The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teacher’s brain on a typical school day

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Julie Rine Holderbaum is a high school English teacher in Minerva, Ohio, who is now in her 26th year of teaching. One recent day, she said, she went home after teaching and found herself thinking this: “All I did all day today was question every single step I took. And then I realized that pretty much every day was like that — nonstop.”

So she sat down to write about it, and in the following post, she gives a glimpse into a teacher’s brain on a typical school day. Spoiler alert: It’s exhausting.

Holderbaum told me in an email:

“It saddens me that so many of us are living this exhausting life, but I found out I am certainly not alone in feeling like all I do is second-guess myself and analyze every move I make all day. I don’t want to come across as someone who hates her job. All I ever wanted to be was a teacher. I never had a Plan B.

“The job has just changed so much over the years. It was never easy, but it wasn’t quite this mentally exhausting. The questions I asked myself about how to best present information were intellectually challenging in the past, but I liked that challenge. Now it feels like the kids need so much more from us than academic lessons, and it places more importance on every move a teacher makes. Despite having to provide so much more than academics to our kids, we are still judged by the standardized tests and the data they provide.”

Read the piece with the 117 questions she asked herself that day, and at the end I list some subjects she said she thought about but didn’t include. She published this on the Ohio Education Association website and gave me permission to use it.

No, the teachers are not okay

By Julie Rine Holderbaum

Is Michael acting off today? Is he tired or just depressed? Should I pull him out into the hall and ask him if he’s okay or would it be worse to draw attention to him? Should I call home? Have his grades been slipping? Did he do the assignment that was due for me today?

Does Becky have her cellphone in her lap? Why isn’t it in the slot with the others? Is it worth calling her out on it? Right now or later, privately? Either way, do I want to risk setting her off when she’s been doing so well and we seem to be forging a tentative relationship? Is it a big deal if she isn’t actually using it? Has she been using it and I just haven’t seen it happen?

Why isn’t the Chromecast working? Why would it work last period and not this period? Is the Internet down?

Why are we either freezing or frying? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to regulate the heat in our own rooms?

Will I be accused of teaching divisive concepts if I lead a discussion about why we are not going to say the n-word out loud when we read “Of Mice and Men”? Will the kids go home and tell their parents what we talked about? Do kids still do that? Do parents still ask? Is this book worth the battle it might lead to or should I just teach “Fahrenheit 451” instead? Wouldn’t that be ironic? Isn’t this exactly what those who scream about critical race theory being taught want? For teachers to fear the repercussions and give in to temptation to just teach “safe” material instead? So that the status quo will keep on keeping on and generations of kids will continue to grow up in the dark about so much of the ugly side of America’s history? Is it worth the fight this might bring? Well, it’s obviously worth the fight, but am I mentally and emotionally up for this battle, this year especially?

More important, will my Black students be uncomfortable if their White teacher leads this discussion in class? I know enough not to ask a Black student to speak on behalf of an entire race, but would it be okay to privately ask a Black student how they would feel about this book or that sort of discussion?

Should I grade these 45 quick 10-point responses first or 25 longer essays? Go back and forth between the two? Am I fair to every student when I don’t grade an assignment all at once? Do I grade the first essays harder or easier than the last ones?

Why do I feel guilty when I take points off for not capitalizing “I” or proper nouns? Why don’t they click on the squiggly lines and fix their typos/spelling/grammar errors when the computer is literally marking them for them? Why are they still making these basic mistakes when we have gone over them so many times? Do they just not care about their grades? Do they even go back and read my comments and look at why they lost points? Is this an academic issue or a motivation issue or a self-worth issue? Do we need to do more lessons on catching these mistakes, or do I need to talk with them about the importance of the impression of themselves they put out into the world? Is it unfair for a student to earn a C for a grade when the content of their work is probably at a B or even an A level, but their spelling and grammar mistakes are so ubiquitous and egregious that they lose points on every assignment? Is it asking too much of them to CLICK ON THE DANG SQUIGGLY LINES?

Am I becoming the old cranky English teacher who nitpicks and loses sight of the big picture? Am I too tired for this job? Am I becoming too cynical? Are my standards too high? Haven’t I lowered them since I began teaching all those years ago, though? Should I have?

School superintendent asks: ‘Who would want to be a teacher right now?’

Should I work through lunch or head to the workroom? Will I feel better if I have a half-hour of adult conversation or if I get more of these papers graded? Do I need to make any hard copies of the handout for next period? Did I remember to upload the video and Google doc to Google Classroom for the kids who are absent?

Is that yelling in the hallway? What’s going on? Did one of you just call the other a b----?

Why are the kids behaving like this this year? Is it covid-related? Or just the stress of covid-19 plus all the other division and dissension in society that we are all contending with?

Does that kid who just smiled at me and said “Hey, Ms. H!” have any idea how much I needed that friendly smile right now?

Why is the office calling down that long list of kids? Are they getting quarantined and sent home? Wait, they don’t have to stay home anymore, but they have to wear masks now, right? Will we get a list of kids who are supposed to be wearing masks for two weeks? How will I keep track of that? How many more times can I say “pull your mask up over your nose” before I start inserting curse words into that sentence?

Do I have time to run to the bathroom between classes? Risk someone being in the single-stall teacher bathroom or go to the student bathroom further away? Is that crying in the next stall? Hey, are you all right? Do you need to talk? Which class do you have right now? Can I walk you down to the guidance office? (Will my class of freshmen be okay if I get there a little late?)

Can we settle down and get started, please? Where is your Chromebook? Why isn’t it charged? Where is your charger? Why haven’t you borrowed one from the library then?

Is this email for real? Are they kidding with this? Another meeting? A new book study? This year of all years? Don’t we have enough to do? Can’t they just give us more time to plan or collaborate with each other on the ACTUAL work that needs done?

Am I getting sick or am I just exhausted? Is my throat sore from talking so much today or because I’m coming down with something? Will they be able to find a sub if I stay home tomorrow? What am I teaching tomorrow? Is it something I can adapt easily for a sub or will I need to come up with something new? How much will that impact my plans for the rest of the week? (Why can’t I be more of a Type B teacher?) Isn’t it just easier to suck it up and go to school with a cold? But what if it’s covid-19?

Is that an email from a parent? Do I have the energy to deal with that tonight? Why are they emailing me so late?

Where is that info about the poetry contest? When was the deadline? How did I not know until now what a great writer Jane is? Is it too late for her to enter the contest?

Oh no, Michael didn’t do the assignment; is it too late to call home tonight or should I wait and call from school tomorrow? Do his parents work during the day? Do they support his use of he/him pronouns? Do I need to refer to him as Michelle when I talk to them?

Why am I watching the news? Is the legislature seriously going to try to pass that? Do they have any clue how that will impact teaching and learning? Why do the people with the power to address some of the problems always seem to arrive at “solutions” without asking educators for feedback? Don’t they realize that only leads to more issues?

Oh my God, another one? How many school shootings does that make this year?

Are all teachers as overwhelmed and exhausted as I am?

Does anyone care what teachers are going through in this country?

When is someone going to do something about it?

Imagine a class with 25 kids — and all of their parents insist on telling the teacher what to teach

Here are some of the things that Holderbaum did not include above but said she thought of that same day: Questions I ask myself during taking attendance or while presenting a lesson, what I ask when I’m planning lessons that has to do with special ed students and changing a lesson plan to make it more covid-19 safe (for example, no more group escape boxes, instead online individual escape rooms), questions I ask about individual students and what I know about their home lives, etc.