In a Groove or Stuck in a Rut

The Tuesday after Labor Day has typically been the first day of classes. Even years when I started teaching the week prior to Labor Day, it still felt the like the true end of summer and beginning of the academic year. This week is the first since 1993 when I wasn’t starting a school year as a teacher or an administrator.

Being on sabbatical, my routine is significantly different—more the routine of an independent writer. This is a very different “groove” to be in. Groove is good. In music terms, it is the rhythm, pacing, and overall “feel” of a song. A good song has a distinct and easy to identify groove. A groove dug too deep, however, becomes a rut. The trick is to find a groove, but not get stuck in a rut.

I know that I have not always found my groove in my teaching career, but it is safe to say that I don’t get stuck in ruts. Let’s review my history; five years teaching 7th grade life science, then shift to 4 years of teaching high school science; a year not spoken of lost at a small private school; five years starting and running a small charter school; five years at a private boarding school; five years teaching on campus and serving as department chair (four of the five) at Bemidji State University; then a shift to the distance program at BSU. I sense a pattern; I’ve made a change about every five years. No ruts here, except maybe a rut of professional wanderlust.

Now I am on sabbatical and working on two significant writing projects. Here’s what I have learned so far. One of the appeals for me of being a teacher is the opportunity for change and starting over each year. Conversely, one of the stressors of being a teaching is the opportunity for change and starting over each year. While from year to year I was often teaching the same courses, each year was new because I was teaching a new set of students in a slightly different world. Context is everything in learning and so it was always necessary to adjust and (hopefully) improve my teaching each year with new ideas or new approaches to old ideas. That ongoing change and evolution of ideas is energizing for me. At the same time, I started of each year as an overwhelmed introvert sure that there was no way I could ever get to know up to 150 new individuals. And, unfortunately there were some where all I managed was getting to know their name.

The preparation for, and then the delivery of curriculum and the development of the interpersonal relationships with students is emotionally exhausting. Ready or not, they were there everyday with the same expectations of me. There is no break from that expectation of preparedness and positive interaction from the first day of school and on. It doesn’t matter if you’re even there or not! The kids still are there and require your attention (even if from afar and through a proxy), the expectation and responsibility does not wane. The absence of that stress and anxiety this year has revealed to me how I was preoccupied with those anxieties in the past.

Teaching requires the ability to provide your full attention to teaching the day’s lesson and meeting the immediate needs of students while at the same time planning for the next day, week, month, etc. These are very different kinds of tasks. Without the extended time of the summer break to step back, do something different, recharge, and plan for the next year with the luxury of time to do some research, attend more training, and just have time to let ideas bubble an boil for a bit, I would have very quickly gotten stuck in one groove of what and how I taught it would have become a rut.

My lesson so far is that there must be adequate time to shift the routine and focus enough to evaluate what and how you are doing what you do to remain positive, productive, creative, and emotionally healthy as a teacher. I suspect this is true for any profession, however. I believe this time is necessary to allow one to not only enjoy the result of one’s labor (the task or maybe even just the paycheck) but also enjoy the process of one’s labor. That’s where the “groove” can be found.

One week into my sabbatical and I’m still trying to find the groove. I’ve decided a routine that will help set the rhythm is to post a new blog every Wednesday. So, look for that and I invite you to subscribe to the blog and share on social media. I promise that each week will not be focused just on teaching. Who knows what conversations might get started.

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