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Work: Part 2. Simplicity?

So here I am, working as a teacher in a small school with its share of troubles... but plenty of things going for it, too. Our building is new and well-maintained, and our student mix includes both rich and poor; the sons and daughters of professionals and the sons and daughters of blue collar families and farm families, as well as unemployed and foster families. I've got plenty of colleagues I like and admire, classroom to call my own, and after five years, I have a collection of lesson plans and strategies that work better all the time.

In other words, I've become a reasonably skillful and useful teacher in one of those schools that doesn't make headlines when politicians are dining out on the topic of education reform. If you are an American reading these words, chances are good that you attended a school a lot like mine, and had teachers a lot like me.

There are days I feel incredibly good about what I do. Sometimes, I feel pretty good about being a teacher. Maybe it's when I've got the kids excited about acting out a scene from Shakespeare, or seen one of them really get it about how a writer can use even a "boring" descriptive passage to make something important in his message come alive for a reader--or, best of all, when a student who swore up and down at the beginning of the year that he hated reading comes thronging my door at break to rave about the latest book they borrowed from my classroom (and did I know there is a sequel, and can I get it for him, please?) Those times are sweet.

Doing it well--that's sweet.

Some days, I feel myself walking down the halls with certainty even in my feet. It's the sensuous pleasure of competence itself, hard won in a job that is so much harder than it looks.

I relish it: I relish knowing just how to pitch my voice to get the student in the back row to understand I know he's not paying attention. I relish knowing that I've got it going on when I'm reading a poem or a story aloud to a class. Maybe more than anything else, I relish knowing that I have achieved a kind of mastery of tone and pacing and humor and mutual respect that makes a group of teenagers want to follow me (mostly) when it's time for me to lead.

I like leading. I like being good at it. Just being skillful is a tremendous reward.

And of course there are also all those other satisfactions: you know, the stuff about helping people. That's there, too. Just being an adult who sees kids and respects them in world where there's a shortage of that in so many kids' lives--it's therapeutic in ways that being a psychotherapist never was.

So that's nice, too.


(You knew there was a "but" coming, right? Had to be, or why bother to write this essay at all?)

Without even going into the various frustrations and stupidities that are part and parcel of teaching in any public school, there are times when I wonder how much longer I can possibly keep this up.

They tell me it gets easier, the longer you teach.

And this is true: I can testify to that. The twelve hour days of my first year of teaching are almost never longer than ten in this, my fifth year of teaching. And things go right far more often than they go wrong these days.

And yet, satisfying as this job can be, important as I know this job is, at times I feel as though it were sucking my soul out my ears and eyeballs day after day after day. Even on the best of days, teaching feels a bit like having your wind knocked out of you, again and again and again.

Did I say this job is hard? This job eats you alive, and sends your drained and weary corpse home to shamble through whatever remains of a life you might have had at the end of the day.

This job leaves you prostrated, limp and lifeless, for anything beyond its requirements.

And then you get up in the dark, rise, and go forth to do it again the next day. And the next. And if I think about how many years there are until I retire, I will go mad, so I try not to do that.

Retirement. Quakers are told to take a time of retirement every day, in which to wait upon the Spirit.

Some days I manage to sit for about three minutes in my car in the morning, once I have arrived at my school. The parking lot faces east, and I sip my coffee in the mornings and watch the rising sun through the scrim of trees across the road.

Then I go into my school, and teach.

There are the summers, thank the gods.

Every now and then, some monkey tries to push the idea of year-round school or an extended school day. I don't really have the energy to get upset about that: should these proposals ever carry the day, I will simply be gone, out of the profession as surely as if I were required to climb Everest in order to retain my position. I have not got more to give within me. It can't be done.

For it is in the summers that I stoke the engines--spiritual as well as physical--to make it through another year.

In the summers, I rise around seven, take all the time I want to sip my coffee in the sun, and then write for two or three or even four hours straight. In the afternoons, I see friends, walk my dogs, explore the woods or go to the lake with a book and a folding chair. I read, laugh, travel, pray, and exercise.

I try not to miss meeting for worship during the school year, but often, I cannot help it. In the summers, I miss worship only if I am visiting relatives--and, if there is a meeting near them, I go to it.

I can circle with Pagans under the full moon in the summer; I can light candles to Her light beside the calm waters of a lake. I go to New England Yearly Meeting in the summer. I worship outdoors in the summer, hike with friends, look up at the bottoms of maple leaves, and think. I try to center myself down as deeply and as fully as I possibly can, because, like the cool of a summer swim, once I have emerged from my time of retirement, I know that it will vanish quickly, leaving me hot and sticky and laboring once again.

So here's the question: is this any way to live?

Maybe this isn't the time to ask that question.

This has been a tough year, for whatever reason. I've been teaching a new (to me) course; I love it, but a new course takes more lesson planning. Weather delays and cancellations threw the pacing of certain units off, which is always a challenge. And I got sick in December, and I haven't yet recovered my stamina in April.

I'm tired. I feel like Bilbo Baggins: "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread." I ask myself, is this Chronic Fatigue, or am I merely chronically fatigued?

It makes little difference. I work. I work because I work.

Perhaps it's just that working for a living is hard. Or perhaps it is that teaching for a living is hard.

I seem to remember having a life outside the work day. I seem to remember taking walks, talking with friends, having time for household work and bills and shopping for groceries.

I used to bake bread sometimes. I used to brew beer. I used to walk my dogs even when it was not summer; I used to walk to work.

Am I just getting older? Is my job what I should be doing after all, or is it keeping me from doing what I should?

I currently serve on Mt. Toby's Ministry and Worship committee. And I struggle with feeling that I don't serve there very well.

I was thrilled, terrified, humbled, and eager all in turns when I was told my name had risen for Ministry and Worship. I want to offer and to nurture good ministry at my meeting. I want to believe I have something to bring to the table when we meet. Mind you, at times I have felt like a tiny child trying to keep up with the big kids. But I have also tried to set my fears and my inadequacies aside, and to do the job, the best I can. My term will be up in August, and I'll rotate off the committee.

I'm going to miss it. I'm also feeling relieved. I'm not convinced I've done a good job.

How many times have I missed committee meetings from pure fatigue? How many times have I even attended meeting for business, which is under our care? And in this past year, I have even missed many meetings for worship. I miss them in order to grade papers. Papers that, perhaps I could have graded after school or on Saturday, if only I'd been more disciplined.

Or is it, if only I'd been less tired?

Am I ordering my life badly? Am I wasting too much time and energy on trivialities? Could I be more efficient?

Or am dying of over-efficiency already, driving myself as I would never drive an animal?

Am I a failure in my service to my meeting? Or am I not only dancing as fast as I can, but actually doing a pretty fair job trying to serve in two weighty roles, as a public school teacher and as an engaged Friend?

I don't know.

I don't know, I don't know, I don't know... And the tireder I get, the less I feel as if I'll ever know!

John Woolman simplified his business life in order to be better able to pursue his ministry.


Friends' testimonies on simplicity are not really about wearing fair-trade garments hand-woven by Bolivian peasants. They are not even really about "living simply that others may simply live". They are about cutting out the inessentials, the distractions, so that we can hear the voice of God when She is speaking to us.

So that question again: is this how I'm supposed to live?

Maybe. Just because it's hard doesn't mean you're doing it wrong.

After all, I'm pretty sure that God did not gather a great people together to have them form committees! And I am clear that my decision to leave counseling and explore teaching was most certainly a leading if ever anything in my life has been worthy of that name.

Rightly or wrongly, I do feel that I have a ministry of some sort among Friends. And I want to go on engaging in serious work among Friends as a way of exploring it. I want to stand close to other Friends at work, because I know that that's a good way to stand close to God.

I long for that deepening all the time.

But I am so tired of feeling that I am only half doing what I have been asked to do!

So I'm asking myself--what's next?

How long can I continue as I have been, teaching and tiring? Am I hearing the faint beginnings of another leading--or am I merely feeling faint? Am I perhaps right where Spirit wants me to be, difficult though it sometimes seems? Or am I falling short, or taking on too much, outrunning my leadings and tiring myself needlessly, so I have no strength for larger things to follow?

Am I questioning my life from right motives of simplicity, or am I simply weary?

I ask. But I don't yet know.


Helen/Hawk said…
My understanding of "year-round schooling" might be a partial solution to the problem you describe.

My understanding is that the # of teaching days will not change.....but rather be distributed thru-out the calendar year. In other words, real breaks would be thru-out the year, instead of being focused in the summer time.

OTOH, the larger point you are making about how people live their lives w/ "work" taking over completely wouldn't be solved by that. Only teacher's (& student's) live would be rescued.

The desperation you communicate (and you're one who loves your job) wouldn't be solved for everyone else.
Hystery said…
Cat, I've taught for five years at a community college so I think, at least to a degree, I share your pain/joy.

I also think you're onto something in your desire for simplicity. Regardless of what it does to my career, I'm turning down "opportunities" to serve after finding truth in my exhausted clergyman father's words that God so loved the world that He didn't send a committee.

Finally, I have to say that reading about your relationship with your students leads me to think that you underestimate your talents. I attended relatively well-funded rural schools with new buildings and all the bells and whistles. I hated it. At best it was a waste of my time. More often, it was a nightmare. With few exceptions, my teachers were ignorant and uncreative and I was forced to do most of my learning at home. My friends, family and my own community college students voice similar complaints. Your students are blessed to have you.
Anonymous said…
You might ask Himself what he thinks?
Nate Swift said…
A single student "thronging" at your door? I KNOW what you mean, I used to visit friends who had a miniature schnauzer and I swear that when I came to the door there were at least five of her!
Ok, my question is whether you are carrying too much of the responsibility for educating. It is a great thing to be a good teacher, and the world is full of the other kind, but I don't think a good teacher has to get it all "right." The most important part that I see is your interest in and respect for the students. I don't know if there is some good advice in there, and if there is whether you could take advantage of it, but I hope it's worth considering. You should be able to experience the joys of teaching without that much of a drain.

In His Love,
Yewtree said…
I lasted one year in teaching. I was going to do five years, but then we moved away from London where I was teaching, to a city where the only schools were either private and/or Christian, or wanted teachers to teach maths and IT, science and IT, or maths, science and IT. My subject specialism was IT - I could do languages and IT at a pinch, but not maths and science.

So I went to work for a university, where I do websites and the occasional bit of training. But my teaching skills are useful for other things - coven training, and doing services at the Unitarian chapel.

Maybe there are other, less exhausting places, where you could use your teaching skills.

But also, don't be so hard on yourself - you're doing a great job.
Christine said…
I am going to echo Yewtree. Don't be so hard on yourself. I am also going to tell that it does and does not get easier.

I have been teaching middle school English for 14 years, and although I love my job and couldn't think of anything else to do for a living, it does suck the life out of you.

Am I crazy? Yup. But, and this is a big BUT, they need me. My kids need someone who is on their side. The quiet ones need to be seen, the gang "wannabes" need direction, the smart ones need to be challenged, the average kids need to be encouraged to go above and beyond what they ever thought possible, and they all need to be loved.

This is impossible to do every single day, and trying to make it happen every day does wear on me.

When I come home, I am exhausted, and I don't meditate and study and practice like I want to. My brain gets all soothed and relaxed watching TV. I know I shouldn't, but I do it anyway. Besides, I am ever so slightly addicted to Lost and Bones.

Should I be meditating and studying? Yes, but I have patience with myself and try to change only what I can while paying attention to the downtime my body and brain require.

I only stopped beating myself up a few years ago. I am a slow study, I guess. It was also at that time that I started to leave work at work. I developed "speed grading" skills, vowed to stay late only two days a week, and learned to use my teaching as applied spiritual practice. Kids are great tools for learning patience, and I am much better at using breath to keep me centered.

You will find the balance you seek. You will find it because it's important to you, and you will find a way to get what you need.

Thanks for the supportive comments, all. I don't think I'm actually being hard on myself, though. I'm not questioning whether or not I've got what it takes, in some abstract sense, to teach. And I'm not--in this post, at least--trying to figure out how to fix whatever may need fixing in American education.

Instead, I'm trying to weigh out questions of work, health, energy, and spiritual leadings. My question is not "Am I good enough?" or "Am I good at this?" but rather, "Is this what the Spirit that ensouls the world is urging me to busy myself with now?" Or even, "Am I remembering to listen for That Spirit in my daily life?"

It is my understanding that God probably does not particularly care if I prepare cous-cous or rice for my supper, and is unlikely to be attempting to offer me guidance on that matter. But I'd like to be open enough to the Spirit of God that I can feel Her alongside me even in a task as ordinary as that. Not in an arid, intellectual fashion, in which I intellectually recognize that the grain lived and died and now, in feeding me, theoretically involves me in the circle of life... but in a visceral and emotional sense, in which I am truly aware of and grateful to the spark of life within the grain that passes to me.

How much more, then, am I interested in being open to leadings of Spirit in the matter of my vocation, especially since I think I've already at least once been given an urging to change careers that was from that Spirit! David is right... I'm asking Herself what She thinks on the subject...

But also, I am aware that my weariness is such that I may not be hearing Her very well. Is my life out of balance, or am I simply living out one of the difficult parts of following a leading? I am unsure.

Now, that's not how I think of being hard on myself. But it is how I think I often think while I'm in the midst of the more than intellectual process of discernment.

At the moment, I'm trying to hold the tension of the questions open. And I welcome feedback and input from my readers, many of whom are very wise and grounded people! But please do not feel that this is something that needs to be fixed, or that it's reassurance I'm looking for. Instead, I think I'd ask you to hold the questions with me while I wait and see what emerges. By all means, if something occurs to you to point out, do feel free... But you don't need to buoy me up. (I expect summer vacation will do that, if it does nothing else!)

Thanks again for the care and concern.
Rebecca said…
Do you do divination these days?
Anonymous said…
We are animals first and the animal part is not just a conveyance for spirit. The guy with the horns may have some insight into this.
Anonymous said…
Cat asks:
"Is this what the Spirit that ensouls the world is urging me to busy myself with now?"

To which I would respond with another question:

Does it/this make thy heart sing?

Hey, Rebecca, David, Marilyn,

Yes, Rebecca, I do still use divination, though I find there are some areas of my life where I prefer the slower, surer form of Quaker discernment. There may be a blog post in there somewhere... all forms of divination, including Quakerly discernment, have their inbuilt biases/tendencies. (For instance, Tarot will very often favor solutions that center on balance and a happy medium; the I Ching will favor honoring ancestors and those in high positions; scrying and dream interpretation pull a great deal from one's own subconscious, and so on.)

The question I would be bringing to a divination on this matter, I think, would be something like, "Am I living faithfully in the Light I have been given?" And that's one of those big picture questions I nowadays try to listen into Spirit for. If I use divination on such a question (as, in fact, I did on the related question of whether or not to accept a recent committee nomination) I do it as one part of a process: sort of a preparation for discernment, rather than as the means to finding my way.

I think many of us do that on our big-picture questions... include divination in whatever larger process we take in making life-changing decisions, but not simply resting a decision on the turn of a card or any single Tarot spread or dream revelation.

What's new for me is the willingness to consider that I may be asked to change very big things indeed at times... and how much I want to hold myself ready to respond.

David, I don't have a sense of the Horned One on this. I do have a clear sense that he is in fact approving of my Quaker path... probably because of His own extraordinary commitment to integrity. But perhaps He isn't as much concerned with vocation as I am... You are right, we are creatures of flesh as well as spirit, and my animal self may need better care than I have given it this winter. But with our animal selves comes mortality and not being simply limited by the limits on our bodies, too. But it is a question very much worth asking again, and I thank you for reminding me.

Marilyn, your point is well-taken... but not all there is to say. While I agree that a joyful heart is one of the things that follows walking the path we're meant to take, I also know that many of the things that are most worth doing come with their share of daily hassles that can obscure the joy from moment to moment. Parenting, for instance, is as much a matter of weathering a child's embarrassing tantrums, whining illnesses, and frightening rebellions as it is those moments of pride and tenderness that let us feel the joy of the work. There have been times in my journey as a parent that have been among the hardest moments of my life--and though now I wouldn't trade it for anything, there were moments when that certainty was far from what I felt.

I do have the sense that there is a River of Joy, rushing and thundering beneath our lives all the time. But sometimes, following its course takes us away from the sound of the falls for a bit. It doesn't always mean we're off course--sometimes, that's exactly the way forward.

I guess that's why the big stuff--parenting, love affairs, vocations--can be so hard to sort out.

I know the good moments are very good. I know that I'm very tired of being so tired, and I am often quite discouraged by many things in my work life. I think it's what I'm meant to be doing--at least for now.

But I'm certainly going to welcome my summer vacation this year!
Anonymous said…
Cat writes:

"Marilyn, your point is well-taken... but not all there is to say. While I agree that a joyful heart is one of the things that follows walking the path we're meant to take, I also know that many of the things that are most worth doing come with their share of daily hassles that can obscure the joy from moment to moment. Parenting, for instance, is as much a matter of weathering a child's embarrassing tantrums, whining illnesses, and frightening rebellions as it is those moments of pride and tenderness that let us feel the joy of the work. There have been times in my journey as a parent that have been among the hardest moments of my life--and though now I wouldn't trade it for anything, there were moments when that certainty was far from what I felt."

When the heart sings, it isn't always a joyful song, in my experience, though that is what we usually think of in this context. I was thinking more along the lines of one of the Questions and Councils in a booklet I have from the London Yearly Meeting: whether we are experiencing great joy or great sadness, the doors of our Spirit are open.

So perhaps a better question might be, is it bringing you deeper into life/Spirit in all its fullness? And is the cost one you can afford to pay, and are willing to pay?

Bright and dark blessings and love,

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