Fumes

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As the end of a term approaches, I often tell my students about the inverse relationship between student stress and instructor stress that surrounds finals week. While students are busy cramming for exams and finishing final projects, we instructors are usually taking as much me-time as we can to help us recharge our batteries, because just as soon as our students finish all that final work, we’re called into action one last time to get everything graded, final grades calculated, and all the associated paperwork taken care of, usually on a very tight deadline. The moment students turn in that final work is the fulcrum, as once they’re off recuperating from the hard work they’ve put in to get to that point, we instructors have one last race to engage in, a days-long sprint to the finish line of our own responsibilities for the term. (Good instructors will reflect on their previous term’s performance to figure how they can be more effective later on, of course, but that process isn’t on as strict of a deadline as final grades are.)

In some ways, the unique structure of this semester should have made it easier for me to transition into that lull before finals week began today. I taught like usual on Monday and Tuesday of last week, then I still had to be accessible to students on Wednesday, but my one regular class was just a peer review session; I was available to students on Zoom to answer questions during class time and my usual virtual office hours, but I didn’t have any material to go over. Thursday and Friday were both days off (instead of taking a traditional week-long spring break this year, five days off were sprinkled throughout the second half off the semester), and while I had some online appointments with students on Thursday, this past Friday was a furlough day for me, and I wasn’t even supposed to check my work email all day long to make sure I wouldn’t do work that I wasn’t being paid to do.

I had thought that the gradual easing of my professional responsibilities last week would have made it possible for me to have a more fulfilling weekend here, to be able to take some personal time so I’d be ready for this final week of helping students with last-minute concerns and getting ready for the crush of student work I’ll have to grade starting this coming Saturday. Instead, from the moment that I held my last virtual office hours of the term on Wednesday afternoon, I felt like a total and complete zombie. Even as I finally started catching up on sleep, and even as I pumped myself full of caffeine and sugar, I felt so out of sorts that I didn’t trust myself to do much of anything there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted at the end of a term before, and this all happened despite the fact that I was able to slowly pull myself out of the rigmaroles of teaching last week, instead of just stopping on a Friday like I’m used to doing.

To be sure, this wasn’t an ordinary semester by any stretch of the imagination. On top of dealing with the ongoing difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s touched on so many aspects of our lives, not to mention all the other current events of the past few months, I’ve also had more than my fair share of personal issues to deal with, not the least of which was the twentieth anniversary of the house fire yesterday. This has also been the busiest semester of my teaching career in terms of the number of credit hours I’ve been teaching, and even taking into account some of the conveniences of teaching all of my classes online, I’ve had to juggle a lot more clubs this semester than I’m used to, and that has definitely worn me down as well. (I also haven’t been getting as much exercise as I should be, and I have no one but myself to blame for that.)

I find it hard to believe that I’m the only instructor who feels this way right now, and once I get done with all my final grading here, I’m probably going to take some time to hop on social media and get my suspicions either confirmed or denied. Somehow, though, I have a feeling that nearly all of us, not just teachers, are worn out right now, and we’re going to need to take much better care of ourselves during these crucial summer months. (I’ve got a summer course to teach this year, but I don’t anticipate that being a significant drain on me. If nothing else, summers where I don’t teach often feel awkward, so having those classes to look forward to might elevate my mood a little.)

The only bit of good news is that I woke up today feeling better; not having to get up to an alarm as the sun rises on a Monday morning probably helped a lot with that. I’m still feeling like I’m running on fumes, but for most of this past weekend, I wasn’t even sure that I had fumes left to run on. The real end-of-term stress for me starts in a few days, but even as I still work this week to answer student emails and take care of campus paperwork, I’m clinging onto my improved energy and focus here today as a reason for hope that maybe I can get through these last responsibilities for the semester and still feel like something resembling a human being at the end of it all. I can only hope that my students feel the same way after they turn in all their final papers to me at the end of this week. They absolutely deserve to feel better as well.

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