Having a Nervous Breakdown

During my second year of teaching Calculus I had a nervous breakdown in front of my students. I can’t remember exactly what topic I was trying to explain, I think it was the idea behind the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but I’m not sure. What I do remember was the feeling and how it started.

I was going over some procedure and explaining how to get the correct answer and one of the students asked me a simple question.

“Why did you do that?”

As soon as I thought about it I felt the sinking feeling of not knowing why. I hate that and have talked about it before. This time though, I didn’t respond with a command of just shut up and do the problem, and I did this for a couple of reasons. One, I was going through some graduate school classes that was completely rearranging my concept of knowledge. Two, the class consisted of only two students which had allowed me to develop more of a personal relationship than is typically involved in a classroom.

When I couldn’t explain the mathy stuff to my students beyond a just mimic me response, I stopped teaching. I literally stopped teaching and just sat there in class. After a few minutes I admitted that I had no idea what I was doing. It is blatantly obvious to most people that math that is used in school isn’t like math in reality, so if I can’t even explain what is happening, what’s the point of the entire endeavor?

I imagine that everyone has been in a class where they have thought to themselves, that the teacher has no clue what is going on, but I can’t imagine many people being in a class where the teacher came in on day one and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing…so, let’s get started.” While it wasn’t day one, that was essentially what I was doing in front of my students, admitting that I am clueless.

If I did that in class today I wonder how my students would respond? I fear they would use it as a justification to tune me out more than many of them already do. (He doesn’t know what’s going on why should I bother.) I fear that they would use it as a justification to complain about grades. (How can he give me a C when he doesn’t understand the stuff himself?) But when I admitted my cluelessness to these two Calculus students they didn’t pounce at the opportunity to take control of the class. I was met with empathy and sympathy, and it immediately transformed the class dynamic. No matter how comfortable I had felt with students in the past it was always centered around a me-them type relationship, but from my meltdown to the rest of the year, class took on a more of an us mentality. It was still a classroom, and I still had more mathematical knowledge than them, but I didn’t feel like the dispenser and controller of knowledge anymore. It felt more like I was talking with them rather than talking at them, as if we were exploring together.

What I learned from that moment on was that my classroom needs to be a place where vulnerability is acceptable, though I think I’ve lost that.  We finished out the rest of the year learning Calculus together. Some days were smooth, some days were messy, but it always felt as if it was together. Sometimes we talked about a concept for the entire period with no math written. Some days we worked on procedures from the book. Some days we did other non-math related stuff and embraced the human element of school. Looking back on the experience, it was probably the first time that I felt like authentic learning was occurring in my classroom and was finally finding a vision of what I want education to be.

That moment became the impetus that lead to what I consider the best two years of teaching in my life. Every class seemed to develop some sense of supportive community. I felt free to experiment with ideas and push the limits of my students. Unfortunately I have watched that environment whittle away that past three years. Why don’t I have that accepting, vulnerable, safe, welcoming classroom centered around togetherness? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know much has changed over the past three years. My schedule changed, students have changed, I have changed, administration has changed, technology has changed, testing has changed, all of this leaving me more disillusioned than I have been in a long time. Maybe I have to have one of those coming to Jesus type moments like I did way back in 2011 when I had a nervous breakdown. I don’t know.

All I know for certain is that right now, there are way more days that I leave work unfilled, like my presence at school has served no purpose. I was under no assumption that everyday would be a rewarding bed of roses when I started this profession, but I am tired of feeling like a piece of shit at the end of nearly every day.

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