I am a teacher for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students at a traditional public high school in Raleigh, N.C. Our school has four roughly 90-minute periods.
For three of those periods, I consider myself a great teacher, but during the last period of the day, I am merely mediocre. I am finally OK with admitting that.
My alarm rings at 5:50 a.m., and after years of practice, I have trained myself to take five deep breaths, hop right up, and start the day with gratitude and positivity. That way, when I enter the chaos of the school building at 6:55 a.m., I know that I have started my day in a calm manner.
I put a genuine smile on my face and greet students with a level of perkiness usually reserved for a morning TV host. Every student who passes me in the halls on my morning duty, gets a “Hi, how are you?” even the ones who have their hoods pulled up, earbuds shoved in, or are skulking down the halls as if they haven’t fully woken up.
I field questions and solve problems even before the first bell rings for the day.
My first period is my planning period; teachers at my school, all of whom get one planning period a day, will tell you that first thing in the morning is the worst time to have planning. It means that by 9 a.m., all your breaks in the day are over unless you count a laughable 24-minute lunch.
While I agree that it isn’t ideal, there is a silver lining. I am most productive and feeling my best in the morning so that I can knock out a lot of work. I design lesson plans incorporating technology, project-based learning, and the 4Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication), among other buzzwords and acronyms professional development drills into our brains. I work on Individualized Educational Programs, or IEPs, and enter grades and progress-monitoring data into spreadsheets and forms. I answer emails and check on my students' grades and brainstorm ways to get them caught up now that we are back to in-person learning after nearly a year of remote education.
By the time the bell rings for Drive Time, our 20-minute version of homeroom designed to help students feel more connected to the school, I am ready to greet the students. Having volunteered to take freshmen during Drive Time this past year, when the majority of our students continued to learn virtually, I knew I had to be overly enthusiastic to get these teens to open up from behind a computer screen. I have used every trick I know and searched high and low through other teachers’ Instagram accounts to find ways to get these students to participate. A few minutes in my efforts are rewarded with laughter, participation, and a feeling of connection which I strived so hard to achieve. By the time the bell rings for second period, I am glad to see the rest of my students.
On most days, second period begins at 9:10 a.m. and third period at 11:05 a.m. I work hard to create an environment where students can feel safe and challenged. For many students, school is and should be a respite from the pressures of home. For some, it is the only place where they have people like them who know their language: American Sign Language.
Our classroom is a dynamic learning center. I jump around, flail my arms, laugh with the students, and move seamlessly from one activity to the next while fostering a growth mindset and encouraging them to be the best versions of themselves.
My classroom can best be described as controlled chaos. My students, most of whom are in general education classes the rest of the day, can finally be themselves with peers and teachers who know sign language and understand their Deafness when they step into my classroom. I encourage them to be loud, ask questions, lead discussions, and make mistakes. (On more than one occasion, every one of us has gotten a little too competitive when playing our vocabulary games.)
I have demonstrated the importance of good sleep, healthy eating, and exercising by sometimes allowing my students to nap in complete darkness for 20 minutes, bringing in carrots and hummus to snack on, and going outside to do push-ups and jumping jacks. I have held a Poetry Coffee House where we have dressed up in fake mustaches and snapped our fingers. And students held impassioned debates while working on our argumentative essays. In those first three periods, I relish the noise, excitement, and challenge. I feel like I am a great teacher.
But then fourth period strikes, and I am drained. I am mentally exhausted. I have depleted all my efforts to be the best teacher I can be. I’m mediocre.
For starters, it is the last period of the day and after lunch. Research has shown that workplace productivity wanes after lunch, and my own inefficiency only intensifies as the hours pass. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends school-age children do about an hour a day of exercise, unplugged. Yet by 12:36 p.m., when fourth period starts, few of us have done so much as stepped outside; many of us have barely moved away from our laptop screens. To make matters worse, I am “trapped” in a windowless classroom, devoid of natural light, and I suffer from Hashimoto’s Disease, a thyroid condition that leaves me exhausted and achy all over.
I give it my best feeble attempt for the first 15-20 minutes, but soon after, I feel myself succumb to all the stress and pressure of teaching all day. My voice loses its pep, my body slumps toward my desk, my head drops, and my eyelids flutter open and shut. On the worst days, I throw on a Discovery Education video and shut off my camera, and pray the ones in person do not judge.
They don’t. They are nodding off, too.
Halfway through, I regain energy with a “brain break.” We get up, stretch, and do some light exercises to get our heart rates up. Then, it’s back to grinding it out for the remainder of class.
In a perfect school, teenage students wouldn’t have to wake up so early for class (and yes, I have already written letters to the school board about it), and every class would start off with meditation and deep breathing. There would be brain breaks and technology breaks throughout the day, and self-paced learning would be more of the norm.
My realization of my own mediocrity was hard. I tried in vain to revamp my lesson plans and judged my teaching abilities on that last-period class alone. However, over time, I have learned to give myself grace, especially when I have Hashimoto flare-ups and even more now that I am a mom to a toddler.
I know I am not alone. We teachers give it our all until we quite literally find ourselves collapsing under the weight of all our work. And until we get more breaks, more outside time, and more time to exercise and stimulate our creativity, I am doing the best I can.
Sometimes that’s mediocre — if only for one period of the day.
Lauren Barrett is a high school teacher of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing by day, a cross-country coach in the afternoon, and a writer during her son’s nap times. She loves her faith, running, visiting baseball stadiums, chocolate, scrapbooking, and pretending she would actually do well on the Amazing Race. Barrett lives in North Carolina with her husband and son.