I’ve never met a teacher who signed up for the job because he or she wanted to be mediocre in the classroom. Everyone comes to that position from a slightly different place but when you ask teachers why they chose to teach, you tend to get some variation on one theme: to make a difference in the lives of young people.
That’s a pretty lofty career aspiration if you think about it. It’s right up there with a doctor’s wish to make people well, and a fireman’s wish to keep people safe. So it’s not really surprising that many find teaching to be a stressful job. When you wake up every morning determined to make a difference in the lives of children, all the obstacles of the day that try to divert you from that goal can get a bit overwhelming.
Even if you don’t visibly let yourself sink beneath the pressure, your body may be the first to let you know it’s feeling the stress. I remember one very stressful spring when everyone in the building seemed to want me to do something and I was trying desperately to sprout new arms and heads to accomplish everything on the list. My colleagues frequently remarked that I was shockingly calm and relaxed considering all that was going on. I told them I was feeling fine.
But then my eye started twitching.
It was the kind of twitch your eye does occasionally, just a simple muscle spasm, except that it happened almost constantly, all day, for a week. I ignored it. The feeling was unusual but not painful or particularly unpleasant and I had stacks of papers to grade, a student leadership conference to plan, the prom to oversee, and the tests to prepare for. I thought everything was going fine.
Then I talked to my mom on the phone. “You’re stressed out and overly tired,” she said. I rejected this observation and asked her how she could tell. “You’re talking really fast and I can hear the tiredness in your voice, trust me. You need to get some sleep.” My mom has been a teacher for fifteen years, and she knows me very well, so hiding teacher-stress from her was not going to work.
“But I have so much to do! I have enough work to pull an all-nighter and then some,” I whined into the phone. That’s when she gave me advice I’ve held onto ever since. “You’re going to be less productive trying to work when you’re tired than you’ll be with a good night’s sleep. All that work will still be there tomorrow and its completion is not life or death. Put some of those papers you’re grading in the circular file cabinet – no one will miss them. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your kids.”
She was right. A good night’s sleep cured my twitching eye, and the kids never even asked about those papers.
When you’re trying to “make a difference in the lives of young people,” it’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t need to spend time making a difference in your own life. But if you don’t, progress towards your ultimate goal will meet the limitations of your own body and mind.
After all, even superheroes need to sleep.