Teaching From the Dark Place

By the time I left school on Friday afternoon, I was there. In the dark place. The day had exhausted me. The week had exhausted me. I left the building on Friday afternoon reeling from all that had taken place in the previous twenty-four hours. I left feeling certain that I was not actually cut out to be a teacher. That I had taught this current group of students nothing. That I had let a million things that had nothing to do with my students get in the way of me actually helping them.

As I drove home on Friday afternoon, I began to catalogue my own failures in my head. My list looked something like this:

  1. I actually told my students that I did not know how to teach them.
  2. I have multiple students between my two fifth grade classes who have yet to read one complete book so far this year.
  3. If you randomly asked several of my students if I regularly confer with students during reading and writing workshop, I am pretty sure that most of them would say no.
  4. I have multiple students who spend most of their time with me wishing they were anywhere but school.
  5. I have started to wish for some of my students to be different kinds of students instead of simply accepting them for who they are and helping them to grow from there.
  6. I have allowed myself to get sucked into gossip amongst the adults I work with and I have allowed myself to let my frustrations with situations that are outside of my control impact the way that I interact with my students.

I could go on for a whole lot longer, but I think you probably get the idea.

The truth is, the ways that I see myself as not quite good enough are not nearly as important as the fact that by the end of the day on Friday, I had, in fact, convinced myself that I am not quite good enough. And that feeling has sat heavy with me thus far into this weekend.  There are a million reasons that I could give for how I got here, to this dark place. There are a million ways that I could explain how heavy these dark places can feel. For me, my extreme highs as a teacher are often kept in balance with my extreme lows.

I don’t take these dark places lightly. I think the part of me that sometimes allows me to be a really great teacher is also the part of me that sometimes allows me to be a really NOT great teacher.  I care so deeply about what I do. I work and reflect and adapt and change and tweak and challenge myself and my thinking because I take my responsibility to these children so seriously. This act of caring so much. It comes at a price. Because when things aren’t working. When things aren’t going right, I cannot simply step back and accept that it is just a bad hour or day or week or month. When things aren’t going right, I cannot just be okay with it. And sometimes, that makes me take out my frustrations on the very people that I care so deeply about.

Because it doesn’t just feel like a bad day. it feels like a complete failure. And when I start to feel that way, when things feel as if they are spiraling out of control towards failure, I think that I start to desperately grasp at whatever I can to get things back on the right track. And sometimes that results in me saying things to my students that I just wish I didn’t say.  And that is when I know that I am teaching from the dark place.

So it doesn’t really matter how I got here. What matters is that by Monday, when I walk back into that classroom, I need to have figured out a way to get myself out of where I currently am.

That does NOT mean that I plan to have all of my problems figured out by Monday morning. it does NOT mean that by Monday morning I will have a magic cure to inspire all those students who have yet to be inspired in my classroom. It does NOT mean that by Monday morning I will suddenly know how to make all of my students fall in love with reading and with writing and with learning and with school.

What it does mean, is that by Monday morning I need to have remembered that THIS, where I am right now, this is not a catastrophe. I have not failed anyone. I may not have done all that I hoped I would have done by this point in the year. But I have not caused harm. I have not done damage. I, quite possibly, may even have done quite a bit of good. Because that is what I forget when I am teaching from the dark place. And that is what I have to remember in order to start to fix things.

So tomorrow will be for deep breaths. Tomorrow will be for remembering that my students are good enough just because they are exactly who they are. Tomorrow will be for telling myself that all of my students are giving me the very best that they have to give.  Tomorrow will also be for reminding myself that we are in a good place. That we have grown and learned and stretched and challenged ourselves. Tomorrow will be for telling myself that I am quite good enough. I do know what I am doing. I can keep getting better. And that we are all going to be okay.

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7 thoughts on “Teaching From the Dark Place

  1. I’m not sure when I started to follow your blog or how I even stumbled upon it, but I find myself reading until the very end of each post, because I relate to what you say and appreciate that you speak the truth. Teaching is infinitely magical and brutally hard at the same time, and because we do care so much, we can feel like failures and fall into the dark places too often. Here, you reminded me that I am not alone!! Tomorrow, I will remind myself of the many things that my students and I have accomplished and try to not get trapped in the quagmire (love that word!) of my failings…
    (P.S. I love your teaching ideas, too!)

  2. Jess, you hit the nail on the head for so many of us with this post. I had this type of week two weeks ago. I just blogged yesterday, however, of one of the best weeks I’ve had this school year. (geniushour.blogspot.com) I often write to celebrate – if I’m in the dark place, I sit on it until I can reach in and find what I love once again. I just want to encourage you to continue writing and reflecting – it’s how anyone gets out of their dark places – and we ALL have them. (Yes, even those named “Joy.”) 🙂 Keep going & growing, fellow educator! We are human!

  3. A fellow teacher said to me on Friday (after I had the dark place on Thursday): “If you were a bad teacher yesterday because of how badly things went, then remember: how good things went today is because you’re a good teacher!” If we take the blame when it’s bad, we must also take the credit when it’s good!

  4. I shared your post today with my teacher friends and colleagues–teachers I respect and admire, not always because of what they accomplish, but because of the path they are on. Your post was brave because you took the risk to share how hard this journey can be. You will help others keep at it and not give up on this RW and WW path, I am sure. Deep breaths. –From a grateful literacy coach

  5. Thank you for being brave and genuine enough to share the not so bright side of teaching. Your posts have empowered my teaching, my students, and colleagues. I know it may sound like an exaggeration, and how can what someone is doing in a small corner of their part of the world have such a ripple effect? I think it is about the inspiration and the possibilities it makes me think about. The inspiration you give me to believe that my 5th graders can think critically about the impact they have in the world and help foster that through my teaching and in my colleagues. It always makes me think that what I’m doing can be better and so therefore I will make it that.

    Teaching from the not so bright place is unavoidable by teachers that are reflective and deeply invested. I always remind myself that every student brings the best of him/herself at that moment in time. That every one of them has been pushed to their threshold, that even the most unmotivated have accomplished more that what they otherwise would have in years past. If I have taken them to their next level (although maybe not mine YET) then I need to accept and continue to scaffold and motivate. It is so hard to take two steps back before moving forward, but reaching the summit is not necessarily a straight shot. Students take different paths to get there. Some love to wander off and forget about the target, others never want to start and some want to have lots of fun along the way so it takes longer. From the teacher perspective it feels like swimming against their current.

    Thanks for reminding me that we are swimming it together and helping my spirit embrace the struggles that are part of our teaching world.

  6. Jess, you are a gift to us all, and validate the process of teaching and the feeling that we are not alone in our dark world of harsh voices (about not being good enough). Yes, breathing helps, as does noticing what we have done that has worked, and catching and savoring the moments of awe when a student takes our breath away with an unexpected insight or gesture. On those days when I feel like I have taught nothing, or made them even more confused (due to my speedy caffeine high!), I try to remember that it is my intention that matters; that each day I get up and at least TRY to give them opportunities to experience the joy of learning, the results of hard work, and the importance of being ethical and compassionate citizens.
    Trying might just be good enough.

  7. Pingback: Links I Loved Last Week: A Round-Up of Online Reading 11/15/15 | the dirigible plum

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