It happened at my desk last Wednesday afternoon. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I was well into it. I was swiveling back and forth in my chair. Back and forth, back and forth. My eyes were glazed over as my stare moved with the turn of my seat. My eyes went from pile of papers to my right, to my work phone, cell phone and center phone – with some of the lights flashing, indicating voice messages. I wasn’t processing anything, just maintaining a blank look with my eyes. My gaze moved with my chair toward the two monitors. One screen had 30 unanswered emails. The other screen had a checklist. Along the bottom of the first screen, there were more windows open; word documents and excel spreadsheets.
I continued turning in my chair until my gaze settled on another stack of papers. This one had a couple of manager meeting agendas, more checklists, three or four pamphlets that required reading, and other random papers because I had no more desk space. There was my notebook too, which contained writings about teacher requests, supply requests, meeting to-dos, and several sticky notes.
That’s probably when I checked out. I went inside my head and completely withdrew from reality. Not in an emotional way or insane way. It’s that feeling you get when you’re go, go, go, but you don’t realize that you’ve already expelled all of your energy and adrenaline. Your mind just stops thinking because it can no longer juggle the hundreds of things you’re trying to keep in the air.
Back and forth, back and forth I went in my chair. I don’t even remember what I was thinking about. Nothing I think. Not a thought went through my head. My mind was saying “Stop. Just stop,” and commanded my hands and arms to stop typing, settling on my lap.
Back and forth, back and forth… couple of seconds pass before I have my first conscious thought. “I need a break.” I packed up and took my lunch. An extra long lunch. Coffee, then picked a high hill with a spectacular view of the city, and listened to smooth jazz as the ocean breeze swept through my car. Perhaps I needed to complete a “personal” task before handling any others.
Moral of the Story: Take breaks.
You ever spaced out? It looks different for everyone. The physical and mental weight of preparing and launching a new school year, paired with a relentless drive to get things done, and then you find that you’ve been running on empty for a couple of hours.
I call it spacing out, but there are other names. I’ve used Zombie mode, checking out, and autopilot to convey that I was mindlessly doing work without thinking, going through the motions but not really getting anything done. I’ve gone through the same thing as a teacher. At the end of a long, thoroughly exhausting day, you spend the last hour at your desk reading meaningless Yahoo articles and refusing to acknowledge the large pile of student work stacked off to your side. You’re not even intentionally procrastinating, and you don’t even really care about the “4 Degrees to Avoid” article you’re reading. You just want to stop thinking about thinking. Yeh – thinking about thinking. It just all needs to stop.
At this point, take a break. That’s your mind and body telling you to stop. It’s not a time to power through the mental wall. Unplug from the computer screen, get up from your desk and head outside. I like to drive in my car and feel the cool SF air flow through, as if it’s cleansing my psyche. Pair the wind with an iced caffeinated beverage and I’m on the road back to reality.
When I get back, I’m no longer spaced out. I’m still stressed, yes. But at least I’m in a way better position to get things done and think intentionally. I mean, I’m a center manager of a preschool. Not easy and I’m the one that signed up for the job.
Being overwhelmed is a part of teaching and education. It’s going to happen. You can’t control everything, but you can control how you respond.