A wise man once said, “Spring semester is always harder than fall semester.” Ok, so he was a professor of mine. But I always forget this truism at the start and then, by midterms I am hit with the overwhelming rationality of that statement. Part of it is that the weather gets warmer and we don’t want to be here, inside, all day. Part of it is just regular burn-out that comes from weeks of concentration in a particular subject (inter office, playground politics don’t help). Part is that students who are go getters and usually take their freshmen English courses in the fall have already done so and that leaves students who put it off or who flunked out the first semester. This is less true at my current institution where we have two semesters of writing, which are mandatory for all freshmen, but still.
It’s the week before spring break and I just had a student leave my classroom to vomit; when she came back she was shaking and in tears and I had to send her home. Another won’t come at all this week because her grandmother is sick and she doesn’t feel like it. We are halfway in and she’s already missed the equivalent of two weeks of course time. I had seven absences from one class at the start of this week. Many students don’t even bother to email me and try to get the missed work; they just stroll into class and ask casually, “So, um, what did I miss last time?”
I don’t mean to put this all on my students though. My own attitudes have changed as the semester has reached its zenith. I am more certain (or think I am) of my classroom dynamics and the individual personalities of many of my students. I have a working rhythm with them and there are more and less functional aspects of it at this point. The honeymoon is over people. We know the deal by now. The newness has worn off. AND, I love my job. I mean, I LOVE being a teacher. I love the magic that happens in a classroom where all the pieces are lining up and meaning is being made by a group of people together. I love hearing what my students have to say and seeing how they problem solve around thorny and new tasks. But I don’t maintain this level of enthusiasm, every minute of every day that I am in the classroom.
This morning, I woke up dreading them. I was dreading the day, the students, and the workload. It was at this moment that I started thinking about the first times I was taught in my life, to deal with challenging or dreadful situations and particularly challenges with my own attitude.
Here’s what I know because my mom told me so: she used to say “If you don’t do it with a good attitude, it doesn’t count.” This was usually in reference to the three more bites of my dinner she was trying to get me to eat but it extended to larger issues. The truth is, like most kids, I could be a total jerk. I would pull on her skirt in public places and wrap myself around her leg while whining that I wanted to go, or wanted some sugary snack (which I never got) or that she was talking to someone too long. It was at these moments that she would stop, look me straight in the eye and tell me that it was time to change my attitude. The lesson was that there are multiple components to each interaction. One component was the actual function—eating my broccoli—but the second, more important one was the outlook I would bring to the situation. Ah, grasshopper, beginner’s mind indeed.
The consequences of my failure to swallow my pride and frustration at not getting my way were that I was barred from participation in the activities I wanted to do. I had to go wait in the car while everyone else had dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, El Paisanos. Or I could go sit in my room while my friends had my birthday party without me. As a little kid, I think it is fair to say that being included in fun stuff is important. And so, her tactic was effective.
As an adult, I see that this was once again, evidence of how my mother’s Buddhist practice informed her parenting. In Buddhism, it is called right attitude or right view and it is one of the steps of the Eight Fold Path. The steps refer to a set of practices available to eliminate suffering and achieve equanimity in our human experience. Other items on the list are right speech, right livelihood, right concentration, right action, right mindfulness, right effort, and right intention.
The essence of these lessons to me as a child was that I was not the center of the universe. And, parenting styles change over the years and we’ve moved towards a more child-centered approach. I am not knocking this, as I am not a parent and in my classes I advocate a student-centered approach. As I see it, a child’s natural behavior is to do things like interrupt, need attention at inopportune times and take up all the energy of the adults around them. I get it. I want all the attention too. But what I know, and what many of my parent friends have discovered, is that behaving as if the child’s needs are the only needs in the room does little to support self-initiative or responsibility. These skills are important if we are to succeed in our endeavors—both personal and worldly.
In my childhood I knew clearly that I wasn’t the only show in town and I am happy about that. Despite being made aware that I wasn’t the most important thing happening, I can honestly say that there was never a time in my whole life where I doubted or did not feel my mother’s immense and unconditional love, support and trust in me. Trust was a big one. She trusted me to make my own mistakes, and to choose my own behavior. I may not have had a decision about the broccoli on my plate but I did have a chance to decide how I felt about it. In fact, I was continually urged to do so.
So, where do I go with my students now? At six am which is really five am, (or feels that way), I turn over in my bed and groan; my resistance is strong. The idea of spending an entire day with teenagers who may complain, be disengaged, carry their jaded attitude in like a butterfly net, or a host of other things makes it seem nearly impossible to move from my bed.
Oh, but that is my job. And as my dad would put it, in an utterly un-fluffy or overly philosophical way, “suit up and show up,” it’s almost spring break after all. And, that’s good advice too.