Thanks to a concordance of a teacher workshop and a three day field trip with 21 teenagers in New York City (on St. Patrick's Day, might I add) today is my first day "off" work in the last 13 days. Yesterday, at the end of a 10 hour day of supervising students at an extracurricular activity one of the other teachers was talking about her decision to go part time and her department chair's insistence that she not work full time hours for a part time salary. She was being told to go home and take care of herself. Speaking of her department chair, she said "He told me, 'You know how, when you are on an airplane, they say 'Should oxygen masks be required, they will drop from the ceiling. If you are traveling with a small child or a person unable to secure his or her mask, please secure your own mask before helping them to secure theirs.' That's what you need to do. You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of anyone else."
After four 16-hour-plus days in a row, this rocked my world. As teachers, everyone we deal with on a day to day basis thinks that what they need out of us comes first. Often this is true. One can't exactly tell 21 suburban teenagers "I am feeling tired/ill//cranky this morning. Good luck navigating the uptown 1 at rush hour from midtown to Columbia University! I'll just catch up with y'all later." This is laughable. If one is too ill to write sub plans, then one just has to go to work and wing it. Several years ago, when I broke my clavicle playing rugby, I simply couldn't get far enough ahead to take a day off. And so I didn't take any days off. I spent eight weeks teaching in a figure eight brace as I did my best to keep to a normal schedule. Each day I crawled home and slept for several hours and then woke up to grade papers. So, when things fall completely to pieces, what do we do? Ironically, we rely on each other.
So last month, when I was at school on a Sunday helping some students set up for an extracurricular fundraiser in which we sold roses for Valentine's Day. As I was juggling 10 dozen roses, I gestured at a student with one bunch of flowers and managed to effectively give myself a paper cut on my eyeball with the cellophane flower wrapping. So, for the next three hours I sat around my classroom and organized flowers while holding Kleenex over my eye, and then I drove off to the urgent care. Meanwhile, I was on the phone with my co-adviser dictating sub plans and figuring out how the fundraiser could go off on the following day without me there. I consider myself blessed that I have co-workers who have my back. At times like these, however, I always think about teachers who are not as fortunate as I am. Nothing about our education system has their backs.
I am constantly on my students to balance the things that they want to do with the things that they have to do. Perhaps I should listen to myself on that one. If I can't take care of myself, how can I ever expect to care for others? While I know this intellectually, the metaphor of the plane swiftly losing pressure is more poignantly accurate than I can ever say.