When Queen Anne’s Lace stands head high with an explosion of white blooms surrounded by purple chicory flowers, it means that late summer has arrived. And late summer means one thing: the month-that-shall-not-be-named is here. It’s August, and it’s time to go back to class.
I love teaching. But it is also true that for most of us career teachers, when the month-that-shall-not-be-named arrives, it brings with it the sinking recognition that our lives are about to go from manageable to almost unmanageable practically overnight.
We go from having time to work on that scholarly project every day to having time to work on it only once or twice a week—if we are lucky. We go from enjoying a lot of time with our families to disappearing into our offices to grade an endless stream of papers. As a result, the month I have also called “one big long Sunday night” rushes into our lives with a unique motivational challenge.
How can we welcome the start of the year with as much energy as the students have when they return? What can be done about what I’ve come to call QALD, or Queen Anne’s Lace Depression? Is there any way to remind ourselves that this vocation is a privilege? That we love this work? Is there any way to get inspired again?
Take Real Time Off in the Summer
The first thing to know about the month-that-shall-not-be-named is that you don’t have to deal with it until it actually arrives. Unless you are in your first two or three years of teaching, if you are tinkering with classes in June or working on syllabi in July, you are just making it harder on yourself.
After two years of fretting all summer long about my fall classes, I finally learned the first of my Things I Learned the Hard Way (Thing 1): Class preparation expands to fill the time you give it.
This truth is sometimes called Parkinson’s law: any task will fill the amount of time you allot for it. Starting too soon was only hurting me and not necessarily improving my teaching. Let me reiterate: this advice does not apply to first-year teachers, who have to invent everything afresh. One of the best choices I ever made was the summer I prepared my entire eighth-grade U.S. history class in advance, right down to every overhead. But those of us who are experienced must learn to rely on that experience more than we feel like we should. I know that if I give myself a maximum of two weeks before the start of classes, I can complete the syllabi in time and feel more refreshed.
As is the case with any job, the daily, on-the-ground work can blind us educators to the larger perspective of what brought us here to begin with. Most of us went to graduate school because we had a deep passion for our discipline, a passion that typically translates into a desire to share that passion with other learners. We became teachers because we wanted to profess our love and persuade others to join us in it. Andrew Delbanco notes that “the true teacher must always be a professor in the root sense of the word—a person undaunted by the incremental fatigue of repetitive work, who remains ardent, even fanatic, in the service of his calling.”
The question is, how do we get that passion back, year after year, semester after semester?
Step 2: Take a Retreat. Only Rule: Bring No School Materials Except Your Roster.
My first piece of advice is to recognize that returning to that level of focus and intensity in the service of others is spiritual work, and it is very difficult. Since I discovered that I need to carve out time for this kind of work, I always plan a pre-school retreat. A couple of weeks before the start of every semester that I teach, I book a local hotel for two nights, and use the time alone to pray for the ability to burst into my classes with joy instead of to limp into them with despondency.
The somewhat bizarre and little-understood truth of most college professors and many high school teachers is that we are introverts. We are the ones who always loved to sit in a room with only our books for hours on end. We are the ones who got up early in the morning to do homework by ourselves. And like many other introverts, I married an extrovert (God bless him). I have only one child, and he is also an extrovert (God bless him). What this means is that when the semester gets really busy and I feel like I’m talking all the time, I begin to crave things that I know I don’t actually want, like living by myself in a hut in the Outer Hebrides. A hotel may not have the sea spray and rugged landscape of Scotland, but if you want to, you can enjoy forty-eight hours without talking to a single person. When I go, that is my first goal. Because I am preparing for a spiritual marathon.
I book an area hotel through Hotwire. Other educators I know drive farther away, relishing the time in the car and a more beautiful destination. It doesn’t matter, as long as you have large chunks of time to yourself without your spouse or children. Don’t bring your computer. Just bring your journal, relaxing music, books from your Soul Shelf (see chapter 6 of the book), an iPad with Netflix—whatever it takes for you to relax and re-energize. The word “recreation” has lost its original meaning in our culture. We need time away from what we do in order to re-create ourselves into the best version of who we are.
Beyond that, I bring only one school-related thing: my roster of students for the upcoming semester.
It always helps me to rediscover the passion I have for teaching when I pray for my students by name. I do this precisely because I’m no saint. Since I have QALD and would rather stay at home and work on my latest book than go back to the classroom, I often have to write prayers in my journal for an embarrassingly long time just to remember that my vocation is to love and serve the students.