The Boredom of Summer

I like the rhythm of school year and summer; it’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. But even though the summer brings a welcome change of pace, I don’t usually hope for unstructured weeks on end. During the school year, my life is segmented into 45 minute blocks and so to wake up with unscheduled hours before me can feel overwhelming.

This is the first summer in 19 years that I haven’t had some sort of paid employment. It’s an incredibly strange feeling. I’ve had to find ways of making little schedules or to-do lists for myself to keep from going absolutely mad. I’ve done yoga, gone swimming, read books, gotten massages, played games on my phone, run errands, and cleaned house, but there’s also been plenty of time where I’ve just felt bored. Boredom can be a good thing, especially for kids, and it’s certainly pushed me to check out places I hadn’t been before and do some things spontaneously that I likely wouldn’t have had the energy for in a more scheduled day. pool

(I’m aware there’s a great deal of privilege in how my summer is playing out. I have the advantage of a salary spread out over 12 months and an employed spouse. I have the advantage of not needing to work at a physically demanding job at the end of pregnancy.)

One of the great gifts and challenges of this summer is the reminder of how much I love and miss work, specifically paid employment. I suspect this feeling will continue into the early part of the fall. We’re expecting a baby any day now, and I’ll be taking a couple months off at the beginning of the school year. (No, seriously, baby, any day, given that your estimated arrival date was last Tuesday.) It’ll be the first time in 30 years that August has not included a return to school for me. I’m sure there will be challenges with going back to teaching come October, but I’m really looking forward to a classroom, students, and a schedule again.

Cinnamon fully embraces the boredom of summer

Cinnamon fully embraces the boredom of summer

Good Enough

“Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” ~Voltaire

If there’s a lesson that this year is likely to teach me, it’s the value of saying good enough.

As usual, I’ve taken on a lot this academic term. Teaching five classes (three preps, two of which are new) in middle and upper school, serving as an Instructional Technology Facilitator, serving on the Faculty Evaluation and Review Committee, and creating a new club (Cooking 101). I suspect most teachers know this kind of busyness. Bill, for example, writes about his struggle to do the kind of formative assessment he’d like to and still have dinner with his family.

I constantly struggle with the desire for things to be perfect and that desire plus a heavy workload can be a recipe for disaster. This year, rather than aiming for excellence in everything, I’m looking for places where I can be “good enough,” as a means of keeping the boat afloat and having an enjoyable voyage. I’m far from a perfect system or mindset, but the following are some principles that have proved useful.

Spread out the good enough
It’s tempting to cluster your good enough efforts in areas in which you think are less important or less enjoyable. Maybe it’s the class that meets post-lunch or house cleaning or organization of your classroom or blogging. Spreading out the good enough doesn’t mean that there aren’t some areas that won’t get more of it than others, but if you’re always making good enough efforts in one area or for one class that can begin to shape how you view it. So clean your house with reckless abandon (or hire someone!), but only do that once every six months and the rest of the time clean it good enough. Prepare a beautifully designed, carefully-documented lesson occasionally for all your classes, not just the ones you like the best.  

Plan for the good enough
This seems somewhat counter-intuitive.  Isn’t the time for good enough when you haven’t had time to plan? It can be ok to say good enough in the moment. But I find if I do that, I’m more likely to feel like I’m slacking, which often leads to an ultimately unproductive mini-meltdown 🙂 Better to plan ahead for tasks/spaces in which you’ll do what needs to be done but no more.

If offered opportunities for good enough, take them
If a colleague offers to help out with something, say yes, even if it means things not being done exactly the way you might do them.  Don’t always feel the need to re-design activities from scratch. Beg and borrow. (I find spaces like Twitter and the English Companion Ning great resources.)

Help your students say good enough
This is particularly challenging at a school where one of the cornerstones of our mission is excellence and the bulk of our students continually push themselves to excel in an array of activities.  I found that giving students quick, informal feedback on their work can help alleviate those anxieties about expectations. I also try to follow up whenever, I get an email from one of my middle school students after 10pm on a week night to see what was keeping them awake and if there are adjustments we can make to help them say good enough and get some sleep.

Work Freedom

“One of the deepest horrors of modern man is to recognize to which which degree that inner fear, to which he doesn’t know how to relate, makes a sham out of freedom.” -Ivan Illich, The Rivers North of the Future

Last October, John Palfrey, former Executive Director of the Berkman Center and one of the BC’s current faculty co-directors, spoke at the school where I used to teach. I’d followed the work of the BC for awhile and was intrigued by the cool research and projects they were producing. After the presentation, I told John that I’d love to work with the BC to consider how they might expand and enhance the resources they offer for educators. (This felt a bit presumptuous, but it never hurts to ask, right?) John suggested that I write a proposal, which he would pass on to Urs Gassner, the Executive Director of the BC. The proposal was approved, so last Friday I took a flight to Boston, and, after a ridiculous shuttle ride, arrived in Cambridge. Zac and I spent some time on Saturday exploring the city and checking out his housing options for next year.

Simons

On Monday, I showed up for my first day at Berkman. I realized it was the first time I’d ever been given such latitude in terms of the work I was going to do. Of course, I’m working within the scope of the proposal and the mission of the Berkman Center, but more than once I’ve heard, “If that direction feels right/interesting/good to you, go with it, and let us know how we can support it. Think about talking with these people if you want feedback.” That kind of freedom can be a double-edged sword.  Freedom can be confusing or scary or overwhelming, instead of liberating. I was feeling a bit of that on Monday. By the end of the week, some cool possibilities are taking shape, and that day or two of fumbling/mucking seems useful.

Because I have perpetual teacher brain, I’m thinking about how my experience mirrors that of my students when they are presented with school work that gives them a significant degree of input/control as to what their final product will look like. I’m always a little surprised by the number of them that react, not with joy or excitement, but fear (which sometimes takes the form of whining). They have so often been told exactly what to do (200 words beginning with these sentences starters and including a picture from this website) that the freedom feels overwhelming. So I can say- What are you excited about? How can I support you? Talk to these students if you want feedback.

A postscript

I’ve also really enjoyed hanging out with the Youth and Media folks in the charmingly cramped 🙂 space on the third floor of 23 Everett Street. Unlike some internships, where making coffee and relatively passive learning about the organization seem to comprise the bulk of the work, the Berkterns are doing cool work.

Sweeping Streets

If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets, even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

~Martin Luther King, Jr.