Monday, July 6, 2009

Movin' on out

Apologies for the sparse blogging. We're in the midst of move-out and things are alternately so hectic we can't blog and so dead we can't bring ourselves to do anything but recover. It's run, run, run, and then play video games for four hours straight to anesthetize our brains.

So that this post won't be a total waste of space - I was ruminating on this end-of-year stress in the context of a topic called allostatic load - apologies for a Wikipedia link on a medical topic, but it's the only thing written in manageable English. This is the idea, as my mangled history-major brain processed it, that when you're chronically under stress, your body remains at an elevated level of stress hormones regardless of whether or not the immediate circumstances call for it. If anybody reads this with medical info (Mike?) and can elaborate or correct me, go for it. I'll come to your blog and proofread your assertions about 19th century military terminology.

Allostatic load has been studied in female teachers and found to be connected to exhaustion and health conditions. The abstract, which I confess is not only all I read, but all I'm likely to understand, can be found here. Another study found that both male and female teachers suffering from high stress did not show reduced blood pressure during less stressful evening (off-work) hours; the researchers theorize that allostatic load keeps blood pressure high regardless of immediate stimuli. Again, abstract only, can be found here.

It piqued my interest for many reasons. One is the long-debated question of how long a summer vacation should be, or indeed whether a vacation of any length is ideal for learning. I can tell you right away that if I did not have summer off, my teaching would rapidly drop to what Harry Wong calls "survival mode" teaching: movies, handouts, reading; whatever it takes to get through the period. Psychologically, by the end of the year, I have ceased to feel "fresh." Major projects and innovative unit ideas - a Casablanca essay on political symbolism cross-curricularized with English, or a demographic study of correlation and causation using CIA World Factbook and Microsoft Excel - would disappear from my curriculum on the grounds that "I just don't have the energy."

(I know, I know - teachers get more vacation hours than other jobs. .But having been in both a desk job - consulting - and secondary teaching, I can make a pretty good comparison. Justin and I calculated once that with after-school activities, grading, and lesson planning, we often worked a sixty-five or seventy hour week, which means that every week, we nearly doubled a standard forty hour workweek. By the end of the school year, we've already worked those twelve weeks off, plus extra. And hours spent in front of kids are more intense than hours spent at a workplace surrounded by adults by a factor of a squillion. You must watch every single word that comes out of your mouth, lest you be responsible for somebody's childhood trauma. You must be eternally positive and optimistic - try asking for THAT from a typical workplace. You have to have enough energy to drag students with you into whatever you're teaching. It's like being on stage for nine hours straight.)

Pardon the derailment. Anyway. Another reason I'm interested in allostatic load is that it provides physical data to back up that psychological feeling of fatigue. I've spent the last two afternoons flat on my back; migraine yesterday and sinus/weather headache today. I've probably slept twenty-six hours out of the last forty-eight. I like allostatic load because it proposed the idea that I'm in some form of stress-hormone detox, as opposed to the idea that I'm just a wussbag who needs to get up and do something productive.

So. Summer vacation - maybe not perfect for students (although there are allostatic load studies of young people, which I haven't examined, which may support the thoery that they too need time to detox from stress). But as a teacher, I would not be able to survive without it. You don't want pilots flying your planes without sleep. You don't want doctors doing surgery every day, even if there are enough patients. Do you want your kids taught by people who are concentrating on standing in front of the class without falling over?

PS. No medical skills. No medical abilities. No information about allostatic load other than what's cited here. But if it's not allostatic load kicking my backside, it's sure something.

1 comment:

Anthony Sebastian (TonySeb) said...

Regarding: "....a topic called allostatic load - apologies for a Wikipedia link on a medical topic, but it's the only thing written in manageable English."

Citizendium has a draft article in progress you might find interesting and informative: http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Allostasis_and_allostatic_load.

No apologies needed for citing Citizendium.