The Power of Pause

It's October, although here in mid-Missouri it's having trouble acting like fall.  Yesterday's high was 85.  Lately, I've found myself drifting off into daydreams where I live in a small cottage tucked into the towering orange and red maple trees of Vermont.  It has a huge gray stone fireplace and big windows overlooking the mountains.  A velvety couch has cozy throws and pillows.  And it's always raining and blustery outside so I have to stay in this warm, dry room with its soft candle glow.  I have on a sweater. I'm reading a book.  I'm holding my favorite butter yellow mug and drinking steaming French vanilla coffee.

It's not just the weather that's calling me into this fantasy retreat.  It's the general busy-ness of life.  School is full of endless learning targets, lessons planning, strategizing about how to re-engage this student or that one, feedback to write, papers to grade.  Home is more of the same.  Three kids in middle school means sports, violin practice, pre-Algebra homework questions and an endless lists of cookies for this party, pick me up at this time, and try to squeeze in dinner and a shower somewhere.  And don't forget to pick up the geriatric dog's arthritis medicine at the vet.

In my Vermont cottage there is no dog.  No kids.  And my school bag is mysteriously absent.

Before you conclude that I am an antisocial hermit who hates her life, I have to tell you that I love all these things.  My job and students are THE BEST.  I love my kids and that they are involved in a lot of activities that they enjoy.  And the arthritic dog...I mean, come on!  She's the sweetest dog ever.

The call to move to Vermont (or a secluded abbey in Newfoundland, depending on the day) is because the life of a teacher has a lot of demands and every normal human being needs the balance of intense work and intense rest.  But once the school year starts, teachers tend to hit the intense work mode hard and not stop until they either drop into school break exhaustion or an illness forces them to slow down.

I don't think these are our only options though.  I think sometimes we need to purposely, intentionally hit the pause button and just stop.  I chose to do this in a couple ways this week.

First, one of my classes has been what I lovingly call a chaotic mess.  Heavy on the chaotic; light on the lovingly.  I had to have a sub twice for them recently because I went to a conference and had a training.  It wasn't good.  Then we had a class period where there was a whole lot of off-task, don't-you-dare-redirect-me, now-I'm going-to-get-really-silly behavior and I HAD HAD IT.  You know those days.  But this time, instead of just pouring out my frustrations in my journal or my co-worker's ears, I decided to stop and do something more intentional.

I solicited the help of two counselors and we scheduled a restorative circle.  We pulled the kids into a circle, and talked about frustrations, annoyances, problems, and then solutions, ideas, and favorite things about the class.  Eighty-five minutes melted away and despite that irritating voice in my head that kept whispering, "You're taking time away from real lessons," it was the best use of 85 minutes we've had.  I really heard each of my students, each one.  By the end, we were all smiling and genuinely happy, closer than I had ever felt with these kids.

The pause was so worth it.

The next class period didn't need a restorative circle, so we read our books a little longer than usual; we wrote a little extra in our Writer's Notebooks, took time to share our writing, and then I gave them the gift of time to work.  Some revised a reading response to their books; others caught up on a few assignments they had missed; and still others worked on an enrichment project creating an advertisement for their books.

It was beautiful.  Heads were bent over their desks.  Pens and pencils glided across pages.  And when it was time to wrap up, it felt like the whole group came up for air.  They had been deeply immersed in their work, so grateful for the time to slow down and sink into their learning.  All this on a sunny, too warm, Friday afternoon in October.

I often look at pausing as giving up, quitting, or being lazy with my time.  In these moments I am so wrong. Pausing is healing, re-energizing, and allows us all to give more in the times we're "on".  I think of interval training in workouts. Times of intensity intermingled with times to slow down, go easier and catch your breath have been shown to be more effective than steady, one-pace cardio.  Intervals make us stronger, faster, better.  Pausing makes that possible.

This fall, instead of burning yourself and your students out, plan in the rest, the catch-up, the time to breathe and heal.  Take part of a class period if you do blocks like I do, or a full class if you're in a traditional schedule.  It's not wasting a day; it's allowing all of us time to recover so we can come back stronger and better.  Imagine how Thanksgiving Break might feel if you're not exhausted and can actual have a rejuvenating, healing break - enjoying the food preparation, company and a few days off.

I don't know who decided that teachers and students should constantly live exhausted and overwhelmed, but I do know who can decide to change it.  My hunch is that each one of us listening to ourselves and our students, and intentionally planning when to push ahead and when to pause, would create a stronger learning environment than we've ever had.  We might feel nourished by school instead of exhausted by it.

Nature must be listening to this message - the breeze outside is blowing cool this morning. Time to get my second cup of coffee and finish John's Green's new novel Turtles All the Way Down.

Happy Sunday Everyone!


  1. Wonderful post; wonderful advice. Though that cabin in Vermont still sounds awfully nice...


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