Let’s be honest. It’s the spring semester and everyone in the educational world is tired. Not just tired, but exhausted and overwhelmed. If you’re like me, you feel like you’re stumbling from morning to morning, weekend to weekend, deadline to deadline. So are our students. My university has another five weeks left to the semester, and I’m trying to keep myself from switching into survival mode and just muscling through to the end of the semester. I’d much rather be excited that I still have time to enjoy working with my students. We’ve laid some significant foundations over the past ten weeks, and now is the time when that work starts to pay off. But in order to reap those benefits, we all have to remain invested in the work that remains ahead of us. We need to be present for the rest of the semester. We might be feeling burnt out, but we need to be present anyway.
Scratch that. We need to be present precisely because we are feeling burnt out. As those of us who practice meditation know, moments in which challenging emotions arise are when we most need to be aware. The eloquent Buddhist nun Pema Chodron calls this “learning to stay” with our emotional distress. Something has changed; something is amiss; so we might as well take a deep breath and figure out what it is. Not only will this help us be better at accomplishing our goals, it also makes us better models for our students, who are experiencing many of the same pressures. In fact, for many of those students, this may be the first time they have encountered such a degree of being overwhelmed, especially if this is their first year of college. The better we can navigate our own journeys through stressful times, the better we can guide our students to do the same.
“Road Meditation” (CC-licensed photo from Flickr user Nickolai Kashirin)
Today, my students helped bring me back to the present moment. A few of them stopped by while I was working in my office, and I found that I was happy to have the opportunity to work with each of them one-on-one. In my first meeting, a student who had failed the latest paper assignment explained the main problem: procrastination. We brainstormed ways to revise that paper together, and I’ll admit that it was painful. She is terribly shy, and her typical response to any question is awkward silence, then a head shake followed by “I don’t really know” or “I can’t find the words.” When she finally does find the words, she demonstrates intelligence that could be channeled into more successful writing. She lacks confidence, a trait common to many students, and it requires patience on my part to push her to try. From her perspective, she might fail, so she doesn’t even start. I’m trying to believe – and get her to believe – that she might be just as likely to succeed. But to do so, she has to make friends with that uncomfortable moment of feeling overwhelmed by her initial encounter with an assignment.
The second student has taken several courses with me in the past, and she stops by periodically for advice or to check in. Today she has a scholarship essay to write, so we have one of those great conversations in which I get to know more about who she is as a person. In our discussion, she reveals that she is the only member of her immediate family to go to college, and she is determined to graduate. This will make her mother proud, a single parent who was smart enough, but not wealthy enough, to attend college herself. It will also distinguish her from the handful of cousins who started but did not complete their bachelor’s degrees for one reason or another. I love her determination and her modesty. None of this information is in her essay, and it should be; it’s compelling evidence of her worthiness for the scholarship. After our first conversation, she leaves to draft the essay, returns to my office for more discussion and feedback, then leaves again to revise. This essay has suddenly become useful for her, and not just because it might help fund her education. She has a story to tell, and she has a better sense of what her goals are. Both of us know her better after these sessions.
All told, I spent two hours with these students, more than I had planned for. But in these moments of conferencing, I was reminded what I love about this job: my students. They are quirky, unpredictable human beings who can disappoint me or surprise me with their intelligence, humor, and generosity. I want to make sure I am present for those surprising moments. But the sad truth is that now I’m behind on my other list of tasks I meant to achieve today. How do I catch up? I know this kind of day will repeat itself: every day brings with it some new unexpected task that I did not budget time for. It’s a challenge to manage it all and to keep seeing these surprises as positive opportunities. The more fatigued I get, the less energy I seem to have for being intentional with my day and how I respond to the unexpected. I know I’m not alone with this conundrum. How can we cope? How can we lean in to feelings of burnout without getting hopelessly overwhelmed?
Here are a few suggestions:
Monitor your work time. Just this week, Melanie Nelson published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education reminding professionals that “Productivity Takes Work.” Among her key recommendations are monitoring how you use your time every day for a week, then determining how you can improve. This sounds like mindfulness to me – paying attention to what happens to the minutes in a day and being willing to change routines that are no longer effective.
Begin your teaching with mindfulness. I have written in a previous post about experimenting with mindfulness in the classroom (“Millenials and Mindfulness”). Last semester I began every class with three minutes of meditation. Students were generally positive about the experience, but a few disliked it for various reasons. This semester I experimented in the opposite direction by largely removing our meditation time from the beginning of class. It turns out that, regardless of my students’ preferences, I need those three minutes to get grounded. Teachers can benefit from taking a deep breath and seeing their students for who they are before diving into the day’s agenda. This provides the opportunity to let go of what we thought the day was going to be, let go of all the prep that we ran out of time for, and do what we can with the time, resources, and limitations that we have.
Install a mindfulness app on your phone or computer. Technology is undoubtedly part of the problem, sending more information than we can ever hope to process and distracting us from our true priorities. Now it can be part of the solution too. Several apps such as Calm and Headspace are available in free versions for iOS and Android, and Calm has a free companion website with guided relaxation exercises and beautiful nature scenes to help you escape the office. Many other mindfulness add-ons can be found at the Plum Village website. In my office, I have installed on my computer a mindfulness bell that chimes every hour. The instructions are to take that sound as a cue to breathe deeply and come back to the present moment. As a marker of the passing of an hour, my new plan is to make sure that I have been effective with that hour. Did I accomplish something of meaning in that hour? Odds are that I have, and it will energize me to enter the next hour if I realize how much I have achieved. That bell can also be a cue to reevaluate the day’s priorities and move forward with intention. Am I on task? Have my priorities shifted? What will the next hour look like?
“Singing Bowl” (CC-licensed photo from Flickr user ArcheiaMuriel)
Reward yourself. We live in an era defined by a curious pathology becoming increasingly common among high-achieving workerbees: taking pride in being excessively busy. Bragging about how much we have to do and how exhausted we are is hardly healthy for anyone. The advice to stop and reward yourself is so obvious that I almost hesitate to write it. Almost. But apparently we need the reminder. When I was chaotically busy and stressed out in graduate school, a good friend gave me this simple recommendation: give yourself something to look forward to. Know when you will take a break from feeling busy. This could be a short meditation session at 8:00 tonight or a fun weekend activity that has nothing to do with being productive. (Bonus: such moments of mental breaks often produce enhanced clarity and creativity.) You might also make a shift in perspective and trick yourself into seeing some aspect of your work as a reward in itself. For me, I remind myself that I want to read my student papers and see what they’ve come up with. There’s bound to be a few nice surprises in the pile.
Many of my colleagues are on the same page with me by this point in the semester – tired, cranky, burnt out. While I certainly hope plenty of educators are enjoying a contented feeling of balance in their lives, I imagine there are others out there among the blog readership feeling similarly overwhelmed. Why not take a minute to lean in and make friends with this moment? And share your thoughts with us! What are your points of tension right now? Have you found any lifehacks that help you push through?
– Michelle Veenstra
**Cross-posted at https://shelveenstra.wordpress.com/