One-eigth of semester down; seven-eights to go

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2005

Between long stretches of grading, I spent part of the weekend polishing off what I thought was going to be a "killer column." According to Gervais' Book of Quips, Foibles, and Faux Pas, a "killer column" is defined as a piece of writing that 1) succeeds at conveying my passion for a subject without sounding like an emotional female, 2) can be understood by all ages, and/or 3) may bring some sensitive soul to tears. After having my editors give it a once over, I was the only one who was crying.

My editor read my piece, dropped her jaw, slapped me upside the head, and said, "Are you nuts?" Perhaps I should take a step back and ponder my dilemma. Checking in with myself, I realize that I am tired and already starting to show signs of burnout. I have been working pretty hard, but keeping the start of school momentum going in the right direction is just plain work at this point. We are officially an eighth of the way through the school year, but I am not counting. I like to mark milestones.

I, like many teachers, have felt the stress of getting progress reports ready to send home to parents. The simple beauty of reaching the perfectly cubed mark (1/8) loses its luster until the final grade is entered. Then I celebrate with a nap and get ready for the next round.

My "killer column" reflected my state of mind. It was defensive and downright angry. I only had to read a few pointed comments from my editor to realize that I was way off track. The clincher was the wake-up call after I gently wrote, "I don't have the energy for you." My guardian angel penned, "But you just expended a whole lot of it."

Basically, my killer column was a "How dare you tell me how to teach?" diatribe directed at a, dare I say, loony "fan" who left me an anonymous phone mail message at school. She got to me. She made me doubt myself and my goal of making a difference through my writing. It is amazing to me how quickly my enthusiasm was dashed. I am usually stronger. I have to be; I work with teenagers.

Nearly every teacher I know has a story about some member of the community who, by virtue of attending school once upon a time, thinks they know how to do a teacher's job better than the teacher doing the hard work. I generally give these helpful souls the benefit of the doubt, assuming they have good intentions in mind. But, often their method of communication hits a nerve. Every teacher wants to improve, but they also want you to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I scan through my "killer column" one last time and realize that it doesn't live up to its name, but it sure felt good to write. I toss it into my "not to be unloaded for any reason" folder, and say my daily mantra, "stay positive" a few times. I am ready to get on with my job.

I know from experience that the next eighth of the year will be even more challenging than the first. Though some teachers manage to maintain a tough, strict exterior well into the second semester, I never make it past the first week. My students have figured me out. They are starting to relax and let their personalities and habits shine through. Boy, have I got some work ahead of me.

• Mary-Lou Gervais is a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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