Teaching & Tiredness

This week I started teaching my annual summer school. It lasts six weeks, in two three-week blocks.

The course uses London’s museums and galleries to teach mostly young international students about art and art history and history. Meanwhile, in tandem with another tutor, the students use the speaking, listening, writing and presenting opportunities of the course to improve their English skills.

It’s difficult to explain to people who don’t teach just how demanding, responsible and exhausting it is (as well as being fun, fulfilling, noble etc.) Every sentence you utter as a teacher requires some kind of consideration and preparation. Meanwhile, it has to be engaging and therefore appear spontaneous.

Holding the attention of a large group, in a class, or in a museum (sometimes crowded and noisy, sometimes empty and quiet), or sitting in the shade of a tree in a park also requires a  a special skill and energy (a way of speaking, using your eyes, moving your head, your hands). To a passer-by it might just seem like chatting, but it is far more than that.

It also requires  a certain ethical motivation to make sure that no teaching and learning opportunity is wasted, and that everyone present is getting an equal opportunity to get as much as they can out of the event.

I always tell the students of this course that they are very fortunate to be studying in London, not classroom-bound in a provincial college dependent upon projected slides, nor in a city that less well stocked than London with world-class museums and artifacts.

By the end of the week I feel excited about the course, the new group of students, the museums, the artifacts, the conversations and ideas. But I also feel exhausted, according to that deep, deep form of tiredness that you only begin to encounter in middle-age, a kind of tiredness that one night’s sleep, or even a weekend’s rest doesn’t seem to compensate for.

I spent large parts of my life listlessly unemployed, and other parts involved in manual or low-skilled labour. Nowadays, I use my ‘head’ to make my living.

This is something that I remember dreaming about in a school playground when I was about twelve years old, musing to myself : “what if you could make a living by thinking?” while most of the boys around me were indulging in fighting, to establish hierarchies according to a crude kind of ‘strength’.

My ‘head’ must be pretty strong by now, but it sill doesn’t feel hard. I’ve been working it hard and paying the rent with it for twenty years now, working ‘full-on’ as a very busy teacher, and, when not teaching, writing seriously enough to produce about 150 professional pieces, including several articles for referee journals, plus a few self-published artists’ books that double as essay collections.

Still, the strange kind of exhaustion that results from teaching, and which is so hard to describe or justify and explain to others, does seem to be based in the brain.

On returning from work I often say “my brain feels fried“, and go and lie down, but usually sleep doesn’t come, proof perhaps that this is a kind of stress as much as any physical kind of exhaustion.

And stress has the insidious property of filling us with a kind of negative energy that refuses rest, even though, and even when we are both physically and mentally depleted.

I’ll illustrate this week’s post with a link to a nice song about sleep.




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