Highway to the Resting Zone: Teachers and the Summer Slowdown
In an attempt to kick off the summer right, my husband and I went on a double date with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law to see Maverick, the new Top Gun movie. I was looking forward to a couple hours of distraction and thought perhaps it would be the thing that propels me (pun-intended) into the carefree days of summer. I was thoroughly entertained and nostalgic throughout the movie, but more importantly, I was struck by a visual representation of an end-of-the-teaching-year phenomenon I had begun to explore. [Spoiler Alert] Towards the end of the movie, Maverick and Rooster need to land the F-14 they’ve escaped the enemy in, but they’ve no landing gear, the engine is on fire, and their runway is in the middle of an ocean. The landing crew prepares a large net tethered to the runway to act as brakes for the incapacitated aircraft, which is coming in at who-knows-what speed. When the plane comes to a screeching halt at the very edge of the runway, sparks fly from the metal side that scrapes across the asphalt, the net keeping it from hurtling into the ocean. When the dust settles, Maverick triumphantly emerges from the side window raising his helmet in the air and climbs down the side of the aircraft into the arms of an adoring mob.
Now, you might be thinking that I’m imagining myself as the exultant navy pilot who just completed a near to impossible mission, i.e. the 2021-2022 school year. But au contraire, in this comparison I instead saw myself, the teacher, as the burning, busted up plane that needs to land on a runway in the middle of the ocean without landing gear, braced by a giant net, so that it doesn’t sink into the deep, dark abyss of the sea. I’m certain that if that plane could talk, it too would be expressing similar feelings of exhaustion, frayed nerves, and anxious uncertainty, just like myself and many other educators at the onset of summer.
At the end of each school year, I experience crippling anxiety that lasts two, sometimes three, weeks into summer break. For any teacher, the end of the year is fraught with emotion, from joy and relief to exasperation and lament, so feeling a little unnerved initially with the change of pace and freedom that summer offers logically tracks. However, what I can’t rectify is the prolonged unsettled, antsy feeling I routinely have each June that results in being overcome by frayed nerves with no real explanation. Even with sixteen years of experience under my belt, I understand very little about this white-knuckling I do to cope with this shift, and I often feel quite alone in my struggle to “settle in” to summer.
This year, as I braced for my yearly retreat into said anxiety, my dearest friend and Her Voice at the Table founder, Kate Schenck, texted me during that first weekend of summer and expressed how her anxiety was spiraling, and she felt like she couldn’t do basic things with any sort of success. She described feeling exhausted, especially emotionally, and like she was in another world. She couldn’t fully enjoy time with her husband and friends because she didn’t have a free spirit and felt burdened by the weight of it all. I knew EXACTLY how she was feeling and realized she too was battling the elusive thing, the “it all,” that was keeping me in the same agitated, unresolved state that I have pushed through time and time again.
Equipped with Maverick’s dicey yet successful landing and Kate’s affirming texts, I considered the idea that many teachers might experience this anguished transition too, and it might not just be my own hang-ups with change. I am especially compelled to explore this notion following the most recent school year, which many educators have identified as one of the most difficult years in education, even more so than the previous two years affected by the pandemic. I surmised that more teachers could be feeling the pangs of anxiety more than before and might even be grappling with this befuddling transition into their time-off for the very first time.
Feeling like I had a better understanding of what my colleagues and I were feeling, I wanted to understand why we feel this way at this particular time of the year, so I turned to what I know makes the most sense to me – books. As an English teacher, administrator, and a tireless seeker of self-knowledge, I have amassed quite the collection of self-improvement tomes. I knew I had encountered an explanation to what Maverick so vividly captured for me on the big screen, and I anticipated that its antidote might also be perched on one of the shelves.
To understand more scientifically what this nagging angst at the end of each school year might be, I dug back into a book I can’t recommend enough: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, gifted to me by the above-mentioned dear friend, Kate. I recalled feeling completely seen as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend when I first read this book. However, I never seemed to link Burnout with my work as an educator exclusively. I could recognize personal and professional experiences and apply strategies, but I never considered how it might apply to how irrational I felt at the end of each school year.
The very first line of the book’s introduction says, “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough.’ Which is every woman we know— including us.” This time, approaching the text more as an educator than a woman, I was struck by how applicable the line remained when I replaced the word “woman” with “teacher.”
The foundation of Burnout is the concept of “the biological stress cycle” and the essential need to “complete the cycle.” The twin authors explain that stressors are the external and internal “threats,” like work, family, self-criticism, and identity, that activate stress in a person, which is the evolutionary response that occurs neurologically and physiologically (Nagoski & Nagoski 4-5). There are all kinds of things that happen in the brain and body that respond to the stress and equip us to handle the stressor, whatever it might be. However, the common misconception is that once the stressor is removed or eliminated, the stress goes with it, which is just not the case. To mitigate the stress, the person must do something to cue the brain and body that they are safe from harm and can relax. If the stress cycle is not completed, resources continue to be depleted and the stress is compounded with each activated cycle. This is why, the Nagoski sisters point out, it is often said that “Stress can kill you,” because it impacts every major organ system – cardiovascular, digestive, muscular, nervous, endocrine, etc. – and humans are not built to live in a perpetual state of stress (8).
Think of any given school day and try to guess how many stress response cycles are activated on that day, at work alone. Maybe when you get to school, the internet is down or the copier is broken, so you can’t properly prepare for the day’s lesson. You might come up with a solution and get your class working productively when suddenly there’s a fire drill in the middle of your planned assessment or hands-on activity. Or maybe there’s a popular school function coming up that weekend and students are distracted, needing endless reminders to stay on task. When that rowdy class is finally over, you sit down to check emails, all thirty-six of them, including one from that notoriously adversarial parent, as well as one from a colleague asking you to cover his/her lunch duty today because they have a student making up a quiz, which means you won’t have a moment to yourself until your planning period at the end of the day, but that’s when you’re supposed to meet with your team and plan the next unit. Most teachers will read this and chalk it up to a typical day, nothing extraordinary, just the need for flexibility and, perhaps, a glass of wine when they get home. However, when we encounter countless stressors, day in and day out, that flood us in “stress juice” and we never intentionally “complete the cycle,” it wreaks havoc on our physical and mental state. Moreover, I would venture to guess that most of us have no idea how to complete the stress cycle, which finds us hurtling towards burnout; therefore, at the end of the school year, teachers could hypothetically have 180ish days of “incomplete stress cycles simmering away in [their] chemistry” which often finds us unable to flee or fight, so we just freeze (Nagoski & Nagoski 11).
The Nagoskis’ term “freeze” is what I’ve determined the end-of-the-year, out-of-body, inexplicable stress to be. It’s what happens when you manage to complete the year that may have felt unsurvivable or might have even felt “normal,” yet you find yourself beyond emotion, feeling disengaged, numb, terrified, or on the outside when it’s all said and done. Sometimes it can cause a “shaking, shuddering, muscle-stretching, involuntary response that is often accompanied by waves of rage, panic, and shame. If you don’t know what it is, it can feel scary. You might try and fight it or control it” (Nagoski & Nagoski 13-14). In the past, I’ve elected to teach various summer school classes to maintain a structure and cadence that matched the school year, so I wouldn’t experience the “let down,” but found that just delayed the feeling of worry and uncertainty. I also tried planning trips for that first week of break to shift my focus and distract from the reality of it all and found myself even more miserable and frustrated that I wasted the money to experience the same perturbation, but this time in a new setting. Overall, I’ve deduced that as consummate professionals, teachers will deny, ignore, or suppress stress responses, which I believe rear their ugly heads at the end of the year in the form of long-term, intense stress. Interestingly though, Burnout suggests that the feeling of paralysis or disconnection is actually part of the healing process and, by bringing awareness to your mind and body, you engage in a normal, healthy part of completing the cycle (14).
Feeling more satisfied with a biological explanation as to why an educator might encounter crippling anxiety at the end of a school year, I felt it seemed fitting to explore how to alleviate some, if not all, of this tension, so that one might begin summer more peacefully, rather than in the grips of aimless worry. The authors of Burnout recommend various ways to routinely end stress cycles from physical activity to affection to creative expression, which reminded me of something I’d heard before and inspired me to crack open the first book on my summer reading stack: Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity by Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD.
I originally heard of this book in an English department meeting when a colleague mentioned hearing about it on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop podcast. Its premise intrigued me: “For every depleting activity in your day, there is a counter reviving activity to balance the scales'' and that there are seven kinds of rest your body needs – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, sensory, and creative rest” (Dalton-Smith 31). I think perhaps I anticipate my early-summer blues and try devising alternative approaches since keeping busy and orchestrating distractions frequently fails, which evidently are included in the list of “Rest Solutions That Don’t Work” in Chapter 2. Even in the midst of my “summer scaries,” I sat down with a pencil and a highlighter to find strategies or solutions for my yearly frayed existence and, much to my surprise and gratitude, the reading of the book itself was a kind of palliative rest that was much-needed.
It is important to note that “Sleep is not rest…Sleep is solely a physical activity. Rest, however, penetrates into the spiritual. Rest speaks peace into the daily storms your mind, body and spirit encounter. Rest is what makes sleep sweet” (Dalton-Smith 8). More importantly, in reading the book, I discovered that there might just be a way to circumvent this yearly bout of anxiety by slowing down and purposefully and regularly completing the stress cycle, with various forms of rest depending on my stress-induced deficits. As Dr. Dalton-Smith describes, “Rest is about replenishing, restoring, renewing, recovering, rebuilding, regenerating, and repairing. Rest begins with the prefix re- because it requires us to go back to a prior state. It is a second chance” (29). It is important to acknowledge stressors and the stress cycle to assess the kinds of rest needed to complete the cycle and reassure your mind and body that you’re safe once again.
Early on in the book, Dalton-Smith recommends the reader take the Personal Rest Deficit Assessment, which can be found at the end of the book or at RestQuiz.com. Feeling overwhelmed and assuming I was a wreck in all seven rest categories, I needed to pinpoint where my journey would begin this summer. Unsurprisingly, I am not adequately rested in any of the seven categories, would benefit from more rest in five of the categories, and am significantly lacking rest in two categories, which requires me to make a change before I experience more negative effects.
So, this is where I will begin my summer recovery, a notion reiterated by a meme I encountered on Instagram the other day. Originally posted by @learningforaj, it read: “To clarify: Teachers are not ‘off for the summer,’ they are ‘in recovery.’” Well, ain’t that the truth! And in the spirit of this meme, I am intentionally seeking emotional and creative rest, while seeking opportunities for rest in the other five categories as well. Through habitual rest and self-awareness, my hope is that I might come in for a smoother landing at the end of next school year and finally be able to assume the role of Maverick, not the inoperative aircraft.
Jessica Bailey Reigns Under the Yellow Banner of the Second Year and Feels the Need, the Need for Smooth Landings and Sacred Rest.