I’m nervous. Like, pants-wettingly nervous about getting back into the classroom. Returning to school after a lengthy break throws my carefully crafted routine and sense of order into disarray. Who are my students? What lessons do I start off with? This fear has nothing to do with dread or avoidance; I love my job. There are few things I would rather do than read and write with students. My anxiety is a nefarious beast unconcerned with my actual feelings about my occupation. It’s a parasite intent on draining the joy from every vibrating cell in my body. By writing this piece I hope to create some distance between me and the anxiety that accompanies the days before children first arrive at school. Ideally other readers will pipe up and share their own back to school anxiety stories. If nothing else, I’m exorcising the demons.
Navigating a Field of Static
Part of my anxiety comes from my Herculean-strength ADHD. I love my personality, and my spastic nature is a big part of it. Being severely attentionally challenged can, however, have some drawbacks. First and foremost is the giant middle finger ADHD routinely flips to my executive functioning. Imagine trying to make your way through a confusing maze lit only by the rapid pulse of a giant strobe light. Your environment becomes an unanchored field of white noise. Grasping onto things is difficult without a perceptual home-base, a compass rose to keep you oriented and grounded. The only way I can make it through something successfully is by forming a strict routine. Routines are like trails of breadcrumbs that help me navigate the kaleidoscopic perception that is a hallmark of ADHD. The beginning of the school year has no trails of bread crumbs to follow. I don’t yet know what works and what to avoid. This lack of knowing creates a considerable amount of anxiety.
ADHD also makes it difficult for me to visualize things. Generating a mental image of how a lesson will go, for instance, is essentially impossible. It’s like trying to grasp onto a writhing electric eel when your hands are coated in industrial strength lubricant. While standing outside in the middle of a rainstorm. At night. My school year anxiety feeds off of my inability to know. How will the kids be? How will my lessons go? What should I say on the first day? Will my teammates and students enjoy working with me? I sit and worry, desperately trying to hold on to concrete thoughts as images evanescent vanish into the aether.
Impossible by Design
Perfectionism also plays a role in my pre-school nerves. I am a die-hard perfectionist. Whenever I hear people proclaim that they’re perfectionists, it’s often because they like doing an excellent job on things. For example, perfectionist teachers favor neat lines, symmetrical graphic organizers, and gestalt-pleasing color schemes. Nothing wrong there. A perfectionist simply wants, as Radiohead put it, “everything in its right place.”
This isn’t how my perfectionism works. I’m what paid professionals call a ‘maladaptive perfectionist.’ Being an M.P. means striving for unattainable goals and then feeling abysmal when you can’t reach them. It’s like Xeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles. No matter how hard I push myself, reaching the goals set by my maladaptive perfectionism is impossible. It’s a cynical, enervating, and seriously unfun process. Every day becomes a marathon of trying to outrun an ever-growing horde of angry mistakes. According to the internet, teachers make around seven decisions per minute. If only one of those decisions ends up being a mistake, the maladaptive perfectionist feels bad about themselves at least once a minute. With five 45-minute classes a day, that’s a lot of needless suffering.
Worrying does not equal problem solving, as any intro level anxiety/OCD workbook will tell you. I want to do right by the children so badly it aches. I’m afraid of messing up and making mistakes, but I know that embracing failure is an essential part of living a fulfilling and productive life. That knowledge doesn’t hold up well against the imagined flood of mistakes brought by a new school year.
A Teacher Identity in Constant Flux
The final explanation for my elephantine first-day jitters is an ongoing ontological crisis of faith. Propelled by an out-of-whack desire to improve, I try to inhale professional literature at a stupefying rate. I feel that I’m always on the verge of something. If I could just read one more book or post I’ll be able to better serve my students, I tell myself. But it’s never enough. Not only is it not enough, it’s not even that helpful. My brain can only keep track of so many theories and paradigms at once before throwing its hands up in revolt.
I remember an interview with musician Kirk Hammett about the dichotomy of practice vs. performance. The Metallica guitarist explained he approached his practice sessions with alacrity. He dutifully went through his scales, rehearsed disparate styles, and jammed with new players. But when it came time to make music live and in the moment, he preferred just to let it rip. He allowed the music to funnel through his fingertips without worrying about playing in a specific mode or genre. Learn everything you can, but throw everything out the window when it’s time to perform. This is how I want to approach the new school year. I’ve done my reading and studied the masters. Now it’s time to get out there and set it off.
Everything always turns out fine, of course. Better than fine I would say. I love my job and I love working with the amazing students and teachers at my school. I have a supportive administration that gives me the freedom to be a professional and run my class in accordance to my beliefs. Perhaps this is what I need to focus on as the first day draws near. I’ll celebrate past successes and look forward to future victories knowing that ground underneath me won’t give way. No matter what my ADHD and perfectionism say, I have to know that everything will turn out just fine. It always does. So for every teacher that’s already started, enjoy this moment! I’ll be watching from the side waiting for my turn to let it rip.
Thanks for reading!