David, my math teacher husband, said something in a moment of desperation this week that really stuck with me. He had for the 17th time that day gotten distracted from a task. Because we’re all fried, I snapped at him. He answered in anguish, “Yes! I got distracted. I didn’t finish. I haven’t thought one continuous thought in 60 days!”
He’s right. As teachers working from home with 3 kids under age 9, we are constantly pulled away and interrupted. Our 3 year old always wants us to go to the bathroom with him. Our 8 year old needs the password to his Chromebook so he can log in to his class Zoom. Our 5 year old needs help reading the math workbook instructions. Repeat every 6.25 minutes from 7 am to 8 pm.
You know that scene in A Christmas Story where he says, “My mom had not had a hot meal for herself in 15 years”? Just as she’s about to put a bite in her mouth, Ralphie asks for something. Then the dad. Then the little brother. That woman cannot eat her food!
So, that’s our lives. We used to go to work outside of our house. We had morning time and free blocks. We could go get a few minutes of work time at lunch. We had an hour after school. We could put headphones in and plan a project or grade papers or tests. We could find flow.
Remember that Flow book? The subtitle is “The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” That almost makes me laugh. Working from home, parenting from home, and homeschooling should be subtitled, “The Psychology of SUB-Optimal Experience.” Except sub-optimal is not strong enough.
I need a book that studies the long term effect of the constant flow interruptions. I can tell you my hypothesis, based on observation. Being deprived of flow makes you irritable, tired, un-creative, and depressed.
It’s so hard to convince myself to sit down to read 22 short stories. I don’t know that I can make it through even one. If I get pulled away to peel an orange, then return, I’ve got to start again. But it’s frustrating because I will realize that I remember some of this and I’m losing time. I might even get pulled away again, maybe to wipe a butt, before I get to the end. And if I finish reading, but I have to litigate a fight over a stuffed animal before I write my feedback? I’ll have to read it again to remember what I was even going to say to that kid.
My in-laws came to stay with us and yesterday I was able to spend 3 straight hours grading and reading papers. It was amazing. Grading is challenging and draining and hard, but it felt good to get it done without being interrupted. There were two other adults to blow on the mac and cheese or take them outside for sidewalk chalk or peel open fruit cups.
Flow–that uninterrupted momentum–is so satisfying. Even if it’s flow while grading. It’s such a luxury. Such a gift. And I know it’s essential for most work, but it’s especially important for a teacher. I prefer to grade in a big push, where I can get the scope of the whole class’s work. I can sense trends, and see where my mini-lessons produced consistent growth in student work. When I look up after 3 hours, I have both the bird’s eye view and a fresh impression of each student’s work.
And the bonus was that those 3 hours of flow were in the middle of the day. Without help from my in-laws, my only uninterrupted blocks of time would be after 8 pm. I’m tired at the end of a crazy day. And there are dishes in the sink, laundry to be folded, floors to be mopped, bathrooms to be cleaned and floors to be vacuumed. David and I divide the work, and we’re usually done by 9 pm.
Even before this, I was not an evening person. My tank is empty. I want to do something relaxing, not something that requires too much decision making. I prefer to work during the hours of the school day. I tune in and get to work. I’ve been getting all grading done at school since I had kids and bringing home work became nearly impossible. So 9-11 pm is about the worst time for me to try to get into a flow state.
My in-laws are here until the end of next week. I will be using every moment I can. And when I can work out of my house again, in my quiet classroom, with my headphones on and my medieval chamber music going, I won’t even complain that I’m digging into a stack of research papers or argumentative essays. I’ll be grateful for the gift and privilege of flow.