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Giving Ourselves a Break

From the very first semester I started teaching—all the way back in 1980—I remember how I felt when late December rolled around. We’d had a break or two since the semester had begun in August, but those were just a few days at the most. There were still papers to be graded and phone calls and messages from students to be answered. But I remember clearly turning in my grades on that rainy, cold December day, knowing that everyone was going home for the next three or four weeks, and that the college was closing. Of course, I still had to plan my classes for the spring semester, and eventually explain to at least a few students why they received the grade they had. But other than that, the craziness of the fall semester was over. Still, 40 years later, it’s one of the best of the many perks of working in education. After a long, often stressful, and definitely exhausting four months, everything just stops. People put out-of-office messages on their phones and their emails, they water the plants on their desks and empty their tiny office refrigerators, they exchange holiday greetings with co-workers, and—for the most part—they stop working. This year, of course, all of that is virtual, but the break is needed now more than ever.

The older I get, and the more I realize the preciousness of the moments that lie ahead, the less interested I am in trying to be the best worker in the room.

For many people, whether they work in education or not, the end of the calendar year marks a time of reflection and an end (or at least curtailment) to whatever bad habits they developed over the previous 52 weeks. If we’re lucky, we are in a situation in which we can literally turn things off and stop—or at least get a rest from all things work-related. Having been blessed to have a long career in education, I’ve come to look forward to this time and even to plan for it. Sometimes, just knowing I can lie on my couch and read, uninterrupted by guilt or to-do lists, helps me get through the last few crazy weeks of the semester.

And, as I’ve been mentally crossing days off the calendar, I’ve been thinking about how funny it is that we have to rely on an externally created and structured break to allow ourselves to rest. Although I hear about it from other people who do it, I’m normally terrible at blocking out a day or a weekend just for myself. Even if I say I’m going to do it, I have my phone in my hand most of the time, frequently checking it to see if there is something I really ought to do or respond to. If I do create a pause on a Sunday, by evening I’m in full dread mode because I haven’t prepared for the week ahead.

I’m probably making this sound worse than it is, but I can say pretty easily that resting and relaxing aren’t my strongest skills. It wasn’t something my family did, and I’ve always just plugged along until a break was called by an external force. Our system is designed this way, naturally, and so many systems probably wouldn't work very well if we all just took a breather when we felt like it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a bit of moderation, and work on being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving with ourselves going forward. When you think about it, beyond the eight or so hours that most of us are required to do our jobs or go to school, the rest of our schedules are up to us. This doesn’t account for child-rearing and household chores, of course, but we probably seek perfection in those areas much more than we need to.

The older I get, and the more I realize the preciousness of the moments that lie ahead, the less interested I am in trying to be the best worker in the room. I would feel a lot better, I think—and would certainly feel more relaxed and comfortable with myself—if I built in more of my own breaks. This year has been insane, for all of us. And, despite the presence of a vaccine, it seems like at least a part of next year will be similar. At this moment, though, most of us are getting a few days to rest, relax, enjoy our friends and family from a social distance, and reflect on what’s important to us. Time is at the top of that list for me—time to listen, look, laugh, appreciate what I can, and be kind to myself and others. May we all enjoy this brief rest so we're ready to greet 2021 with kindness, forgiveness, and grace.


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