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6 Tips for Surviving the Winter Doldrums

In which classical leaders provide advice for getting through the hardest part of the school year

It’s no secret that the hardest time of the year for teachers (in most any setting) is the winter, especially February and early March. Students can see summer off in the distance; they can practically smell it, like sailors on some far flung ship who can sense that land is near. Their interest is waning and we teachers are exhausted. Plus it’s cold and gray outside (for most of the country). Everyone is ready for spring break. So what to do? To answer that question we asked several of our teacher friends. Here is their advice:

From Chris Perrin, co-founder, CEO, and publisher of Classical Academic Press

Some 15 years ago, when I was serving as a head of school, I remember asking our faculty team which month was the hardest. The answer (without much hesitation): February. We have been at it for six months, three to go, and it is cold and often gray (unless you live in Florida or Southern California, in which case your excuses for weariness are more limited). That is worth thinking about–six of nine months or 66%. It is actually this 6:9 (or 2:3) ratio that leads me to my tip to moving through this challenging month.

Isn’t it challenging to be two-thirds through almost anything? Consider a house project, a difficult book, a writing assignment or even a road trip. When you are halfway done there is a natural cause for celebration: over the hump, around second and heading home, halfway there! And the first half didn’t seem that long did it? No, not really, and your energy supply is still good. We can do this. Then you travel another several miles (or several hundred), or read another 100 challenging pages. You didn’t realize that when your tank was half full, it was going to be moving towards empty with each passing mile. You start to feel weak around the edges, attention relaxes, not so quick in your step. You’re getting tired. We all get weary after sustained and steady effort. This true for the weekend handyman, the reader, the writer and hiker. Sometime soon after “halfway there” we generally grow weary

If I am on to something, and this is some universal pattern, then maybe we can relax in the midst of our fatigue. This is the way it is supposed to be–so why should I be surprised and concerned? Perhaps this is a good, human experience–we must learn to love what must be done, even love the fatigue knowing that the “sleep of the laborer is sweet.” This is not to say that all weariness is good–quite the contrary. We should beware of equivocating. There is a kind of weariness that is good–an energetic and well-spent day (or week, or term) that leads to a sweet night’s sleep (or restful weekend, or two-week holiday). There is another kind of fatigue that goes by the name “weariness” that we might as well call dreariness. This dreary variety is the result of badly-spent time on badly-conceived projects and amusements that diffuse rather than charge our soul. This kind of weariness creates exhaustion and does not lead to sweet, peaceful sleep.

Still, well-spent time on well-conceived work (the liberal arts and the great books come to mind) may still cause weariness after a term, because we are supposed to work well and rest well. I contend that even restful teachers and students will find a kind of weariness (the good kind) setting in February. This may be normal–you are two-thirds (66%) into your hike. Check to ensure you are resting along the way. Check to ensure you have scheduled rest in the midst of this month in particular. Then you will find another universal pattern taking hold of you when you reach the 75% mark: your strength will rise along with the sap in the tree; your heart will take flight with the birds returning in spring.

From Andrew Kern, President of the CiRCE Institute

How do I get through the winter doldrums? It depends on the circumstances of course, but I find I need a few things:

1. Fresh air. Even though its colder, I need to go for walks.

2. People. I need fellowship and good discussions.

3. Ideas, but not on a screen. I’m amazed by how draining it is to read articles on line and how invigorating it is to hold something in my hands with great ideas in it. It brings my mind to life and that spreads through my body.

4. Prayer: this is the time of year when it seems like the Lord has made things to slow down, where the world doesn’t take as much care of us as it does in the spring and fall. So I need to take the time to pray and especially to examine myself.

5. Build relationships. everything depends on this but I think this is the time when they are given special focus, as it were, by nature.

From Sarah Mackenzie, author of Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace

When I hit the predictable slog around February or March each year, the great temptation for me is to get utilitarian. Shore up the checklists! Plow through! Ramp up the productivity! There is something imminently satisfying in knowing that we are making “progress” (even if we aren’t), so I throw myself into making our school look as purposeful and productive as possible. The problem, of course, is that my school is not a factory, and my children aren’t cogs on a factory line. When I throw all of my February weight into making progress on the checklist, I fail to remember that I am looking into the face of Christ when I’m looking at my child, her eyes brimming with tears over a hard math problem or a tricky Latin declension. I forget that love is kind, and I get wrapped up in making it efficient, instead.

The way I counteract this annual ritual of steamrolling and box-checking is to set aside time to enjoy my children, nevermind the progress and productivity for a while. Maybe it’s a weekly family game night, an afternoon spent sipping cocoa and reading silly goofy poetry, or skipping the school day entirely to run around in the snow or make a heap of a mess in the kitchen. It’s when I’m enjoying my kids without that schoolish pressure — when I remember that they aren’t projects, but people — that I can find my way through the mid-winter slog and garner the strength to carry on with the rest of the year.

From Angelina Stanford, speaker, blogger, and instructor for the Harvey Center for Family Learning

I confess that I’d never heard of the February slump until I met teachers from other places. Living in the French-Catholic (Cajun) part of Louisiana, I never experienced any February slow-down—not as a student nor as a teacher nor as a homeschooler. None of my local friends knew of this slump either. I wonder if we Cajuns avoid this difficulty because our schools (elementary through universities) follow a different educational liturgy than the rest of the country.

Rather than have a traditional spring break, our winter semester is organized around Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. Epiphany launches the Carnival, or Mardi Gras, season, beginning with the appearance of the King Cake on January 6. Special food, clothes, colors, parades, balls, and other events define this whole season which culminates in Mardi Gras break (the week of Mardi Gras day in February). So, when students return to school from Christmas break, they experience weeks of joyous, deliberate celebrations—at school, at home, in their local communities—it’s everywhere! There are more fun and family-friendly celebrations going on than anyone can attend. And students celebrate during school, after school, and on weekends.

The end of Mardi Gras ushers in Lent—and instantly, the season changes. Come Ash Wednesday, the food, the colors, the celebrations—they all disappear, replaced by the somberness of Lent. The joy is temporarily put off and replaced by 40 days of hard work. At the end of which is yet another joyous celebration—Easter and an 8-day Easter break.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the dark days of winter can be overcome by a deliberate infusion of fun and joy and special February activities. Around here February is everyone’s favorite time of year. Slump? Laissez les bons temps rouler!

From Cindy Rollins, speaker and blogger

I grew up in Florida. I have spent my life feeling that February is a warm, sunny, baseball month. This has not jived with reality. As I write, here in Tennessee, we are experiencing record lows. Baseball practice has been canceled. The boys are trapped. I know this because they are running around the house shooting each other with Nerf guns and apparently hitting every wall and object in their way, not with their Nerf bullets, with their bodies. My answer to this is to ignore it by reading a murder mystery by the fire until the playful battle turns more deadly, as I know it will, at which point my own detecting skills will be needed to discover who drew first blood. Turns out all parties will plead innocent. So here is my tip for sorting out cabin fever conflict. I never ask the boys to tell their side of the story. There goeth madness. I ask each child to tell what he did wrong in the given situation and do not let them veer from this narrative. If the fighting continues you could even make them WRITE the narrative. Sublime. You could also move to Florida.

From Brian Phillips, Headmaster of the CiRCE Academy and Head of Consulting

Somehow February, the shortest month, always feels three months long. When I taught high school students, I always made sure to get them outside as much as possible, even if for a short time. I would encourage them to read outside, or break them into groups to discuss class questions or the book we were reading. Homeschoolers have a bit of an edge here because they can change up their routine as needed. They can start later, giving the kids a bit more sleep during the cold, dreary February. They can take extra trips to the library or a museum. In other words, February is a time to change up the routine.

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