One area I am particularly interested in researching is how the arts can help people deal with burn out. I have a personal interest in this because I frequently feel totally burned out.
After weeks of feeling good, somewhat on top of things, the bottom suddenly fell away and I was devoid of energy, irritable, and uninterested in doing any of my usual activities, much less following through with my responsibilities. This happens to me a lot, and always my first thought is that I need to rest. And so I do. And instead of feeling refreshed, I feel even worse: depressed, lethargic, and in pain from not moving anything except the arm that aims the remote control.
So when I was struck with this situation earlier this week, I thought, hey! I should do some art! Except I couldn't think of anything less appealing than making art. So instead I indulged my feelings of dread that I would feel like crap forever, and that this is my new normal!
This is my usual cycle when I am down.
...and climbing back up
Many authors and mentors say that in this situation, it is best to just deeply accept how you are feeling without trying to fix it or change it. I've never really taken that advice. But I tried it. Instead of reacting to feeling down by slothing, fake cheering, caffeine-ing, complaining or depressing, I just took a deep breath, remembered that I do this sometimes, and stopped fighting it and went about my normal day, still feeling down but at least without the constant inner beratement I give myself that I should be feeling different. It was an okay day.
The next day was one of those days. A truly awful day of teaching. The kind that had me literally praying for help, strength, an escape hatch, anything. This type of awful day is motivating for me in a desperate, fight-or-flight kind of way. All those ideas and dreams I have take on a sudden vibrant importance because they look like the only way out of a teaching career I may not be suitable for. And so, though I was tired and not in the mood, I decided to see what would happen if I took the time to make art. How would it affect my mood? Could I make art specifically about my bad day? And will art making have any residual effect on my teaching the next day?
Art helps! Movement and painting.
I invited my son and daughter to join me. I tried to entice my son to mess around with Garage Band, but he declined. Someday. My daughter gave me one of those looks that I really didn't expect to see until see she is a pre-teen, but then she joined me.
I put some music on and did some dancing. I really love to dance and do movement, but it is hard to write about it without sounded like a jerk. But seven year olds, when they drop their attitudes, they totally get it. I felt a little twinge of sadness, knowing that this precious time of spontaneous creativity with my daughter might not be possible in a few years. While I danced and wondered if the neighbors could see me, she gathered art supplies to decorate the cover of her very own sketchbook. Later I laid out a tarp and did a very large, very odd painting with tempera paint. It felt good, just to make stuff, to move, to have a companion happily making her own stuff.
As I did the movement, I did think about my tough day, and what makes teaching tough for me in general. This gave me a visual which I did in my sketchbook. The large painting was totally intuitive and had nothing to do with my day at all, just pure paint play.
Today when I got to work, I saw a group of kids taking pictures of a double rainbow. As I walked to my classroom, a few of my students called to me and asked if I saw it, big smiles on their faces. Its the kind of interaction that makes me love teaching and in particular, love the age group that I teach, where there is still that childlike enthusiasm and willingness to be seen talking to an adult authority figure. I felt genuinely happy to see my students, to watch them work on their projects. I was patient and calm, and so were most of my students.
It is too soon to say whether this good day was caused by the fact it was a Friday, the rainbow, the end of my down cycle, or the art making from the night before. I pondered it throughout the day. For sure, when I am relaxed and feel good, I interact with my students and my own children very differently. Kids pick up on the vibe. So it is no stretch at all to see how the art making relieved stress and that being more relaxed carried though to the classroom the next day.
Many activities relieve stress. Is there anything unique to the creative process beyond stress relief? Can nurturing my own artist self make me a better teacher beyond being more relaxed? I know that the more I understand my own art making, the more I understand what I teach...but is there anything else I get from art making, beyond the content and processes of the arts? Another dimension, perhaps a spiritual dimension? I know my own answers to these questions, but I don't fully step into those answers.