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.

Homecoming Game

Tonight is the homecoming game at our school and it has me thinking about the purpose of school in general. I have spent the past three year under cognitive dissonance between our stated purpose and what I actually see taking place in schools. I want to share that confusion with you.

I know most of the readers will know the school well, but if you aren’t one let me take a moment to clarify. I teach at a small (~500 students k-12) public school in a rural setting in Ohio. Not private, magnet, charter, or large, leaving us with limited opportunities for tracking students. Some students do take college courses and some also take courses at nearby vocational tech centers.

I am going to layout what I believe to be the five primary arguments for schools to exist, starting with the most idealistic to the most cynical. I do not believe that a school does one and not the others, but rather they all exist at different levels within the school environment. However, I do feel that one or two reasons for the purpose of school do usually dominate the atmosphere, with the rest being ancillary.

Here are the five purposes for the existence of schools.

  1. Academic mastery and creating critical thinkers and life-long learners.
  2. Preparation for the workplace that will occur after high school or college.
  3. Community centers where relationships are created and social adjustment occurs.
  4. Warehousing or babysitting services for modern, industrial society.
  5. Compliance factories where we teach children to obey authority.

Let’s explore each one a little more in-depth.

1.Schools exist for the purpose of mastering academic material and to create critical thinkers.

I would say that this is one of the professed purposes of school, but as long as educators are pressured to keep graduation rates high, the quality of academic mastery will be low. I cannot offer an authentically rigorous course and ensure accessibility for all my students. Those two things are inversely related

2. Schools exist for the purpose of preparing students for the workplace or college.

As far as I know I haven’t found a study that shows that soft skills like punctuality or teamwork, can be explicitly taught. I don’t feel the need to go into depth the number of high school graduates that end up in remedial classes in college. Also, I have never tried to collect data, but I feel like I have had quite a few students in the past  who don’t have stellar academic records or even discipline records, yet are model employees at jobs outside of school.

3. Schools exist to be community centers where relationships are nurtured and adolescents adjust to society.

Tonight is homecoming. The gym will most likely be packed with people who normally wouldn’t come to the game. We canceled a class to enjoy the comrade of our peers in preparation of the game tonight. There will be a well attended musical this spring. People often talk about friendships and experiences learned in school more than any particular academics. We host camps and provide meeting spaces for groups and organizations. This is a very important need for a community. Is a school the most efficient way to provide leisure activities and meeting spaces to the community? Probably not.

4. Schools exist to warehouse adolescents and babysit children.

In our modern, industrial society most households require both parents to work. We can’t leave a bunch of children to their own unsupervised devices. Schools allow employers to obtain the employees they need and they allow parents access to a socialized babysitting service.

5. Schools exist to create large numbers of obedient and compliant workers.

Do you think it is coincidence that a full-day of work is considered eight hours and school lasts seven? Schools are a way to tell potential employers who shows promise of being a good employee. Is the potential employee easily trainable (good grades)? Is the potential employee reliable (good discipline record)?

 

I function around the #3, my community concept of school. It doesn’t mean that I ignore academics or workplace prep, but I function best when I can plan and prepare class in line with the idea that a school is a community center. My relationships that I forge with my students then take priority over everything else. That’s why I am here for the game tonight, because I really like several of the players and wish I still had them in class. It’s the same reason I go to some of the girl’s basketball games, or volleyball games, or musicals, or track meets, or take in artwork displayed in the library, or ask about part-time jobs, or like proof reading papers, or ask about plans after high school. All of those desire are based upon relationships of students. That relationship then dictates my actions as a teacher. (Sorry, soccer players, I played football in high school and soccer is just weird.)

I felt like I was able to teach like that for a couple of year because I was allowed the autonomy to do so. (It could also be interpreted as a lack of oversight, depending on your perspective.)

 

But right now I feel pressure to live up to the academic role, #1, and the workplace role, #2, of school. I need to make sure that I offer enough assessments and varied assessments. I need to make sure that I don’t waste educational opportunities and teach bell to bell. I need to provide more varied presentations of material to differentiate for my students. I need to provide more resources to my students. I need to make sure I do my Ohio Means Jobs lesson plan. When we get down to the nitty-gritty details of function as a school I fear that we are about the obedience and compliance role of school, #5.

There was a student who was greeted on her first day of school ever at my school with a warning that her hair was the wrong color, and yet I am told to make decisions in the best interest of the students. We tell students what they can and cannot wear. We tell them exactly how a project must be completed and when it must be completed. We tell them exactly where to sit in a classroom. We even tell them how many times their bladder can be emptied during the semester. And then we tell them that we do this to get them ready for college or to make them more responsible adults. I don’t buy it.

We say we’re about academics, learning, and post-secondary preparation, but act like all we care about is compliance. I want to be about relationships and community. I have students in class who I am dying to push to their limits of their capabilities. I have students that I want to develop that relationship where I can push them to their limits. I feel torn between job security and living within that purpose. To my seniors who had me as freshman, this is why I have been so much grouchier and irritable the past two years than you probably remember.

I smell popcorn. Time to go eat.