teaching

What I feel when faced with my sleep-deprived teenagers (not to mention their teachers)

Posted on 8 min read
The sun had set and so we hurtled down the mountain at great speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t click this shot.

When I was in Sicily I read a book about siestas1 and discovered that the siesta was, in the author’s opinion, the ideal time for either having sex or catching up on literature. It so happens that I once read a claim, in a Spanish newspaper, that the average Spaniard has more sex than the average Brit.

Maybe there’s some truth in the ‘more sex’ claim. After all, apparently 40% of Spaniards don’t read books and 35% only read one book a year,2 and yet many (at least here in the south) still do have some form of a siesta. Are they genuinely asleep, or maybe just watching day-time television? I wouldn’t want you to think that I was at all being scientific here. I’m not.

But some people are a bit more scientific about sleep than me

When he came to visit a few weeks back DeepThought brought with him a book entitled ‘Why We Sleep’ written by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.3 DeepThought has not been taking enough siestas recently, or at least he hasn’t been reading during them, because last year when I saw him, he had the same book in his hands.

You’d be wrong to deduct from this that the book is a bore

It’s not. However, if you are one of the many who don’t get enough sleep you might find it a horror.

DeepThought and I did a deal. I think he was feeling guilty for reading so slowly. In exchange for being allowed to read the book before he had finished it himself, I would summarise my learning for him. Perhaps a mistake on his part. I’m not sure if he started regretting lending me the book before or after I informed him that not getting his eight hours a night would shrink his testicles.

This article however is less about facts and more about feelings

Here I’ll combine a few thoughts on how I feel about sleep:

  1. The tiredness in school: teachers and students alike
  2. The anxiety connection – a spiral
  3. The sadness of ignorance and the hope of awareness

Monday morning arrives and I head to school

Teachers reluctantly gather in the staffroom bemoaning the coming of a new week. Supposedly in the morning we are taller than at night, but at 8:25 am they seem shorter, as if moving with a slight stoop, their limbs longing to lay back down.

They wanted, it seems, to stretch their weekend out into the last moment – those Saturday and Sunday moments with family and friends are so precious compared to the chore of the week. I remind myself that this career that they’ve chosen wasn’t forced upon them but was something that they spent many years training for. They’ve sat through countless exams to be allowed this opportunity to teach, and yet they are going to start their week wishing they didn’t have to.

It would seem surreal perhaps if it wasn’t so normalised

Last Monday morning one of the teachers I assist didn’t turn up, so I took the opportunity to sate my personal curiosity. I quizzed the class on their sleeping habits. I discovered that at the grand old age of seventeen, out of twenty-five or so students, only two had managed to get eight hours sleep the night before.

I wonder if I’m the only person in the school with a fresh memory of what maintaining 8 hours a night of sleep feels like. When was the last time many of these kids woke up fresh faced? Last summer perhaps, when they reportedly sleep a good proportion of the day.

I reassured them that it wasn’t their fault that they were sleepy at half past eight in the morning, that it was just their circadian rhythm being out of sync with the city’s Department of Education. And then I apologised for informing them that if they weren’t getting 8 hours of sleep a night then they’d have to study a whole lot more because their memories were leaking like a patched-up bucket and their creativity was as strong as soggy cardboard.

They stared at me as if this was the first time anyone had said anything positive about our biological need for sleep. In other words, like I was mad.

They understand, I think, that sleep has some value – they do apologise to me, from time to time, when their brains fail them mid-conversation. They explain that they are sleepy. Some days some of them look like they’re going to slump over my desk. And yet, they wouldn’t consider their sleeping patterns to be abnormal. They don’t recognise the value of applying some change.

The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more

When they talk about sleep, they at least talk from a perspective that they know they need to get more of it. The rhetoric is there even if there’s no follow up action. Societal norms call.

The students however are sceptical of sleep. Another girl described sleep as boring, as if the challenge was in fact to minimise the amount of sleep one could get by on because watching television or scrolling through Instagram is so much more exciting. One girl I asked talked about sleep being pointless because she wasn’t going to sleep anyway, she is too anxious to sleep.

Frankly, such attitudes terrify me

Being anxious, not sleeping enough, being more anxious, not sleeping enough… this is an interconnected spiral, and fighting this spiral becomes the central theme in some peoples’ lives. Bad sleep habits become ingrained and so freedom from anxiety, freedom to breathe easy, enjoy life and be creative is strangled.

If you are stuck in this spiral, then I feel for you.

And I feel helpless standing in front of the class knowing that sleep deprivation is so tightly linked to their mental health. These children are from a neighbourhood where the main industry is seasonal citrus picking, they are not privileged like me and their parents are not necessarily going to be able to fund their therapy and their recovery when tragedy occurs.

Bless their little cotton (or polyester) socks, because they’ve no idea what lays ahead

I am forever making mistakes when it comes to my mental health. Just this week I found myself fighting with an old friend and having to apologise for a badly worded comment to my sister. The friend was anxious and sleep-deprived, my sister was fretting, and I have been having nightmares.

Nightmares. And why, because I haven’t been honest enough with myself, because I haven’t been paying enough attention to my own emotional needs and in my own quickly spiralling way this of course meant that I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently which was making me grumpy and…

My body responds with a barrage of defences. I survive wonderfully, fighting down my foes, strategizing, analysing, making myself busy. And then I have a moment of realisation of what I’m doing to myself.

At this point I know I need to open up and slow down

I need to talk, and probably cry, and then I need to make the journey from my castle wall and back to my bed. I need to get my mind to somewhere safe where I can fall asleep and stay asleep because it’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can apply its magic. It’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can finally process how I’m feeling.

If that means I need a two-hour bedtime routine, so be it.

Nowadays I am slow to realise, but in the past I was totally ignorant of my needs

In the past I didn’t make the connection.

All suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction

The Dalai Lama

If I had been inflicting pain on others for my own happiness that would be a rather selfish and unkind way to be living, but the truth is that when I am ignorantly barraging myself against the world I’m not getting anywhere near happy. I’m occupied, busy, surviving, but happy… no.

Happiness comes from my moments of humility and generosity (to myself and to others) and depends on me having a gentle perspective of my state of being. There is no happiness when I am working from a place of defence.

And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly

However, I am learning more and more about how my body and my mind are intricately woven together each day. This opportunity to be a little less ignorant and a little more responsible for my words actions is a gift.

And hence, when I see the students being led by tired teachers to a belief that sleep is almost an enemy of a good life, I feel helpless and afraid for them. They joke about their sleep-deprivation, but I can’t bring myself to laugh.

Yet, I can make sure that when I turn up on a Monday morning, I am awake

And sometimes, when someone is tired, I can say something gentle with the hope it might one day sink in. When the teacher didn’t turn up the class decided that I would have to teach them instead. Thankfully I’d got a good night’s sleep and was feeling suitably creative so I set about improvising a class.

After quizzing everyone on their sleep I asked if anyone could remember dreaming the previous night. Two hands shot into the air. I smiled, took a deep breath and surmised that it was interesting that the two people in the class who had slept their eight hours had also remembered having dreams. A coincidence perhaps, or…

But that’s another article.

So, just to summarise what I’ve written here

  1. Sleepiness pervades society, making us all a little more stupid.
  2. The teenagers I teach are sleep-deprived and don’t see the connection with their own mental health.
  3. I am luckier, my luck is the gift of awareness. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I can recognise my unkindness as stemming from too few hours steadily sleeping.

The book ‘Why We Sleep’ is surprisingly non-lecturing

It’s sometimes even apologetic about the truths it breaks. It’s not one of these books that’s repetitive and fluffy. The author has a scientific way with words, being clear about causation and correlation and although the information he shares is sometimes horrifying, it doesn’t come across as sensationalist.

At the back of the book Matthew Walker includes a reprint of this list of tips for a better night’s sleep.4 You might want to check them out. After all, would you be happier if you got a little more sleep?

More information

  1. The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot (Translated from French). I apparently only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads so don’t consider this as a recommendation.
  2. An article on how the Spanish don’t read (in Spanish) I tried searching Google in English but only got results about Brexit…
  3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
  4. Tips on Sleep

How to teach a child public speaking (without pretense)

Posted on 7 min read
Poetry and flowers… I’m getting soppy.

She wasn’t one of my students

I generally teach the ‘bilingual’* half of the school and so we hadn’t met before. She tried speaking to me in Spanish, and I explained, in slow English, that I don’t speak Spanish. This is now a lie. I just don’t speak Spanish at school.

She nodded. She didn’t really speak English and yet, for whatever reason, she had decided that she needed to tell me that she was feeling nervous. The funny thing was that I was nervous too. I often feel nervous before standing up and speaking.

With the aid of some creative gestures and the assistance of another student we managed to communicate a little. But soon we were ushered towards the front of the hall, the seats were filling up and so we found ourself a place at the front facing our audience. I was given a seat, and the nervous girl and the student of mine who had asked me to partake in the event stood behind me. Both were visibly nervous.

In this short article I’m going to write about fear.

The group of students smelt of fear

This isn’t a smell I used to notice. I mean, I guess my body noticed, but cognitively I didn’t. They smelt something like the queue at airport security, but freshly so. Annoyingly my body was syncing up with theirs. Before entering the hall I hadn’t particularly been bothered about reading a poem. In fact I jokingly offered to do it in Spanish if my student read theirs in English.

However the tension of the students around me started getting to me. I smiled at them, told them to breathe deep. I took some deep breaths myself, sitting abnormally rigid in my seat, trying to pay attention to my fascinating body.

The poetry reading began

A microphone was handed to the first boy and he began his reading. After he finished I turned to the student who had asked me to read a poem in English for them and told her that I didn’t want to use the microphone. She gave me the look that said ‘it seems we’re using the microphone’.
I didn’t want to use the microphone.

The nervous girl was shaking. The microphone was passed to the next reader.

I contemplated the microphone

I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t trust it. Student after student lifted it to their mouths and spoke softly into it.

Then came the announcement that a poem would be read in English and Spanish. The student’s class and full name was read, and then my name, simply Catherine.

I took the microphone with a smile

As a rule I try to do all such things with a smile. Then I stepped into the centre of the stage and looked up at the students who were amassed in front of me. I knew the names of many of the faces. Every chair was taken and there was a gathering of teachers huddled at the back. I smiled at the students, gave a quick, but visible, playful frown at the microphone and held it out at a distance so it would be sure to not pick up my voice. Then I read the poem.

Slowly. Annunciating each word and throwing the sounds out to the very back of the hall, interrupting the whispered hisses of the teaching staff. The students listened. It wasn’t a beautiful reading, but it was purposeful. It commanded silence and it got it. When I looked up at the children, seated in their rows, I was surprised to see that they were grinning back. Rows and rows of them. I was so stunned they were paying attention I nearly forgot the last line.

When I took my seat, to a round of applause, my student who was reading the Spanish translation read her part. It was her second reading, but this was twice as loud as the first.

My work however was not yet complete

The nervous girl touched my shoulder and I turned to her amid the clapping.

“Look,” I said. And I held out my hand.

It was shaking

She stared at me amazed and I smiled at her. Her eyes widened with the sudden recognition of what I was trying to show her.

And then she took to the stage and gave the best reading of us all.

At this point, having told my story, I want to bring your attention to three specific factors:

1) I have an informal relationship with my students
2) This means I can be vulnerable around them
3) I’m teaching them how to overcome fear by demonstrating it myself

I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school

The children call me by my first name. Apart from the teacher who introduced the speakers, I was the only adult involved. I sat with the students and before and after the reading it was with the students that I chatted.

Generally the students know more about me than any of their other teachers, because rather than standing at the front of the class and giving instructions which they are then expected to follow, I engage them in a two way conversation.

One of the exam questions is, “Would you like to have a small or large family in the future?”

I’m expected to ask this personal question to a class of sixteen-year-olds, and they have no option but answer. Lying in a foreign language you don’t speak very well is surprisingly difficult. It’s a double translation. I regularly give them permission to lie to me, but I also try to respect that I have to earn the truth.

So while I ask questions, I also give example answers talking about myself. This is how I know the girls who write fan-fiction and the boy who plays in chess tournaments at the weekends, and they know I paint and write and take photos.

And that unlike my ancestors I’m not going to be having fourteen children. I’m already much too old.

I’m willing to show the children that I haven’t got everything in my life straightened out

Sometimes I ask students about their plans for the future, and they admit to worrying because they’re not certain. So I share that although I’m twice their age, I feel the same. I’m not certain where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five years from now, certainly not for the rest of my life.

When I showed the nervous girl my shaking hand I was telling her that she was not alone. Nerves are not something you necessarily grow out of, but you can change how you think about them. Many of these children have significant anxiety issues. They don’t have the skills to handle the constant internal fear they are generating.

So often we view our bodies as betraying us, letting us down

It’s easy to get angry at a shaking hand. Yes, my voice trembles sometimes. Sometimes my heartbeat is so forceful in my chest that I think other people must be able to see my rib cage reverberating. When I’m stood at the front of the class I have to take off a few layers because my body is wound up hot.

I used to see these behaviours of my body as a tremendous weakness

My body would overreact to ridiculous things. When my body would slam into panic attack mode I wasn’t exactly grateful. But then I recall that how my body has used these troublesome reactions to protect me, and I am grateful.

When I felt my hand shaking I didn’t see it as something that was going to stop me reading the poem I’d been asked to read. I saw it as a curiosity. I had a commitment to my students to fulfill but when I felt my shaking hand and I realised that this visible quiver could be an incredible teaching tool.
Without needing words, I said I see your fear, I know your fear, and I have faith in your ability to do stand up there and read your poem like it was written to be read.

And without needing words, the student simply said, I see your fear, and I believe you.

Which makes my informal, gentle approach, where I’m willing to open up a little and be realistic about my own uncertainty, worthwhile.

Which brings me to a final question

Why is such a simple approach remarkable?

I invite you to now read the poem I read by Rupi Kaur chosen by my students:

*The children are separated into bilingual and non-bilingual classes, based on a mixture of how good their grades are and how demanding their parents are willing to be. They all study English, but the bilingual students study an additional subject in English as well.