A Way to Work

Running was once a bigger part of my life, and much of what I guess about human nature comes from pounding along trails and roads early and late, alone and with others, in cold and hot and wet and dry. Among the things I learned is that humans are pack animals.  We think of ourselves in relation to others, wondering what they might be doing or—back to running—turning our shoulders to knife ahead or sagging to drop behind.

This weekend I’m writing grade reports (think report cards) and, at my school, each student requires a paragraph describing what’s happened, what it might mean, and what might make a better outcome next time.  As these reports are due tomorrow, the faculty have all been moving as a pack though forests of students.

I know writing reports is important.  As a parent, I appreciate how skillfully my colleagues describe my children’s progress and appreciate even more when they clearly communicate they care.

Yet, while I’m writing, I get caught up in the sheer labor of it.  Try as I might to make each paragraph unique, the task is, by its nature, repetitive.  And familiar.  I’ve been teaching 27 years, and you won’t hear me say everything I know about human nature I learned from writing grade reports.

Sure, I feel some consolation in looking over and seeing an officemate at work and enjoy the breaks we take to find a particularly elusive right word or to kvetch.  Still, it’s the sort of task you enjoy finishing, and if other teachers ask how many you have left, they are usually hoping it’s more than they do.

It feels like work, and we pack animals sometimes seem mythical lemmings, running blindly toward some mutual futility.  At report time, workaholicism becomes contagious.  Many teachers seem to be making their best effort to out-suffer the rest.

And sometimes I’m among them.  Though I know that finding value in the task is the only way to save it from becoming pure labor, I fall into the trap of martyrdom. The point becomes survival or reassuring yourself how much misery you can bear.

For me, satifying labor has material ends—a patio, a freshly painted room, a delicious meal.  If, at the end of hours of work, I have an essay, poem, or painting—even if it’s one I don’t particularly like—I’m happy.  But it’s sometimes tough to invest the products of my labor with meaning.  I’ve written around 10,000 comments, how do I make the next one fulfilling?

Everyone who has ever held a job knows some work hours end in nothing but time passed, but I wish I might find praise for job well done…or just a job done. I can’t expect colleagues to give me a pat on the back—their hands are busy—but I wish there were another way to work that ends in celebration instead of exhaustion.

Generally, I love my job. I worked hard on those reports, and I think they’re okay. I’m sure I’ll brighten up as soon as I walk into a classroom to find real students before me. Right now, however, at the end of all those paragraphs, I’m spent. I’m fearful.  Is this what teacher burn-out feels like?

Ecclesiastes says “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet,” and I await that sweet sleep.  So far, I’ve only found fitful rest, and I’m wondering if the rest of the pack feels the same.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Meditations, Survival, Teaching, Work, Writing

2 responses to “A Way to Work

  1. Twenty-seven years is a long time to keep freshness in any job. It seems to me that you, who enjoy dealing with the real live students, inevitably would find writing report after report wearing.

    I congratulate you for making the effort to come up with something original to say on those things, but maybe originality isn’t vital since, you know, each parent/student doesn’t get to read every other parent/student’s report, so it’s all fresh to them, at least.

    I’m a municipal employee. I say the same thing to twenty people every day. So long as I smile and personalize our interaction the slightest bit, everybody feels special. (Yeah, right.)

    I’m sure they appreciate a personal approach—it must be refreshing to get that kind of treatment in that setting. I just reread my comments to proof them, and, with some, I see a real connection with the student and, with others, not. I suppose that’s just the way of things, but I wish I felt better about accomplishing the arduous task of writing all the comments. It seems strange that it isn’t more satisfying. Thanks for your comment…and encouragement.

  2. MCG

    My mother is an extremely insecure writer. She tends to labor over every word in a report card, producing very dry, occasionally stilted paragraphs on each child. Then she forces my father and I to edit them.

    She’s fond of writing that the children seem to be one thing or another. As in, “Chris seems to be a very sweet child.” Which kills me. He seems to be? She’s not sure? Does she think it’s all an act? As there’s nothing technically wrong, these lines stay in.

    But rest assured, someone out there feels your pain. My mother, for one.

    At one of the report writing advice sessions—and we get advice in some form almost every year—we received the charge to describe behavior and not make personal judgments. That’s tough. I can see the reason for this instruction—perhaps it’s really advice not to accuse students of laziness or apathy or lunacy— but it’s tough to comply when finding reasons seems the first step to remedy. Your mom may be trying to respond to similar guidelines… at least it seems so.

    The whole process is silly. In the office the other day, I thought about writing an entire novel in the form of grade reports, like Pale Fire for the high school set, but decided no one would read beyond page one.

    I’m never happy with my reports—I always wish they were warmer and communicated more understanding and sympathy for how tough it is for most students. My students don’t always seem cheerful to me.

    Thanks for writing—it wonderful to think about you out there reading.

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