Living for Breaks by Christina Knowles

To-do listToo often being a teacher means living for breaks. Fall break, spring break, winter break, and summer break—that’s when we will begin living again.

In the life of the teacher, particularly high school English teachers, but also for most kinds of teachers, breaks mean catching up on everything from cleaning the house to exercising. There simply is no time during school to do anything other than school work.

I’ve tried to change. Every year I make new promises to myself about how I’m going to erect boundaries and take time for friends, family, and personal interests, and every year, I get trapped in the I’ll-get-to-that-on-break lie. Here’s the problem. By the time break comes, I have accumulated so many things on my list of catch-up-on-break items that I can’t possibly get through half of them, and thus, I am sometimes even more stressed out over breaks.

For example, I have not properly cleaned my house in over a month, I have piles of mending to complete, piles of stuff to organize, the paint is chipping—all the paint—on everything, and things are breaking and wearing out all around me. I quit exercising about three weeks ago to catch up on grading and to get more sleep that I lost out on while grading papers and attending nighttime parent-teacher conferences. I quit meditating several weeks ago on Sunday mornings to plan for the coming weeks of school and to write tests I had to administer before the end of the quarter. I quit cleaning the house to grade papers before parent-teacher conferences. I put away the book I was writing when school started and haven’t touched it since. My poetry collection is waiting for me to finish the cover, but I said I’d do it over break. My fish are gasping for breath in want of fresh water, and my dog forgot what it was like for his mother to walk him. I have so many pictures on iPhoto that I’m not allowed to take another photo on my phone, but I haven’t had time to save them somewhere else. I need appointments for my teeth, my car, and my body. My hair needs cutting, I haven’t had a manicure in six months, and my summer to-do list isn’t even halfway completed, and now it’s fall break.

When you are a teacher and everyone knows you have break, they naturally assume that now you will not be neglecting them—at least for two weeks. Your friends, your family, your kids, your husband, and your dog all expect that now you will finally spend time with them. And I want to—very much. However, after I schedule them into my calendar, the rest of the list looks pretty hopeless.

Of course, there were even a few school things that I thought I could nonchalantly slip into my fall break schedule—re-reading the chapter I’m teaching after break, writing a new unit, finding an example paper for that assignment the students are finding difficult. Why did I think I’d have time to do that over break? Because there isn’t time during my workday, or even in the evening when I finish grading.

Some may wonder how I find time to write this blog? I find time because if I don’t write, I will surely lose my mind, and then I will never finish my list.

On a positive note, I’m really glad I realized the futility of catching up on things so early in my break. Maybe now, I will be able to cast aside my hopes and expectations and actually relax. I’m not sure I can, but admitting the truth is the first step toward tearing up the list. We’ll see. Maybe I can just put everything on my winter break list because who needs to spend time with family celebrating Christmas? Maybe I’ll start living for retirement.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Photo source: pieceofmindcounselling.com

May To-Do List for Teachers by Christina Knowles

owl teacherThis is the time of year, as a teacher, when every well-meaning acquaintance mentions how lucky you are to have the summer “off.” Although we teachers certainly do anticipate this break, this is one of the most annoying things you can say this time of year. In my mind, I think that they are imagining me excitedly making plans for travel to places where I will spend lazy days sleeping in hammocks with the cool breeze drifting over me, and when I wake, I stroll through the sand and take a quick dip in the deep blue of the South Pacific before spending an evening in a cozy eatery, bursting with the aroma of Caribbean recipes and the rhythms of live, authentic local music. But alas, this is not the reality of my summers. My May to-do lists do not include making any sort of travel plans with the exception of an overnight trip to my nephew’s wedding or booking an overnight hotel for a required teacher training in Denver, where instead of sleeping in a hammock, I will be sleeping in a hard plastic elementary-school style chair with the impression of the keyboard of my laptop embossed into the side of my face and eating college cafeteria food for dinner. Truthfully, by the time I get through my May to-do list, I am far too haggard to plan a trip to the store, let alone to an island get-away. “What’s so tiring about May?” you ask. “Testing is over, right?” Well, here is a typical end-of the-year to-do list for a high school teacher.

Week 1:

  1. Collect 250 final essays (You planned ahead and told the students that there would be no late work allowed after this date, so that you would have plenty of time to give detailed feedback before final exams.)
  2. Instead of grading your papers during plan, go to 6 IEP and 504 exit meetings.
  3. Instead of grading your papers during plan, stand in the parking lot during a fire drill.
  4. Instead of grading your papers during plan, upload proof to the state that you taught them how to write the papers you collected.
  5. Instead of grading your papers during plan, email 48 parents whose children did not turn in the final paper.
  6. Instead of grading your papers during plan, answer phone messages from parents asking you to take late papers from students who would do nothing but play on their phones during class.
  7. Print out awards for next week’s nighttime award ceremony for those students who make your life worth living.
  8. Rummage through your closet for a dress to wear to the prom you have to chaperone. None of them fit because you haven’t had time to eat anything but fast food for 3 weeks.
  9. Go to prom instead of grading your final papers on Saturday night.

Week 2:

  1. Finish writing your final exams and modify them for the SPED department, print them, copy them, and send a copy to both the SPED department and to your administrator.
  2. Notice the typos and do it again.
  3. Attend the award ceremony, hug your students, shake hands with their parents. Today is a good day to be a teacher. I’m happy.
  4. Wake up late the next day and leave with a mismatched pair of shoes on because you’re exhausted from staying late the night before.
  5. Plan logistics of the graduation ceremony, sunrise breakfast, and senior bonfire. Why did you ever agree to be a senior sponsor?
  6. Feel like a big mean jerk as you tell 6 crying students you can’t take their late papers because you are preparing them for their future heartless college professors. You break down and take them anyway.
  7. Call in sick to grade 256 papers and get your oil changed before your car blows up. By the way, you really are sick too.

Week 3:

  1. Race through the end of the unit and review all units before the end of the semester.
  2. Go to your evaluation meeting and find out that you weren’t working nearly hard enough. Maybe you can cut out watching TV on Sunday nights.
  3. Supervise 3 nighttime senior events and the drama play your students begged you to attend.
  4. Show up to first period the next day in mismatched clothes and notice your shirt is on inside out.
  5. Meet with 3 angry parents who want their students to pass your class even though they only attended it 6 times the entire semester. You are too tired to argue about it.
  6. Grade senior final exams and finalize grades before graduation.
  7. Attend two bridal showers, a baby shower, and a wedding over the weekend.

Week 4:

  1. Administer final exams to the non-seniors and control their wild end-of-the-year behavior while grading 190 final exams.
  2. Make a casserole to feed thirty people for the potluck that is supposed to save you time during finals by freeing you from making one peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  3. Finish grading final exams and more late work.
  4. Spend Saturday attending the graduation ceremony. Cry as you hug and say goodbye to students you taught for 4 years. This is a bittersweet day.
  5. Spend Sunday doing the laundry you haven’t had time to do for 3 weeks.

Week 5:

  1. Finalize end-of-year grades while answering 32 emails from parents who would not previously return your calls for two months.
  2. Grade late finals of students who went on vacations during final exams and came back to take them late.
  3. Turn in grades, file 1,000 handouts to re-use next year, clean desks, remove posters from walls (as if they were going to paint), remove everything from book shelves, stack desks, chairs, inventory room, and get 37 signatures from people you cannot find in order to check out.
  4. Go to staff meeting and find out that everything will be different next year, so over the summer you will need to re-write all of your unit plans, attend a training, and read 3 new text books.

So, while I am sure I will enjoy the overnight trip to my nephew’s wedding in the mountains, I don’t think there will be any hammock naps in the Caribbean this summer. I might take a week off to sleep before starting those new unit plans. I might take a day to work on my résumé and fantasize about getting an easier job. Maybe I could do something less stressful like be a cop, a corporate executive, or a surgeon. It’s just a pipe dream, though. By the end of the summer, after re-writing these units and reading these new texts, I’ll be excited to start it all over again. Well, maybe excited is too strong a word, but you get the picture.—Christina Knowles

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