I suffer with anxiety, I have my whole life. When I was a teen I remember being physically ill with anxiety (mostly related to school). Recently my anxiety level reached a point that triggered intense panic attacks and major depression. This was a bittersweet experience for me. Of course it was terrible feeling that way and my teaching suffered greatly. I was no longer able to look my students in the eye as I just went through the motions of trying to keep it all together. With the help of my wife and my doctor I have been able to regain some semblance of control over my mind and have begun the real hard work of fixing the problem. When I take the time to reflect I can see signs of my anxiety level rising long before now. I actually had a panic attack this summer and nearly missed my first moderating responsibility at the Reform Symposium.
So what has happened? What has pushed normal, everyday stress to completely absurd levels? I wish I could say. I wish I could pinpoint it so I could eliminate it. But the truth, if I am honest with myself is that it is not a thing… it is everything. I am complicit in creating a life filled with tiny little things, each of which I grant a modicum of importance. Each of these things require a bit of my concentration until I am not able to concentrate at all. What I’m recounting here isn’t groundbreaking, in fact this phenomenon has been explored with reputable research. My brain has changed and I am going to fight to get it back.
What does any of this have to do with education you might ask? I think that the issue of presence, and how it has been robbed from us is at the fundamental core of what is simultaneously wrong and right with education. What I mean by presence is the ability to be truly and wholly in the moment, engaged in what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. Think about the simple ways this applies in the classroom. All of us have the desire to be truly invested in what we are teaching but many of us have been asked to shoulder a greater burden as staffs contract. Many of us are teaching four or maybe even five classes in a row. How many times do we think of what is coming up in the following period as we are teaching? This momentary thought pulls at our concentration and robs us of presence. I often ponder these smaller, unintended consequences that have come about as the educational system is gutted by short-sighted bureaucrats.
But I digress (I am an English teacher after all). For me he biggest metaphorical poster boy for this intrusion into presence has been my phone. I happen to own an iPhone, but I am certain the metaphor holds true for other smartphones as well. When I first got the phone I was transfixed, as apparently the rest of the nation was as well with how connected you could be. As the phone evolved I began to ask what I was being connected to. The phone was beeping or buzzing or dinging or boinging every other minute informing me of something. Each sound was connected to a unique event and my brain was trained to recognize the difference. When the email alert would go off it would activate my brain, and I would begin to ask questions like “who could it be from”, or “what could they want”. Once my brain was activated in that way I was pulled out of presence.
As a symbol of wanting to reconnect in a real way with my students, my wife, my children, myself I deactivated all push notifications on my phone. Beyond that I turned all notifications to manual. I’ve done the same with my computers as well. Now the only time my phone makes a noise is when it rings. I know what you are saying, why not just get rid of that iPhone? Have you played Angry Birds? But seriously… baby steps. Lets get back to sitting next to our students, or crouching next to their desks until our legs burn. Let’s take the time it takes. If those things that are interrupting you are so important… why aren’t you doing those things? This is how we will learn to love what we do again, because when you peel away all of the crap that is thrown at us teaching is about relationships. It always has been, and those damn noises and what they represent are keeping them from us.