Monday, January 6, 2014

Falling in Love with First Graders: A Case of Love and Hair Loss (Part 2)

So, a few days ago I posted about how I love my students and I shared some stories about students I love. I also talked briefly about how I feel like I fail my students on a daily basis. This post is about the darker side of the last three months.

Mark and I moved into our new apartment about 2 weeks before I was needed for training at my school. It was just over this break that I realized that I think I'm still adjusting to life in St. Paul, Minnesota, compared to life in small-town, Iowa. I no longer walk to work; I brave the icy, steep streets between our apartment and the school. Every day I am confronted with at least 2 homeless men holding signs on exit ramps between home and school and the conflicted emotions seeing those men and doing nothing produce. Mark has created a white noise soundtrack that we play on repeat in our bedroom every night. I'm a light sleeper (even lighter when stressed) and early in the fall we had some trouble with neighbors playing music with a booming bass line late into the evening.

I spend hardly any time in our apartment, even though it's pretty nice (now that the noise issue has been dealt with). Our apartment would allow us to get a dog, but that poor thing. It would be alone in its kennel for at least 10 hours four days per week, if not more. Mark has firmly stated that we do not have the time or the energy for a dog right now. Even though he's right, I still cruise regularly because I know a pet would have a calming effect on me. (A cat would be the most calming, but there is no way Mark will let me get a cat. Poo.)

During these first three months of teaching, I have also been a student myself, taking two graduate classes at one of the local universities. This extra dose of craziness is required by the Minnesota Department of Education. Since we Teach For America teachers don't have our licenses yet, we have to be actively working toward them in order to teach full-time in public schools in Minnesota. This has meant that two evenings a week, besides the 10 hours at school and hour and a half of lesson planning at home, I spent an additional 4 hours in a classroom with other teachers. Though being with other first year teachers was deeply helpful to me, and though I learned a lot of great things in my courses, the additional time commitment and homework was hard on me.

I'm kind of an anxious person as a general rule. Mark can attest that even when we were dating I worried about things while he just shook his head at me, mystified. The stresses of teaching and graduate school has taken my anxiety to new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it) since September. The anxiety tends to come in waves, and three debilitating waves have swept over me since starting teaching. Each time the waves of anxiety have climaxed with much crying, very little sleep, weight loss, hair loss, and a day off of teaching (usually with more crying and still very little sleep) to recover. Each time I felt like going back into the classroom would be like plunging into an icy black pit of despair and each time I questioned whether I could make myself keep going.

By the middle of December, when anxiety wave #3 hit, receded, and left a very insecure me in its wake, my TFA mentor, Emily, was concerned enough to alert some of the rest of the TFA staff. Mike, the TFA managing director, scheduled a meeting with me. I steeled myself for the meeting, expecting him to caution me against quitting and remind me of how detrimental that would be for my students. What he wanted to talk about, then, came as a complete surprise: anxiety. Based on some of his personal experiences, he had some great insights into dealing with anxiety.

His personal story, as well as his suggestions, gave me some renewed hope that maybe I wasn't a hopeless teacher and that maybe I could find ways to deal with the anxiety and keep teaching. Long story short, I overcame my feeble protests to seeing a doctor, met with a doctor over break, and was prescribed a depression medication that isn't actually used to treat depression but instead is used to treat insomnia. The solid nights of sleep since starting the medication have been so refreshing and have cut down on a lot of the anxiety. I'm also probably going to go see a therapist (although I'm not really sure when I'll have time) to try to come up with some coping mechanisms for anxiety.

In the meantime, though, I'm reading a book that Mike recommended called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. Seligman. Kind of an ostentatious title, but so far I've learned a lot from this book. Seligman has spent over a decade doing research on pessimism and its link to depression and, later, optimism and its link to fending off depression. Maybe sometime I'll do a complete review of the book, but in the meantime, I'll just say that I've learned that some jobs require a more pessimistic mindset (because pessimists have proven to have more accurate and realistic views of the world) and some jobs require a more optimistic mindset. I have a decidedly pessimistic view of pretty much everything, and my job requires an optimistic mindset. Therefore, I need to develop an optimistic mindset. Seligman's book walks the reader through a few 'tools' for developing an optimistic mindset. I'm still reading, but so far the book has been super helpful, and I'm gradually becoming aware of the pessimistic messages I tell myself.

So, my goals for the next five months of teaching: 1) develop a more optimistic view of life and harness the pessimism for use in specific situations and 2) find more balance and take better care of myself. I basically stopped exercising from July on, even though that's a great stress reliever for me, and I all but stopped getting together with friends. I'm going to try to pick up both activities again, as well as warm baths, burning candles, and chamomile lavender tea. I'm going to have to schedule those things in, but it will be worth it. Maybe I'll even get around to blogging more!

So, I'm still a teacher, still struggling with some anxiety, but more ready to face the next phase of teaching. Here we go!

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