Teaching With Depression (Part 2)

This is the story of my saddest teaching day ever.  But first,

A Primer in Minnesota Behavior:

(Warning: stereotypes ahead)

Minnesotans don’t talk much about their feelings.  The question, “How are you doing?” will most likely prompt one of the following responses – normally with no elaboration:

“Fine.”Teaching with Depression

“Pretty good.”

“Not too bad.”

“Can’t complain.”

And these are probably the responses you’ll get whether the person is contented, seething with anger, over-the-moon happy, or incredibly depressed.

If a Minnesotan feels strongly about another person (good or bad), they are likely to either keep it to themselves or tell a completely different person.

Minnesotans are cautious (like Protecting-the-Nuclear-Codes Cautious) about who they trust with their real, visceral, sometimes icky feelings.

In reality, they have all the same problems, emotions, angst, and joy as everyone else. Why can’t (or won’t) they express it?  This recent stretch of teaching with depression has given me a compassionate answer (normally I would have a snarky one). I choose to believe that it isn’t culturally encouraged and so people just never learn to do it.

I didn’t grow up in Minnesota.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that talks openly about their feelings, good or bad.  In my family, crying is encouraged when you are sad.  Safe, pillow-pounding tantrums are encouraged when you are really angry. Jumping up and down and squealing is encouraged when you’re excited. If I am feeling something, it’s written all over my face and demeanor. It permeates my consciousness and I’ll tell you about it given half a chance (just ask my husband, poor guy).

It has taken me YEARS to find a way to be my true self while trying to “fit in” here.   In fact, this most recent bout of depression (and teaching with it) has been something of a breakthrough for me. I’ve learned that if I share what I’m feeling, with vulnerability and no expectations, Minnesotans will reach out, open up, share their struggles, offer support.  Privately, of course –these reserved people won’t normally air their struggles in public like I’ve decided to do.

But the support is here, waiting to be tapped.  And I’ve found the magic divining rod!

So back to my Sad Teaching Day.

I teach in groups.  I have this survey up on a whiteboard in my studio all the time: How do you feel about piano today?  (answer options are Awesome, Okay, and Meh.) I try to remember to ask students to take the survey at each lesson. But until this day, I never thought to take the survey myself while they were watching.

How do you feel about piano today?
The tangled rats next down in the bottom corner of “Meh” is me.

The tangled rat’s nest in the bottom corner of “Meh” is mine.  I erased it before each class and added it back when we had this conversation:

I gave each of my groups the spiel:  “How are you guys feeling about piano today?  [Waits for answers.]  Wanna know how I’m feeling?  Plfbbbbbbbbbbbtht [with thumbs down sign].”

I cried during lesson at least one lesson.  One mom asked me what was going on.  I said, “nothing particular, I’m just having a sad day.” And promptly started crying again.

Then I said, “Hey guys, it’s OK to be sad sometimes. I might cry today, and it’s not your fault.  And we’re still going to have a good lesson, even though I’m sad – Just like when you don’t feel like practicing and you do it anyway.”

Here is what I learned from teaching the day I couldn’t stop crying:
  1. Being extra gentle and patient with myself made me extra gentle and patient with my students. I’m normally patient and gentle, but I discovered a reservoir of compassion and patience that I hadn’t been in touch with before.
  2. Highly anxious students were calmer and consequently achieved more in their lessons. I have got to keep my access to this compassion reservoir when I get out of this pit.
  3. My being honest and real and vulnerable about how I was feeling has given my students permission to be honest and real about how they are feeling too – even three weeks later.
  4. I was effective, even on my saddest day. I wasn’t feeling my best and wasn’t mentally at the top of my game.  But even so, 5 different students had real breakthroughs in their understanding or their playing.

I definitely wasn’t at my best in any of these lessons.  I was dropping books, forgetting small things, even teaching a song with a wrong note once.  (Don’t worry I fixed it.)  But oddly enough, having permission from myself to just feel my feelings publicly made me a lot less anxious. I wasn’t afraid of crying in front of my students, because it was OK if I did.

At the end of the night, while I was tired and sad, I wasn’t irritable or drained or impatient.   It was almost like the hole in my bucket was plugged, so that the little drips of good feeling didn’t drain out any more.

Digging My Way Out of the Pit. With a Spork.

The next day, I taught 10 students. I wasn’t crying at the drop of a hat by then. I had a bodywork session, a walk, and a short bike ride.  I paid my taxes and I still had money in my bank account. I could see out of the pit, but I couldn’t climb out yet.

Another day passed, and I did my billing from the now thigh-deep pit.  By this point, I was at the stage where I think “My depression can’t really be that bad if I can always do the things I need to do – what are you complaining about, Shanta?!” (Yes, I know this is actually a load of crap, but depression doesn’t do particularly good things for the logic circuits.)

As I write this, I’m out of the pit. I’m feeling motivated and grateful and full of love and discontented and frustrated all at the same time. I’ve been connecting with old friends and new ones who I can talk to without fear of judgement or fear of hurting their feelings. I’m not what I’d call “Happy,” but it’s a definite improvement from the pit. Keep it real, friends.

2 thoughts on “Teaching With Depression (Part 2)”

  1. Isn’t it amazing how emotional/mental illnesses foster shame & guilt? You assumed you would prob. be far less effective in your teaching, connecting with students, organization, etc. that day. That’s just a “story” the illness tells us – you did an amazing job of working through it, accepting the reality of your condition THAT day, and doing the best you could do at that time – which turned out to be awesome. In order to have breakTHROUGHS, we must experience some breakDOWNS. They aren’t permanent, bad, good – anything…..they just ARE. Your feelings & sadness that day actually opened up a new space for learning, feeling & awareness, for you & for your students. Teaching piano (or anythin for that matter) is so much more than teaching the notes, the technique, etc. – it’s experiencing, expressing and being in the moment. There’s much that is learned beyond the notes on the page. You are a beautiful person, a gifted musician & a teacher that connects with her students:)

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