Monday, December 13, 2010

Seasonal Affective Pedagogue Disorder

Depression Drags You Down, by Ianuiop
As winter break approaches, teachers across the land begin to fall into a seasonal funk that is unique to teaching and distinct from the more generalized depression afflicting the rest of the country that results from relentless familial obligations, winter colds and flu, financial woes, seasonal affective disorder and overdoes of Christmas commercialism.

This peculiar teacher malaise is caused by the weariness of toiling for months to keep kids engaged, stimulated and well-behaved, combined with ongoing harassment by parents, politicians and pundits, and the sad realization that, despite all the hard work, we still have large numbers of failing students. For those unfortunate enough to teach in districts where finals occur after winter break, there is the added bummer of knowing that some kids will fail because of family vacations that extend past the end of the semester.

By the end of spring we are exhausted, but at least we can look forward to the long summer vacation ahead. Additionally, by second semester, many of the students who failed first semester have figured out how to do their work, or dropped the class, so the total number of Fs is lower. Spring is also graduation time. Students are more excited and optimistic. I receive my most positive feedback in the spring, when students and parents thank me for sticking with them and ask me to sign their yearbooks. I’ll never forget my first year teaching, when one boy introduced me to his father on graduation day, explaining that he would be the first in his family to graduate from high school, and then attributed it all to my confidence in him. 

The Bowl Curve

I suspect that Seasonal Affective Pedagogue Syndrome is more common in low income and low-performing schools, which tend to have a disproportionate number of students who begin the year without many of the prerequisite skills necessary to succeed at their grade level (e.g., reading, math, organization). As a result, they often fail to complete assignments and do poorly on exams, thus bringing down class averages to depressing lows. I have so many of these students that my class statistics (both overall, and for any given exam) more closely resemble lopsided bowls than traditional bell curves, with more students earning Ds and Fs than As, Bs and Cs.
The really sad thing about the bowl curve phenomenon is not just that there are so many Ds and Fs in one class or school, which is depressing itself, but the deplorable social conditions that contribute to it. The majority of my students who fail are reading below grade level. Most of them are low income. Many of them haven’t the slightest idea how to behave academically, routinely showing up without pens, their binders chaotically stuffed with random papers. Some have GPAs of less than 1.0 by the time they are seniors. Many are homeless, or have one or both parents looking for work, or in the hospital, or in jail, or deported, or dead. I have Iraqi refugees and students who’ve lost parents in the war.

It’s really quite remarkable that some of these kids make it to school at all. For others, it’s the only sane and structured part of their day.

Student Malaise

It’s not just the teachers and disadvantaged youth who suffer this seasonal depression. Even privileged students are burned out from all the homework, projects and testing. Many have tuned out by December. Frustrated, I went to a colleague for support. “I’ve been reviewing for finals with my students, but no one seems to know the answer to anything anymore, not even topics we covered yesterday.”

My colleague told me not to take it personally, that it was just the time of the year, and that we’re all experiencing the same thing. She told me she got so frustrated that she told her class, “I’m not going to stand here and ruin my voice asking review questions if you won’t take the trouble to think or look up the answers.”

Nevertheless, the problem seems worse this year than in previous years. I suspect that the economy has something to do with it. We have far more unemployed parents than usual. The stresses of living in poverty or even in a struggling middle class family can have profound effects on children. Worried parents, arguments over finances, privation and sacrifices, all cause stress and can affect children’s sleeping and eating habits, cortisol levels, immunity, and ability to concentrate in class.

On A Bright Note

Attendance is up and tardies are down, so at least my kids are making it to class. Very few kids have been rude to me this semester and interactions with self-entitled parents have been minimal, which has kept my stress levels low. Best of all, I will soon have two weeks to eat, read, relax and pee when I want to, unencumbered by bells and regulations.

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