Saturday, September 15, 2012

Deep Breath In. . . Now Out. . . Calming Oneself on the Weekend

 I must confess that I am in an adrenaline-raddled state, two weeks into my term. Every job has its challenges. At a primarily teaching-focused institution, the startling change of rhythm at the beginning of the fall term is a big one. This term, I'm teaching four classes, and every one is a 1st-year class. That means that probably 90% of my students, perhaps more, are completely new to university and stumble over almost every new instruction or expectation. They ask me where they are on the waitlist; will they get into the class. They ask me how to get their student account activated for Moodle. They ask me what books they need, even though those are all listed on their course outline.

Or they don't ask because they're too shy or confused. And then they haven't done the reading. Or they wonder why everyone else is handing in an assignment (as last Thursday -- oops!)

Some of them are brand new to the country, living in North America for the first time, eating different food in a Homestay family's dining room, or trying to recreate a dish from China, Africa, Saudi Arabia, or India with groceries they've bought from the "exotic foods" section of the local (surely overwhelming) grocery stores. They've figured out how to take buses to get from the apartment or basement suite they've managed to rent, but they're anxiously waiting for their student loans to come through before October's rent needs to be paid (so they want desperately to know which books they absolutely must buy this month and which could be worked around until their budget is more elastic).

An African student speaks and writes English adequately enough to have got himself sponsored here on scholarship, but is struggling to understand the various accents it comes in. I struggle with his. I also struggle to understand students who learned their English in Korea, China, Burma/Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey, and Russia. It feels very important to capture their meaning the first time they're brave enough to try out their tongues in a new classroom -- but sometimes it takes all my intelligence and listening skills, every drop of energy I own (and I wish, intensely, for an upgrade of my hearing aids).

 A student catapulted only last week from his Chinese home to his new Canadian one explains ruefully that he forgot his newly purchased books on the bus he'd proudly figured out how to take. I worry about what buying replacements will do to his careful budget. I worry more about how he'll catch up on the reading over the weekend -- he tells me that he has to look up every third or fourth word in a dictionary, but ensures me ever so earnestly that he will work very hard and he hopes he will do well. He puts his hands together and bows slightly toward me several times as he thanks me and leaves my office, then in a supposedly more Western gesture, adds an endearing wave. "Bye-bye," he waves. "Enjoy your lunch." And I go back to the now-cold soup whose hasty devouring he'd interrupted, catching me during my lunch, rather than my office hours. Who could have said "No, I'm on my lunch now," and shut the door. Not me, although I'm recognizing yet again that I'll hurriedly have to erect some boundaries, barriers even, if I'm to survive the term without letting all these needs exhaust me.
 So the calming images. Above, a filigree of seaweed I found drying on the deck. Top and bottom, the sunrise views that help me gather for the day. They come later and later each morning now, and soon, I may be dashing to the ferry
butby the time their promise of peace arrives. Still, they inspire. . . .

I'm faced with marking and prep that will take up many hours of my weekend, and I'm committed to a two-hour run today. Part of me is already panicking at the evaporation of time before I start another week whose pace sometimes seems unsustainable. But I've got a little plan: I thought I'd try assembling some images into posts that will remind me, and show you, the ways that beckon me to calm. I am unlikely to have a full free weekend from now until the end of term, but there are pockets of sustenance, and it seems important to choose them, to honour them, to note and acknowledge them with mindful attention.

So here's a start. Remember that each of these images can be enlarged with a simple click of your mouse. I have a large screen and find it very satisfying to call up the whole sunrise, mountains, mist, ocean waves, cliché flying bird and all. I dissolve into it, breathing, letting the day's stresses recede for a moment or two.
I hope you might do the same.
Happy Weekend!

30 comments:

  1. Those sunrise and calm water images a like a deep, calming breath. Thanks for taking a few minutes from your very intense schedule to share with us.

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    1. Glad you enjoy the pics -- we could all use some deep breathing from time to time.

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  2. Thank you F. They are lovely images. I use my backyard in the same way. May you have a wonderful weekend.

    And I wonder, have you thought of changing your blog layout so that you could post your photos larger? Would be nice to see them big right away, no?

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    1. I've played around with this a bit. Not sure it works for all screens. . .

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  3. I think your lunch without interruptions should be a given.
    Lovely images!
    I have a friend who has framed seaweed as art and it looks fabulous...
    enjoy your weekend!

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    1. What a clever friend! I can well imagine that piece of seaweed as art.

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  4. I understand exactly where you are coming from. The beginning of a new term in stressful and overwhelming for everyone. I work in the somewhat understaffed IT department of an independent girls school that caters for children from the ages of 3 to 18. There is a great deal to do to make sure that everyone is ready to go and has all that they need in the way of hardware, software and even just things like usernames and passwords. Unlike you, all my staff and Pupils are "local" and I can only imagine the extra strain that cultural and language barriers bring. Daughter in just starting her PHD at an English Uni, having just graduated from another UK uni where she did her Masters. The stories she has told of the problems encountered by fellow,"foreign" students give me some idea of what you are coping with. I too tend to go sit on the beach to destress myself (though hiding in my office with a good audio book and my knitting is the best I can do some days) ;-)

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    1. Yes, you know exactly what I'm talking about -- and thank goodness for helpful and patient IT folk to walk everyone through their access. These "digital natives" need a surprising amount of handholding, native speakers and students from abroad alike.

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  5. Breathe in breathe out - yes. Your photos are good for spiritual regulation. It's hard to believe that such views are so close to me as well. I'm glad you find respite in your home - I read the demands of school and freak out. Your running is wonderful; sweating it out has always worked for me too.

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    1. It's true -- in the city we tend to forget how near the beach is. And yes, I am so grateful for being able to run, a really good way to stay in the moment, in my body.

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  6. Oh mom! Yikes, what a chaotic introduction to the new teaching year.
    I'm glad though, for those students to have you on their side. Its generous (if not completely overwhelming) to take all their different stories and circumstances into so much consideration. Having said that, you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned setting up boundaries. From personal experience, boundaries b/w teacher and student are really best for everyone in the long run.
    Good luck and good rest this weekend :)

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    1. Thanks, sweetie! Glad to have you seeing me with my work hat on. ;-)

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  7. You write so eloquently about the trials of new-to-university students, both Canadian and foreign. Your words evoke the interest you take in each student and your desire to communicate the material you are teaching. Exhausting! I should say so! I hope that, as you mark and plan, your eyes can lift to absorb those beautiful, calming views.

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    1. It's really rewarding work, often, if frustrating and tiring. And as long as I remember, there are pockets of respite all around. Thanks, Lorrie.

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  8. Oh, your opening paragraphs have brought back such a flood of memories! Although I've been retired for a few years now, those first weeks are still so very vivid in my mind. Like your students, many of mine were also coping with a new language and customs in addition to living away from home for the first time. And like you, I often pushed aside my lunch to talk with them for a few minutes; their timing might have been off, but their need was real.

    I often laugh when I think of the time when, for a day, I was assigned to co-teach with a person from the local business community. His total exhaustion at the end of what, to me, was a not particularly strenuous day, was amusing. And he didn't have to make time to counsel students nor mark papers nor prep for the next day's worth of classes. I've always liked to think that he left with a bit more respect for my "easy" job.

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    1. Oh, you know precisely of what I speak. Too many think of our work as limited to what we do in class; perhaps they figure in a bit of marking, but overall I suspect it seems pretty cushy. And I feel lucky in many ways, but rhythm during term is very intense, isn't it?!
      Do you miss it now, in retirement? I'm trying to contemplate moving over that line, in a few years. . .

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  9. This post reminds me of my musings about how doing too much/too little often seems to fall along gender lines in academia. Not always but often it was the women professors in my former profession who would go that extra mile for a student, and the male prof who would make himself oh so conveniently (for himself) unavailable at key crunch times. And who ended up with their oh so critical research time squeezed? Yep, the generous-hearted, ever nurturing women. Time and again, it was research stats that nailed the promotion, not teaching ability or student satisfaction with a course, even though the latter is what attracted and kept the students at the uni and thereby generated the core revenue income, not research grants which were prestigious icing but not the main cake. Where is it best to draw the line, between a seemingly innate feminine desire to care/look after and and more brusque masculine self-serving aloofness? A bit of both is ideal. i admired most the women who did had strong boundaries and said kindly but firmly to students "I can't help you but try XY or Z (person or resource)" and skilfully delegated and thereby dissipated demands on themselves. And went on to the very top. The super helpful, sadly, never did progress far.
    Hester

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    1. Yes, those gender lines are notable. To be fair, though, my colleague in the next office is really willing to go the extra distance for students, but I think that his very physicality makes it less likely that he will be approached the same way as I am. More argument for me putting better boundaries in place, perhaps. And if I were younger, building a bigger career, maybe I'd be more determined about doing that. But I'll be content with a different kind of progress, I guess.

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  10. I got exhausted having read your post Oh my. You surely have to love your job to have the strength, energy and time it needs.
    Does blogging give you a time to relax/ breathe?

    For me it does. And enough hours of sleep help.
    Lol, going out on our yard ( not to the garden, as we lack one ), is of no help. I get annoyed when I see all the work our place needs.
    But, as I´ve told, hugging my horse or looking at the sleeping dog, is relaxing.

    Wishing you strength for the new week.

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    1. Yes, the blogging allows me a different focus, although it also steals precious minutes, of course.
      And last week, I was in bed at 8 one evening, at 9 the next, so that helped.
      I can imagine that hugging a horse could be very restorative, centering -- lucky you!

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  11. Your compassion and empathy for your students is refreshing and heartening, as are your beautiful photographs; thank you for reminding me that I can cover my screen with images of your enchanting surroundings.

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    1. You're welcome, Marsha -- and thank you!

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  12. A little compassion goes a long way, doesn't it, although being rested enough to convey calm and to transmit reassurance and confidence in another's ability is no easy task. I think our own experiences of struggling with a second language--and with travel--help, at least in some limited way. It never fails to surprise me, though, how exhausting it is to really listen. Elle

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    1. You make a good point, Elle. It's important to take care of myself so that I can convey the necessary calm. More reason to breathe . . .

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  13. Hi Mater, I'm afraid that I recognize my son in your first two paragraphs! We just got back from a quick trip to Ottawa and, although I sense that he is happy with his courses and his new environment, there are clues that he is not quite in the swing of things (it's been 2 full weeks and he hasn't done any laundry yet!!!!).
    Your students are lucky to have you; I hope that they will soon settle in and let you teach, instead of babysit!

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    1. Already? He's at Carleton or Ottawa U already? Exciting changes, and how your home dynamics will have changed.
      And don't worry, eventually he'll run out of underwear and figure out how those machines work! ;-)

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  14. The photos themselves are like a deep breath, and I sit here feeling my nerves slow. Thank you.

    Your compassion and empathy for your students is so strong here and you remind me of my semester teaching language and writing skills to ESL students at one of the SUNY campuses. Then I was planning on a teaching career specializing in ESL, and had several years experience teaching English to various immigrant groups. Your students are much more advanced than mine were if they can even consider taking a regular class. Even so I marveled at my students, how much they had to overcome, their fierce determination, and I was at a fairly rural campus where the students were all housed in dormitories and the village was in walking distance. But the grocery stores were filled with white-bread-small-town-America supplies, and there were few reminders of home.

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    1. They amaze me, Mardel, the bravery and vulnerability. So young, so far from home, and taking a university level class in a language they have mastered less than I have French -- I can't imagine trying to follow a class in French. And then another one after that in a different subject. And another. And then go home to cook for myself with food I scarcely recognize. . .

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  15. Your kindness and sensitivity always shine through your posts and pictures. So glad that you have ways to soothe and invigorate your spirit. It is a challenge between too much and too little in every aspect of life.

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  16. Thanks, Jane. It is a constant challenge, isn't it?

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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