At my father’s funeral on a rainy day twelve years ago, the church was nearly empty and only two people cried.
My mom and I cried, and everyone else present stood dry-eyed, unperturbed, that a man who had lived 42 years on this Earth would be buried under mud.
But I don’t blame them. I know why they didn’t cry.
My dad was a man of integrity. But when he died in an accident, he was a shadow of his former self.
A Polish immigrant engineer to Canada, a man with a thick accent and a sharp brain, my dad had it rough at work. My dad had a moustache, an accent, and a serious no-nonsense-let’s-check-the-numbers-again manner—this was enough for some of his coworkers to call him “Hitler.” His precision and exactness was admired by his bosses and hated by his coworkers.
Even as a kid in middle school, I knew about dad’s work stresses. Overhearing my parents’ nightly conversations gave me a picture of the manifold ways my father was mistreated. I knew about how the engineering projects he worked overtime for caused him to lose hair and sleep. I could often here him muttering to himself about projects. For years, I saw him hunch his back and drag himself to work.
A burnt cigarette stub thrown on the sidewalk and trampled underfoot– that was Dad.
Stress from work also caused Dad to act funny. And when I say funny I mean the jokes nobody laughs at. Like most days, one morning my dad was stressed about going to work. He was doing his morning inspections of my room for tidiness—Dad was raised in a military family that did this sort of thing— and he took my favourite dress left on the floor and ripped it in two. He was that angry and stressed. He said sorry later. I still remember. I thought he was a monster.
I tell you this story of my father because he is an example of a person who let the stress of his work eat him alive.
I tell this story with utmost respect for my father. It’s not easy to let the stress of your job slide off your back as soon as you slouch on your living room couch. It’s not easy to fight prejudice and racism and isolation and a lack of historical knowledge that might cause a person to call a Pole “Hitler.”
But some people do it.
Some people choose to rise above the stresses of their work, or they leave. They find another place to work. They choose to slice the stress from their work out of their personal lives just like they slice the fat off a delicious steak that they have learned to chew and roll in their mouths and savour.
I pay homage to my father by learning from him and remembering his better self.
In my work as a teacher, specifically, I refuse to let the stress of my job consume my life. I refuse to die as my father—stressed, miserable, distant.
Whenever I meet frazzled teachers wasting hours of their lives stressing about a student’s rude jab, their growing piles of marking, a perceived or actual slight, the latest educational craze driving them to the madhouse, the administrator-turned-bloodhound, I want to shake them and wake them. But I’m no angel or philosopher. Today—despite having such a terrible memory of my father’s death—I sometimes let the stress of teaching get to me.
Here are some truths about life I think teachers need to remember:
- You’re going to die. Backwards design your life. We teachers backwards design our units, starting with the end goals for our students and building lessons—small steps—that lead to those goals. But do we take the time and care to backwards design our own lives? Do we ask ourselves what goals we have for our own lives and how we will build towards them?
Do we imagine our own funerals? Do we imagine the people at our funeral and what they would have to say about us? What do we want them to say?
Do we want our family, our spouses, our children, our coworkers to remember our miserable mugs and stressful monologues, or our big hearts and kind words?
Imagine your funeral today. Who is there? What are they saying about you?
I wonder—do you like what they’re saying?
“At the end of your life you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, a parent” –Barbara Bush
- It won’t matter in a year. Stop thinking about it. In 2013 I wore a miserable mug. I was a first year teacher—I was a wreck. I remember staying up till 4 AM one night counting sheep. Don’t bother counting sheep. It doesn’t work. I was worried about the graduation I was organizing. It was happening the next day. The situation was dire. I wanted a permanent contract. I wanted students to be happy. I wanted, quite frankly, to impress some people. I wanted a lot. It was so important. After two hours of sleep, I woke up, threw up, and went to school and then to the graduation I’d organized. It worked out okay. I remember falling onto my couch the night after graduation crying with relief. It was such a big deal then. Now? A distant memory.
What were you stressed about this time last year? Does it matter now?
I wonder—do you like how you spend your free time worrying about stuff that won’t matter?
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”—Mark Twain
- You can’t control a lot. But you control yourself. In my first year of teaching, I dealt with the case of the mean coworkers. These two coworkers wouldn’t say “hi” to me in the halls. It felt terrible to say “hi” to these people and have them walk by me as if I was that guy on the street corner telling you that you’ll be damned and go to hell if you don’t come to Jesus NOW.
I took it personally. I wondered what I had done. I wracked my brain around and shifted its bolts like a rubix cube. Just like a faulty rubix cube, the problem couldn’t be solved.
I was solving a problem outside myself—people I could not control. What made me think I could tweak their hearts and open their souls?
What makes you think you can change the minds of your students, coworkers, administrators, or anyone else that doesn’t think you’re God’s French toast slathered with the finest syrup?
Forget about it. You can only control yourself.
And if you’re curious, I later found out that these coworkers didn’t say “hi” to a bunch of new teachers. And here I was, taking their silence personally. What a waste.
“Do not let the behaviours of others destroy your inner peace”—Dalai Lama
- Count your blessings. It could be worse. Today, I teach in the suburbs; I teach students born in privilege. A year ago, I used to teach students who didn’t have breakfasts and would come to school foraging for granola bars. Some of them wanted food so bad they stole sandwiches from the cafeteria. At least I had lunch—but in the stress of my first year of teaching, I didn’t notice that.
A teacher friend of mine teaches on the native reserves. He told me about teaching a class in the corner of a gym sectioned off from another class with a drape. And about the moldy books in the library with a celling caved in. And about how he searches and rescues his students breathing in gas fumes from garbage bags because it makes them feel good. He told me about how, when it came time to graduate his students in grade nine, he raised a glass to toast two graduates.
Today, a guest speaker came to my school. He showed us a picture of a school in Guatemala. It was made of mud and straw, and it was the size of my apartment. He said he taught the students—and the teachers—how to use toothpaste and toothbrushes, because they hadn’t seen them before.
Do you think your teaching job is tough? Do you moan and groan about the stress of your job?
Think about what you have. The students that brighten your days, The coworkers that you wouldn’t trade for money. The parents who appreciate you. The people that love you and tolerate your gripes. Lunch. Hands. Toothpaste.
Focus on them.
I don’t mean to preach. I’m no angel or philosopher.
I’ve been that stressed-out teacher. My off hours have been burned up in stress. But I’m learning. I’m licking my wounds in this corner of the Earth and when it comes time to die?
I’ll be ready.
“The measure of your life will be how well you loved and how well you lived. Don’t sweat the small stuff because life is precious”—Richard Carlson