Friday, January 8, 2016

Teaching: It's Like Climbing Mountains

I love mountains. If you know me, that’s no secret. I recently got engaged on top of one, if that tells you anything! Last month, I successfully completed my first winter climb. If you’d told me a year ago that someday I’d be standing on top of a snow-covered Japanese mountain, ice axe in hand and crampons on feet, I would’ve rolled my eyes and told you to pass the Nutella and leave me alone, I’m trying to watch The Walking Dead over here… but lo and behold, here’s the proof!



Although as a friend pointed out in a Facebook comment, I could’ve posted a picture of anyone from my couch while stuffing my face with Cheetos given my getup. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one, Internet strangers, that’s me… but for the record, I’ll still take that Nutella if you don’t mind…

Anyway, back to that mountain. That’s Karamatsu-dake, a lovely 2,696 meter peak in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. I climbed it over the course of 2 days in December (shout-out to David at Kanto Adventures for putting together yet another fabulous trip). I tend to be the slow poke of the group any time I hike, so I found myself bringing up the rear for a good portion of the climb and was left with a lot of time to think. As we made our way to the summit, one crampon-laden, snowy step at a time, my thoughts alternated between, “Why the hell am I doing this?” and, “I wonder when we’re stopping for lunch (I spend an embarrassing amount of time thinking about food while hiking),” and it dawned on me that mountain climbing has a lot in common with teaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered to myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” as a teacher, whether I’m tumbling down the Pinterest rabbit hole way past my bedtime; trying to salvage a lesson that is clearly in full meltdown mode; pumping my students full of sugar at 9 in the morning because “it’s a holiday!”/obviously I hate myself; or throwing 30- unbudgeted- dollars at the Target cashier because what teacher can walk past that dollar section with willpower… and goodness knows lunchtime is never far from my thoughts during the school day.

As I continued my quest for the summit, I thought some more about mountain climbing and teaching. The similarities kept on coming, and in no particular order, here they are:

There will be times when you want to give up.
It amazes me sometimes that I ever make it to the top of any mountain. There’s always that little nagging voice in the back of my mind whispering things like, “You’re never gonna make it,” and, “Doughnuts.” I have to actively work to silence that beast and keep going, even when the task before me seems impossible. It’s the same with teaching sometimes. I had this first grade class a few years ago that almost destroyed me. Twenty-six students, and 13 of them had some kind of need- learning disabilities, English language learners, multiple behavioral issues… I remember one time when I came back from taking two days off for a trip, and within an hour no less than 10 coworkers let me know how terrible my class had been for my poor sub. By the time one of my close friends got to me and told me the same thing, I snapped and started crying. I felt ready to give up, call my dad and tell him he was right about what he said when I told him I wanted to be a teacher- “You’ll be overworked and underpaid!” and find a nice box to live in under a bridge somewhere. But… I survived. With support from my coworkers and a little determination, I got through the year, and my students the following year were like angels descended from heaven in my eyes. At least for the first few weeks, when the nightmare of the previous year faded into memory. Then they became your standard first graders, keeping me on my toes and putting me in bed by 9pm every night!

(For the record, my dad had the best of intentions when he said what he did. I had long dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and when I changed my mind during my freshman year of college, he was genuinely concerned that I would be… well… overworked and underpaid. However, he has the utmost respect for what we do as teachers, and I have no regrets about my decision).

You need the proper equipment… and it will cost you.
I just dropped a sweet penny on a new pair of winter mountaineering boots, and it hurt a little… but they’re so pretty… and necessary if I want to climb safely and comfortably. Mountain climbing isn’t exactly a cheap activity. Sure, you’re just heading out into nature. Nature is free, right?? However, there are many necessities and fun add-ons that you need when you’re venturing into the outdoors for a serious climb. That stuff ain’t free.

Let me ask you a personal question: how much of your own money have you spent on your classroom in the past month? Year? If your answer is, “I’d rather not talk about it,” (which is my answer), you get what I’m saying here. Yes, you have a teacher workroom. Yes, you have your sad supply room- or closet- but does your supply room have adorable little Rudolph cups that will compliment your winter holiday breakfast decorations so perfectly? Does it have enough homemade playdoh for all of your students to make models of the earth when learning about Earth’s layers? Are you going to find the word sorts that you need to provide appropriate interventions for your struggling readers? That stuff isn’t hiding behind the crusty old glue sticks in your school’s pathetic excuse for a supply closet- it’s at the Dollar Store. Or Target. Or Teachers Pay Teachers. And it costs money. Your money. Good thing my dad was wrong and we’re all loaded, right?!

Teaching and mountaineering, my two most expensive pastimes.   

You will bleed.
During one of my first big hikes, my boyfriend (now, fiance) slipped on some loose rocks as we began descending the mountain. It didn’t look like a bad fall, and I didn’t think much of it when he calmly called ahead for our trip leader, “David, I’m bleeding.”

“Is it bad?”

“Yeah.”

A trip to a Japanese hospital and six stitches in his hand later, Kevin is fine… but oh, the blood. It’s bound to happen sooner or later when you’re mountain climbing.

Obviously, you’re going to encounter blood from time to time as an elementary school teacher. Bloody noses, scraped knees- it’s unavoidable. And gross (I don’t know why I ever thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I just wanted to cuddle puppies all day long. How do I get that job?). However, I’m speaking in a metaphorical sense when I say you will bleed as a teacher. You will pour your heart into your work, become emotionally invested, and feel real pain at times. Maybe a parent makes an off-handed comment that sticks with you, a student that you’ve been trying your damndest to reach just isn’t responding, or your educational philosophies clash with those of testing expectations. Teaching will bleed into your personal life and you will bring it home with you whether you want to or not. The best you can do is try to stem the flow and find time to heal once in awhile- summer vacation, I’m looking at you.

Don’t forget to stop and take in the view. It’s not all about reaching the summit.
My brain has a way of making 10 minutes seem like an hour when I’m climbing. Sometimes when I’m really feeling the burn, I try to fall into a trance by repeating some kind of simple mantra in my head to the beat of my footsteps- “Keep, mov-ing, keep, mov-ing,” or, “Al-most, lunch-time, al-most, lunch-time.” My mantras are occasionally more obscene depending on my mood and level of exhaustion, but you get the point. Sometimes I get so caught up in propelling myself onward and upward that I forget to take in the view. As I mentioned earlier, I recently got engaged on top of a mountain- Mt. Kita, to be specific. It’s Japan’s 2nd tallest peak and the climb offers stunning views of the tallest peak, Mt. Fuji. It was my first experience carrying a full pack for an overnight trip, and let me tell you, the mantras got downright filthy. I struggled the whole way. After getting slightly off-track from the rest of my group and foolishly attempting to follow a couple of rock climbers up a waterfall (you had to be there- it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a waterfall. Also, I’m not very observant), hoisting myself up multiple ladders and scrambling over a bunch of giant rocks, I had barely stopped to consider my surroundings… and then Kevin told me to turn around. There she was, Fuji-san, in all her glory!



This happens to me with teaching all the time. I get caught up in the daily grind and forget that there are so many reasons to stop and appreciate my students every day. The summit is the prize at the end of the climb, the reason to throw down your pack, proclaim, “I made it!” and take a few selfies to show off on Facebook if I’m being honest (c’mon mountain climbers, don’t act like it ain’t true). In teaching, the summit is the end of the school year. June rolls along and I’m ready to trade my pencil skirts and cardigans for shorts and flip-flops, turn off my alarms, and post the obligatory, “Summer vacation has officially begun!" status. Yes, I do have a countdown app on my iPhone to track the number of days left in the school year, and it may only be January, but my summer is practically filled with travel plans already.

While dreams of school-free days dance in my head, I’m also thinking about the end of the year in other terms. Will my students meet the required benchmarks in reading, writing, and math? Will I have time to complete all of our math units? How many days will it take to administer the necessary reading assessments?  These standards we have in place for our children are summits in a sense, too. Reach these peaks or fail. It’s natural to get bogged down by the weight of your load and trudge through the school year, dreaming of the end and forgetting that there’s a whole journey to enjoy along the way.  

So you see, mountain climbing and teaching have much more in common than the need to properly plan your pee breaks around prep periods or thoroughly dense bushes. Both are taxing and will push you to limits you didn’t know you had, and both are entirely worth the effort.