Education Opinion

Use those personal days!

By Jessica Shyu — November 07, 2006 3 min read
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11:30 a.m., is fourth period resource math class. We are a month behind in our standards. A quarter of the class is failing. Some need help with multiplication. Others need work on counting nickels.

So it only makes sense that last Friday at 11 a.m., I was 1,136 miles away from fourth period resource math class and combing through wool cable sweaters at the Banana Republic in the Rio Grande Valley. I bought one. It’s white.

It is one of those forgotten lessons that is only briefly mentioned in teacher prep classes, lost among talk about significant gains, purposeful planning and never wasting a moment: Relax.

I flew to the very tip of Texas to visit one of my best friends who is in her third month of teaching ESL at a bordertown middle school. I brought workbooks for her to browse through. I showed her examples of how I do centers in my classroom. But most importantly, I showed her how to have a good time again.

That weekend, we slept until almost noon. We shopped until we dropped, at which point we started drinking margaritas and eating enchiladas de mole, a regional speciality. We drove to South Padre Island beach and watched the full moon rise.

One of the hardest things to do in your first year(s) of teaching is to relax. All that talk about significant gains and giving it your all is overwhelming. Couple that with everyday lesson planning, unruly behavior management and learning your content areas, and one is consumed. You break down, you cry, and ultimately, you burn out.

One of the best things that I did last year for myself was to drive to Canyon de Chelly with a good friend and a whole bottle of wine. No papers to grade. No computers or Internet to plan assignments or research best practices. It was a whole day wasted.

And it was a whole day to rejuvenate. I felt refreshed. I felt calmer the following week. And it made me remember that there is life outside of teaching. It made me actually want to stay in the classroom.

And so that is what I hope last weekend did. I hope my friend will remember that life is fun even when you’re a teacher. I hope she remembers that significant gains are important, but taking care of yourself and staying happy is far more so.

From what I observe each day, one of the major contributors to the education fallout in the United States is teachers burning out. This includes good, enthusiastic teachers like my peers who have the potential to be excellent. When teachers leave schools, especially the underresourced ones, they create instability, unsupervised students, a loss of regular procedures and most definitely no significant gains. It’s frustrating to watch the repercussions of teachers burning out.

But it’s more frustrating to watch someone burning out and not doing anything about it. The Teach for America teacher I was placed with last year left in December. Substitute after substitute went through the class. Kids were unruly. Learning seemed optional.

Yet I was happy to see her pack her bags and return to the East Coast. She was unhappy. She was working herself sick toward those significant gains and no one wants to see a friend miserable. To this day I feel guilty for not being more supportive of her when she was beginning to spiral into burn-out. By the end, her leaving was self-preservation.

So this time, it felt like I had another chance to “save” a teacher, a friend. It cost a $300 airplane ticket, one and a half days away from my students and too much money on a wool Banana Republic sweater, but I’m hoping my point was made: Significant gains are important, purposeful planning is important and not wasting a moment is important. But having fun is necessary. Relax.

The opinions expressed in On the Reservation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.