Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Turning Down the Clock

Adjusting to retirement is a process, as is helping a pair of tiny humans grow up. I've been at it for 170 days now, and while I reported to you about an early phase, I feel like I'm navigating another piece of teacher brain that I wish I'd known about back when I was still working.

There are minor adjustments, of course. I actually use naughty words far more than I did while I was working, or than I will when the twins start imitating. And I need more jeans. A pair and a half were plenty back when I was working. Now they are taking a beating daily.

But the big one lately has been turning down the clock.

When I was teaching, the clock loomed large in my life. I may not have measured out my life in coffee spoons, but I did measure it out in two and three minute increments, with a loud ticking in the background at all times. If I hurry, I can get this done in the next two minutes, but there's no time to pause because exactly at the end of those two minutes there's another Have To Do waiting to pounce on me.

My life coaches
Mind you, I always knew this was going on to some extent. In the beginning of my career, I actually had to learn to hear the clock, always ticking. My student teaching co-op at Wiley Junior High, Joe McCormick, drilled into me to be "punchy quick" both as a way to cover ground and help manage a class (they can't disrupt you if they're too breathless from trying to keep up with you). And as it sank in just how much less time I had than I needed, I learned every year to squeeze a few more bits of work out of a few more bits of minutes.

I'm sure I eased up when my first children were born, but mostly by cutting the number of demands on my time and not by changing my relationship with that clock. For a few years, until my older kids were school age, I simply dropped out of all extra stuff, but I still lived by the clock.

As I spent more years in the classroom and learned how to squeak some education out of every spare second and myself, not unlike the business of seeing how tightly you can pull a banjo string before it snaps. I knew it was a thing I had to watch as a teacher, knew it by those moments in which I lost track of my real mission because some student wanted to ask a deeper question or probe for better understanding or just share something they thought was important while I knew that tick tock there was another part of the lesson we were scheduled to tick tock move on to and yet this student was creating a teachable moment and I was trying to calculate on the fly just tick tock how we could most quickly move past this because tick tock and oh my God this kid is still talking and doesn't she hear the clock DON'T YOU HEAR THE CLOCK!

And you know in that moment, when you see the students getting in the way and forget that they are the way that you need to take a breath and rebalance.

I thought I was working with a balance, but I was still trying to keep the string pulled tight. I was still listening to the clock.

I thought the transition to retirement would take care of the clock, particularly with the twins. Toddlers aren't really impressed by your schedule, and they don't hear the clock at all (joke at our house: "Sorry, we would have been on time but we had to walk from the house to the car.")

But we would walk to the library, and after a bit of playtime with the library toys, I would start getting antsy. We've picked out the books. You built a pile. Time to get going. We have to get loaded up and move on to the next thing, right now, because... well, I had no idea. I just still heard the clock. And I finally realized one of the reasons I'm so bad at small talk-- I hear the clock ticking and that voice inside saying, "Shouldn't we really be getting something done?" Tick tock.

I thought, for all those years, that I had a monkey on my back. A cute little monkey. I had no idea that I was carrying around King Freaking Kong all the time.

I'm telling you this as a way of encouraging those of you who are still doing the work to be sure to check yourself. The clock did not make me a bad teacher, and I think I did a good job of being present, of hearing my students, of letting their needs and their moments set the pace. That last decade, when new programs and testing and data-cult bosses ate away at my teaching time, I wrapped the clock in flannel and stuffed it in a desk drawer and started to slice content from my course rather than fighting to cram 180 45-minute days into 15- 40 minute days. My students got less content, but at least they didn't get it being thrown at them like baseballs from a rapid-fire pitching machine.

All I'm saying is, friends and colleagues, check your relationship with the clock. It's one of those compromised balances in teaching that must be constantly worked on, but if you're like me, you may not realize how tightly wound you are.

Every profession comes with its own built-in issues. I have medical folks and engineers in my family, and it's easy to see how those professions have accented parts of their personalities. Teaching has its own set of issues (including the effects of spending too little time with other grownups and uncontrollable urges to make unruly mobs of people line up properly), but the tyranny of the clock is one that can really sneak up on us if we're not careful. I don't know yet to what extent I'll shake it (let me tell you sometime about my seven part time jobs), but now that I'm done being surprised by it, perhaps I can unclench just a bit and enjoy some actual quiet uninterrupted by tick or tock.


  1. Thank you for this. Part of the reason the clock ticks so loudly is we have too much content to cram into too little time, and the **** BS test is coming. You are making me thinking about my classroom. I can often shut down those student moments because I am a math teacher and when they ask about things that are not math-related, it's easy to point them back to the lesson. Maybe I need to let them take me on a tangent occasionally. (Math joke for anyone still reading.)

  2. As a newly retired kindergarten teacher of 27 years, I can most definitely relate to this. With 6 months under my belt, I continue to find it hard to not "worry" about the clock or how effectively I am using my time. I have made it a goal not to work in this first year of retirement. I want to "unschedule" and "breathe" and just "be". It's not as easy as it sounds. And then there's the guilt of not doing anything, well, anything constructive. It's all a quandary to me but I guess it is just another life change to adjust to and accept. I appreciate hearing your perspective. Thank you for writing your post.