.  The only question is how painful does the process really need to be.  This leads to the inevitable question: does being a teacher make me a sadist, or does being a sadist make me a better teacher?

While this question remains open for many instructors, I think that it is a truth that it can certainly help.  At this point, I also want to point out that there is a lot misunderstood about sadists. Most that I know don’t enjoy inflicting undifferentiated pain, they enjoy consent. Pain is a great teacher, but in many ways it also marks great progress.

“No pain, no gain.”

Let’s examine the parallels between personal trainers and sadists for a moment.   Every fitness trainer and physical therapist I know understands that pain is an indicator of progress.  They will measure how much their clients (read: victims) can take as a measure of their ability.  And as soon as their disciples have crossed the threshold that certain exercises are no longer challenging, they will devise new and different things to challenge their students.  The exact same thing is true of all the sadists or Dom/mes that I know.

There is also the symbiotic relationship we have with students. They know that the process of learning is uncomfortable, and yet they continue to sign up to learn. For many this is simply because the discomfort of ignorance is worse than the discomfort of learning.  There are others who want to learn just for the sake of learning… and these delightful perverts make my job a delight.  No matter how much work I pile in front of them, no matter what details I pick on, no matter what grueling course I have them learn they keep coming back for more.

I love these students who never use their safeword.

And for a final parallel: in (consenting) sadist/masochist relationships it is the masochist who holds the power.   They can make everything stop simply by saying no and leaving… but they enjoy the process as well.  The sadist provides imagination and shapes the scene.  The same thing is true of teaching a class.  Students show up because they want something.  Sometimes it isn’t fully defined, but teachers will help them find it.

I get to help students find themselves.

So there we have it… teachers have to have a certain willingness to push people out of their comfort zones.  But in order for us to do that, the students have to want it.

Oh how I love my job.