The Strange Side Effects of So Much Meaning

Angela Buzan Education, Life in the Classroom

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A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to deliver something to her office birthday party. I agreed because I’m kind of kind and but mostly curious—I wanted a peek into how “real” professionals gather.

The biggest take away: bad energy—I live in Flagstaff, so I get to say that with a serious face— and no joy, just simple small talk and no-facial-expression cake chewing. The apathy was so distracting, I couldn’t help but picture the same party with a bunch of teachers. I did the Dorothy Leaves Kansas thing and mentally superimposed my teacher friends over their boring doppelgängers. I envisioned zealous hellos, loud hugs, and a steady stream of genuine compliments and thank yous. One blink and I was back with the well-dressed office zombies.

To be a teacher is to be constantly immersed in meaning. We are ever vigilant of our duty to incite enthusiasm, reinforce morale, and encourage action. When we are together, we are together. We collaborate, we praise, we debate, we empathize. We are threaded and embedded in extravagant, extroverted excitement.

There are strange side of effects of all of this meaning. We come home a frayed and frazzled version of the shiny person we were at work. We stare blankly at our phones. We eat too many cookies on the couch. We speak without facial expression. We become poorly pajama-ed home zombies.

In a deep, dark poem about burn out, Charles Bukowski once wrote “drink from the well of yourself and begin again”. He meant, I think, that the well runs dry for all of us—and that it does so often. It is our responsibility to mentally refill it, drawing always on our finest mental talents. Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of Headspace, might say it a little differently: “sit back, relax, and refill with liquid sunshine…”.

Perhaps my favorite example of this kind of recharge came, of course, from Dr. Kathy Wiebke. There were twenty or so teachers huddled around a wooden conference table, heatedly trying to solve the teacher shortage crisis, student access to highly accomplished teachers, abysmal realities of state funding, and other tiny topics. We’d been at it for hours and were at the point where Misha suggests puppies and Donnie starts stealing candy, when Kathy said: “okay, okay, okay. Let’s break. Just… go play.” Everyone laughed and she said, “I’m serious, play is important. Go be silly. Relax. Have fun. Come back tomorrow creative and fresh. We’ll relook at this with different eyes in the morning. And Donnie, put that back.”

It echoes with me sometimes when I turn off the lights in my classroom: “go play”. It reminds me to make waffles for dinner, or have a dance party with my dog and daughter, or agree—even when I really, really, really don’t feel like it—to go on a long hike in the woods with my husband.

For children, play is essential to building cognitive neural networks for problem solving, emotional processing, and confidence. It releases stress and inspires imaginative thinking, action, and communication. For adults, play is essential for perspective. It inspires coping skills, reflection, and connection. Albert Einstein may have said it best: “play is the highest form of research”, but Roald Dahl said it more simply, “Life is more fun when you play.”

So if you’re in a spot where the meaning is congealing and the well has run dry, break. Go scare your dog. Buy a Whoopee Cushion at the dollar store. Tickle your kids. Have a little fun and refill.





Angela Buzan is a full time English teacher in the Flagstaff Unified School District. She has thirteen years’ teaching experience and has taught all grades seven through twelve. In 2010, she received a Fulbright Teacher Exchange fellowship to Kolkata, India; in 2012 she achieved National Board Certification; in 2014 she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Design and Instruction. Her current challenge is to out-read Gavin, in third period, who typically polishes off three novels a week.

Comments 1

  1. Sandy Merz

    I often think about other professions, particularly in the context of how many teachers think other professions have it all so much better. It always remind me of the movie Stigmatica. A priest is talking to a woman who asks him if he ever misses you know what. He answers that he wasn’t always a priest and that he does. But he considers he’s exchanged one set of complications for another.

    This year has been pretty rough with a lot of discipline issues. The other day a student, whom I like very much said she wanted to change her schedule and go with the other math teacher. I asked why and she said they have fun because every Wednesday they play a game. I said, “You want games, you got games.” The last two Wednesdays we’ve played some kind of content oriented game. When they get a correct answer, someone on the team throws a little ball and if they make it in the “basket” their team gets the points. The winning team doesn’t have to do the next week’s review homework. At the end of the period, I take a long shot and if I make it, no one has to do the assignment. I really really want to make a shot but haven’t yet. Regardless, the fun has had a more positive effect on management and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s happier the rest of the days.

    Next week, I’m going to try something different. Instead of a math game, I’ll set a behavioral goal: A significant reduction in offensive language. Classes that meet the goal will go on the field Friday and play Human Foosball. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a hoot.

    Thanks for reminding us that a precursor to dysfunctional is being dysFUNctional.

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