Last winter, my dental hygienist asked me what I do for work, a question that is never easy for me to answer. I described my unusual role in education and told her I was also substitute teaching. Her face registered the appropriate level of horror as she innocently asked me, “What’s THAT like?” I wanted to say “tiring.” Here’s what I said instead:
Imagine hosting a kids’ birthday party four times a day. There are 30 kids at each party. You have no pizza and no party favors, but you have to keep their attention for up to three hours AND teach them something meaningful.
If you’ve ever hosted a kids’ birthday party, you know the very specific kind of tired I am referencing here. First there is lots of planning, followed by noise, chaos, high expectations, unexpected challenges, and keeping other people’s kids safe and happy the entire time. You are so glad when it is over and when you are done cleaning up, you want to sleep for a week.
I only experienced a handful of these kinds of days while substituting this past school year, but most full-time teachers experienced multiple birthday party level tiredness five days a week for the entire year. They settled an unusual number of student disputes, dealt with a wider range of student abilities and readiness than ever before, and, at the same time, endured intense pressure from the public as well as leadership within their districts.
They are tired. Four birthday parties a day five days a week for nine months tired.
A lot of my teacher friends are only just now starting to recover. They report intense levels of mental and physical exhaustion, often sleeping 8-10 hours a night, only to take a nap two hours after waking up. Some are experiencing brain fog, confusion, and disorientation. A few are starting to feel a sense of rage for what this school year cost them and their families.
If you’ve ever hosted a kids’ birthday party, you may, like me, promise yourself every single time you’ll never do it again. It takes you a full week to recover. You are still picking up pieces of piñata from your yard weeks later and finding icing on your couch. You are glad when your child says it was the best party they ever had, but you wonder about the cost, in time, money, and energy. Was it worth it?
Our teacher friends are asking themselves the same question as they recover. Some are already thinking about next year’s party. Some are vowing they will never host another birthday party again.
Be gentle with teachers. Do not dare joke about how nice it must be to have summer off. Ask them if they are okay and if they need someone to talk to. Take care of them. Let them sleep.