Seasonal Affective Zombie Disorder

A nice day on the pier

Related stock photo for opening metaphor? Oh, do I have some.

Children, en masse, are like the sea. They are capricious and dangerous, and awing and inspiring, and also maybe filled with crustaceans. Their emotions are torrential and stormy, and a bad mood creeping over their waters can spell marine tragedy for whatever wayfaring, Ishmael-esque figure decides to brave the waves. And they are controlled by the season, by the moon and the sun, by the passing of time, and the slow burn of spring into summer, the great chill of fall into winter. The tides shift and become impassable, and then suddenly the waters calm.

When I was in Teacher’s College, one of my practica was in a 5/6 split class, happening in the month surrounding March Break. The teacher I worked with warned me early: in the time approaching March Break, we would see a change, like a subtle shift in the winds. It would be like the approach of a subway train, or the changing of the seasons: you would feel it in the air before you saw it or heard it.

Over time, my students just stopped being there.

Sure, their bodies were there, in that society and their parents ensured to dump their corporeal forms in my care. But all of the lights were off: they were vacant, empty. Here a pile of children-shaped shells sloped haphazardly about the classroom furniture; there a bunch of blank, emotionless husks drooling out the window. They were capable of basic motor skills, in the way a particularly adept and studious rhinoceros might be. But they couldn’t do anything more.

Because they were already on vacation, in their hearts and souls and minds. They had already been living for the break for a while, working hard and concentrating because they had been promised due reward, like the Protestant Work Ethic in classroom diorama form. The societal contract had been made with them: cram it from January until early March, and then you can have freedom.

But kids aren’t great with delayed reward, and thus there is a certain blast radius around the holidays. Whole weeks end up as collateral damage where the kids are as good as gone, and the major focus of your job becomes maintaining vital signs and babysitting. One day you are a teacher, and the next you are head nurse of a pediatric coma ward. Maintain their body functions from 9 to 3, and you’ve done your due diligence.

In the week before Christmas, they are dreaming of the many presents they will get. They think of skating, and a turkey dinner, and big horrific piles of gaudy toys and PS3 games and clothes and glitter and pens and glitter pens and markers and shaking electronic contraptions that enthrall this or that new generation of children. Before March Break, they are sleep-walkers, existing only in their dream-state consciousness, imagining a solid week of playing outside in the slowly defrosting landscape, the vestiges of winter slowly beginning to shatter and melt. For weeks before summer, they are already older and farther away: another school year, another grade. Another group of people and another teacher. And before that, so much vacation they can barely conceive of what they’ll do with it.

Almost touching

Destination: anywhere but school.

And for those about to graduate, to move onto another school, they are already dreaming of the people they’ll be.

High schoolers think of being adults, of being college students, of the freedom and the power and the self-determination. Eating and drinking and sleeping and humping at will, without their stupid parents or society to tell them what to do. Middle schoolers think of high school, of how cool they will be, how aloof, how with it, how tapped in to the very nature of the universe. How much more they’ll know than their parents, who are stupid and, like, don’t know anything.

Elementary kids on the cusp of graduation imagine being middle schoolers. In other words, they are aspiring to be awful.

They hope to be more hormonal than they currently are. They think about how they’ll date, even though they find the other gender to be gross and malignant. About the music they’ll listen to, the shows they’ll watch. About the additional hours they’ll be awake, and the cool things they’ll do with all that time. The cool that they will be. About the gangliness they will develop. About how sour and dispassionate they can be about everything. They dream about how unhappy their lives will make them.

Since Chuseok, a brief vacation in mid-September, large portions of my grade sixes are falling victim to this intense and devastating futurism. It spreads like viral infection, as some decide they are too cool, and thus so must everyone else. They have advanced in months and years, and are already in middle school. They are grumpy and unhappy with everything. I am stupid to them, but then, so is every other adult. No one understands them, and no one ever will. They cannot be understood, because such is their uniqueness, their special quality. But also they are racked with insecurities and sadnesses and wants. They are hunger machines. They are drunk with ennui. They are twelve.

In class, I am faced with 30-odd pairs of glassy eyes. Palsying, dour expressions of utter and incomprehensible boredom, tempered only by hate. To say that getting them to participate is like pulling teeth is too weak a metaphor, and makes me yearn for pulling teeth. Making them do anything other than doze or complain is like pulling out every single tooth in your head, then also the jaws, followed by every single bone in your body.

Fighting against this change is ultimately like swimming against the tides while out in the open seas. You can fight and struggle and push, but you’re a speck in an ocean. My students are teeming with hormones. They are already graduated, already through the break, and in middle school in their minds. And thus, I’m a memory. I’m a factoid, something they’ve already left behind. I’m a ghost, as all of this school is.

That I’m still here and still gabbing away at them in English is a matter of some cognitive dissonance.

And thus, the remainder of the semester with them is a matter of running out the clock. Sure, I teach them in the strictest sense. I do everything I can to make them learn English short of physically rending their skulls and inserting the language manually. But they are already gone. Soon they will do their final exams, and then we will have our private, unspoken agreement. That I will stop being a hard-ass and let them off, because they’re not really my students anymore, anyway.

So this is the season. The leaves change, and the winds become sharper, and people start to put on coats. And I have approximately 200 students who, with every fiber of effort they can muster, are groaning, whining zombies. This is teaching. This is their growing up.

Haeundae Beach

I have a stupid amount of photos of the sea, you guys.

153 thoughts on “Seasonal Affective Zombie Disorder

  1. SAZD is a sad, sad thing…and completely underdiagnosed.

    So what would the medication be to counter it? Parents who are more involved? A culture that valued education more? Teachers who do a better job of engagement? Or perhaps all of the above?

    Fun (and valuable) post,


    • I’m not sure it always can be countered. I think part of it, the ancitipation of being older and fashioning yourself basically just be that, is part of growing up. Unfortunately, they just have decided that being really dour is the way to be for right now. It’s not forever.

      • Yeah I always said the same thing and yet I find myself teaching middle school French. My first 10 years were in high school and I thought that was tough. Middle school kids are an interesting age and generally manageable. Its just when you get a certain combination of kids it can cause some really bad chemistry and you can lose control before you even realize it. While its hard to see it right now I know it is pushing me to develop as a teacher. I totally understand what you mean about the zombie thing although in middle school they’re more like the uncontrollable werewolf or pack of werewolves on the loose.

        • Yeah, at the least while I’m starting out, I don’t think I can go near that age group.

          One of my professors in teacher’s college is my hero, because she has all of these stories about going into the Bronx in the 1970s for the express purpose of teaching middle school. Tough as nails.

  2. It sounds horrible, to be a teacher during those transition times. I do have SAD and I woke up to a grey day, ugh. I countered it by going outside and taking some photographs to play with. Tomorrow it will be raining. I will need chocolate.

  3. I teach English to 112 students in grades 9-12. I cannot describe how deeply this post resonated with me and how loudly I laughed, especially at lines like, “To say that getting them to participate is like pulling teeth is too weak a metaphor, and makes me yearn for pulling teeth.” Utter brilliance. I wrote a post about the English teacher’s workload and thought you might enjoy it. Hang in there! Cheers!

  4. Thank you for an honest and INSANELY well written post about life as an educator. Having worked with high schoolers for a decade before finally escaping into a new line of work, I can tell you that remember that glassy-eyed stare. I felt like giving every one of them a good dose of L-Dopa and hoping for the miracle Robin Williams got in Awakenings. 🙂 Congrats on a very, very, very well-deserved Freshly Pressed nod.

  5. Just a quick note. With one at 14, one just starting school, and two more coming up through the ranks. This is terribly funny, if all too accurate.

    Wicked good writing style, I’ve tagged this blog to follow, always looking inspiration.

    Well written, well played, and take care.

  6. This was hilarious, great job! It got a little sad near the end, you speaking about how you’re already in the past to them.. but no! You make a difference, and they will always remember you 🙂


  7. Ah, yes, I remember it well. Keep on in there. Just think of it being like drops of water on stone: the impression is being made but you may not be around to see it. However, someone benefits in the end, they really do, and they’ll speak of you e’en unto the third generation.

  8. This is a fantastically and very truthfully written post – I’ll be sending it on to my mom, who’s a teacher and who I’m sure will appreciate the humor and truth in your post. Good luck and congrats on being freshly pressed!

  9. I think you’re generalizing all your kids too much. When I was in elementary school going into middle school, all I cared about was playing. I actually rejected someone who asked me to date him because relationships just seemed stupid. I even rejected him again in middle school because relationships seemed stupid (and I’m in college now and still I think sometimes they’re a bunch of mess for nothing). Children are more than hormones. Granted, those kids are developing at a younger age than we are, so maybe it’s a bit different from them. Still I wouldn’t hold it against the kids. I’d blame the media and culture. And honestly, I think it’s the teacher’s job to teach them how to fight the stupidity of culture telling them they need relationships and also to teach them how to master the subject being taught.

    You’re post does make a well-written story, though.

    • It’s interesting here, because the kids in elementary school are far more kid-ish for more years than back home. But once middle school hits, they age a lot faster, because of how much study pressure is suddenly upon them. They start caring about relationships a lot faster, too.

  10. Although this is the first time that I have had the privilege of reading your blog, I found it to be awe inspiring. You possess a wonderful insight into human nature and twist a clever phrase. Thank you for taking me along with you on such an introspective journey.

  11. I agree with Edwin and mslovenhappiness. One of the greatest role models in my life was my middle school science teacher. The attitude in life he taught far surpassed our lessons in value. But it’s Edward that makes the point I keep hearing over and over. Cell phones and video games trump education for entertainment value and if education is going to compete, it must embrace change just like everything else must. When you have to teach zombies, feed them some brains!

  12. As someone who deals with SAD and with students of the same age in the same country….I totally feel you on this one! I hate that this happens but I am relieved to find out that it’s not just me. This is my first semester here and I seriously thought that I was possibly the worst teacher in the world because I couldn’t get these kids fully engaged. ( even though I didn’t really have that problem in my 6 years of teaching in the States.) Thanks for this….I’m so glad it caught my eye!

  13. Wow, great insight on what I’m getting myself into! I agree, I can clearly recall my senior year of high school, after prom most of my peers had shut down and my teachers just gave up teaching. I hope I don’t become one of those teachers, glad there are still some out there who try!

  14. I saw the name of your blog and knew without looking that it was about a foreign teacher in Korea, having taught there for three years myself. And after all that, I still miss it sometimes. Nicely done. Congrats on being freshly pressed…

  15. I think that one of the most important things a kid can have is a really great teacher. But, of course, it’s hard to get through to them when they are zombies, not completely there, and unwilling participants to learn. It’s funny how everyone within the certain grade set yearns for that next step, and once you are out of college, all you want to do is give up your responsibilities and take it easy like when you were a kid.

  16. “One day you are a teacher, and the next you are head nurse of a pediatric coma ward.:” Such a well written, perceptive, poignant but humorous article, thank you, and congrats on being freshly pressed.

  17. Wonderful stuff. I especially liked this part (I can so relate to it. ..only difference mine are able to write MY evals now and make comments like, “Well she’s very nice, but I haven’t learned anything in this class. Also she gives us waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much homework.” )

    “To say that getting them to participate is like pulling teeth is too weak a metaphor, and makes me yearn for pulling teeth. Making them do anything other than doze or complain is like pulling out every single tooth in your head, then also the jaws, followed by every single bone in your body.”

    And we just keep going back for more.

  18. Great post. And congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    It’s fantastic you can have the overseas, cross-cultural experience and the lifetime memories that will provide. You explained the challenge of teaching very well and with humor.

  19. This was amazing. I am an English teacher in Japan, teaching elementary and junior HS. I understand this completely, and the way you have written about is so honest it hurts— but completely hilarious. I love it.

  20. In ninth grade, my daughter had a science teacher who she adored and she always tried to do her best for his class; otherwise, in all other classes and in school, she was rebellious, unfocused, and wasting everyone’s time. During the teacher-parent conferences, I asked this teacher what his trick was (and mind you, he was a brand-new teacher, freshly hired out of college), and his reply was that he always assessed the energy of the classroom each day and taught to that energy. If they were low key and seemed to not be focused, he didn’t try to up the energy and make them be focused because he knew that what you push against would push back. Vice versa, when the kids were jumping out of their seats of popcorn, he hyped up his class to match their energy. He was one of the best teachers my daughter had, somehow having the ability to counteract SAZD, but of course, with budget cuts, he was the first to go. That was in the States.

    But as a cultural note, I lived in Papua New Guinea for about eight months. At one of the missions on Fergusson Island, the nun explained to me how difficult it was to get a child past second grade because culturally it was looked down upon to have more or to be better than another person. So no one tried to excel in school, and by third grade they were back tending the tasks of their villages: fishing, harvesting food, repairing thatch. If they were to be too educated in Western ways, it would remove them from their culture, their family, their village.

    Here in Costa RIca, I’ve begun volunteering to teach English to my neighbor children. It’s still easy and fun: using playing cards to work with numbers (adding, subtracting), playing Go Fish and practicing “Do you have…. no, I do not have….”; using family photos and a hand sketch of a town to practice, “My cousin and her brother are walking to the hospital.” I have lots of stickers to give out as rewards. But I have several friends who are teaching English in classrooms around the area. I substituted one day for one of them, and I was appalled at the students’ focus and behavior. Was it because I was a substitute, I asked the regular teacher afterwards? “No,” she replied, “this is the attitude of all the Costa Rican children I’ve taught.”

    So, no answers and probably no help for your frustrations: Just a couple observations. In the end, people take in what they want and use it as they want. Sometimes what didn’t seem to be learned today really did get absorbed and taken in; it germinates and reappears months or years later and we might never know our successes.

    • Korea is pretty competitive in terms of education, and the kids are brought into the competition pretty early. A side-effect is that they spend a great deal of time in after-school academies studying the entire day, so they get pretty burned out early on.

  21. You’ve been freshly pressed before i remember you!! =)

    Nice post! What can I say, teaching is hard I’m sure all my past teachers thought that at some point. Think of it this way: you’ll have fresh met to teach next year right?

  22. I think it just might be human nature, to always be unsatisfied with where we are, always dreaming of where we could be… and we often dream so much of where we could be we end up never getting there. Great article.

  23. I guess at time the students feel like they are just their to pass their exams. Rather than preparing for their futures. Sometimes, it feels like we are not being prepared for the ‘dog eat dog’ world out there. Only just stumbled across your blog, amazing analogies and interesting take on a whole range of issues.

  24. I can totally relate to this post, it is all about growing up–a rite of passage. There is not much you can tell young people that will help them see things any other way than theirs. Eventually they grow older and then the lightbulb goes on. It happened to all of us, did it not?

  25. My students are teaming with hormones.

    I think you mean ‘teeming’.

    Apart from that, awesome post. And totally right. I remember when I was in the last week of Sixth Grade, I was just surrounded by these guys who were already trying to scope out the middle school classrooms, and my three nerdy, unpopular friends and I (who is also unpopular and nerdy) were just standing there going ‘what the hell are these guys DOING?’

  26. Dear Stupid Ugly Foreigner. Stumbled across your blog and found it hilarious and insightful. Finally, someone else with a twisted sense of humour commenting on education and everything else. I will definitely pass this along to a friend who is teaching English in Japan.

  27. This piece was very poetically written, it was an enjoyable read! I think another important phase that students face in the world of academia is within their senior year. The focus dramatically decreases as students anticipate the big day they will always remember as their graduation. It happens in high school and it can most certainly happen as undergraduate student! We always call it Senioritis!

    Great post! Keep up the great work!

    If it is okay with you, I would like to mention my own blog that I just started and share the link with your readers. It’s called Logic Meets Reason and it would be great if you and your readers could comment, subscribe, and take a look at the pieces I have posted! Here is the link:

  28. As sad as I am to say this, I agree that there is a shift at the end of a school year and that students begin to lose focus. I am a senior in college and already, in late October, I am thinking about whether or not I will be able to get a job by June. It takes me a long time to focus on my work and when I am in class I find myself “doodling” on my paper or thinking about what I would do later that day. I have great respect in teachers such as yourself who must get frustrated when your students do not pay attention. If this makes you feel better I am sure your lesson plan for that day was interesting it is just so hard to focus sometimes especially at the end of the year. In high school especially I had a hard time focusing considering the day began at 7:45 a.m., that was harsh. I wish you luck though and I hope you can inspire one student to really want to be there and love learning every second they can.

  29. What a refreshing article! As a teacher, I understand very well what you are talking about. But, we love what we do, we help them get through and we get back to the classroom with the same love.

  30. Just power through it and amuse yourself. Thankfully, I was teaching the easy grades of elementary and never had to deal with the overly hormonal stuff. Phew.

  31. You are obviously very in tune with your students. Wonderful writing! I could feel what it was like way back when I was twelve and so unhappy for every reason one can imagine.

  32. Thank you for understanding.
    I fall into the category of that high school senior.
    At this very moment, well, after I submit this comment, I will have to continue writing this essay that I had all of Sunday to write.
    It is 2:24 on the morning that it’s due.
    I spent a good bit of my day researching colleges and scholarships, and starting applications I know I won’t be able to finish.
    I am ready to START MY FUTURE!!!
    … Why does it have to take so long…?

    • I am sort of the opposite, in that I get things done super early, but only because I get lazier and lazier and more incapable of thought and work as deadlines approach. My friends used to be skilled procrastinators, but I had to get things done way ahead because in a few weeks I was like a pile of goo.

  33. Great post, which reminds me of my way of growing up. The situation in your post seems familiar with me.

    There are always pains and this disorder during growing up. 😀

  34. This is brilliant! It’s echoed my short lived foray into teaching English to middle-school children in China. It’s also resonated somewhere in my long forgotten 12 year old self. 😉

  35. Great post! I love how you put into words how I felt as a child nearing holidays and what I see happening with my own son. Well done! I love your pics of the sea. I too have a stupid number of pics of the sea, but it is just too beautiful I can’t help but photograph it nearly every time I see it.

  36. I love this post. It perfectly articulates the children in the schools system. As a tech I can walk through the school hallways and see it. I remember this feeling before summer vacation–where you just wanted to be done already so you could do..absolutely nothing all summer!

    Fantastic! 😀 Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  37. Congrats on the FP! How many is that now?

    The October issue of National Geographic did an article on the adolescent/teenage brain. You might find it of interest (and possibly comfort). It discusses the neurobiological changes that take place at that age, how they affect behavior, and why, from an evolutionary perspective, that “what the fuck” period serves a vital social function. Seeing that glassy-eyed, groaning, whining state has a result of neurochemistry–not as some failure on your part–might reduce the frustration level a little bit. 🙂

    In my experience, the pre-teen/teenage years were crap-tastic. Too much time spent being amorphous and conflicted, raging against the machine yet yearning to belong to it. I like knowing who I am.

  38. We used to call this Senioritis. The close you get to your goal the more you realize its just a matter of time, not how hard you try. The last semester of high school for almost every student becomes a giant waste. Those last couple points for you G.P.A. end up only affecting a small percentage of students.

  39. This is my 20th year in the classroom, and I cannot tell you how much this resonates with me. There is, absolutely, a rhythm to the semesters. You can feel week 9 — right before research papers come in.

    Right now my college zombies are positively dragging, but once they hand over those papers on 11/9, they will feel lighter. And they will know they only have one short paper left. They will see the finish line. They they will come back revived after Thanksgiving (thankfully) knowing they only have a few classes left. And while they will sitting politely in their seats, in their minds they will be on Winter Break — dreaming of bed, of sleeping late, of long leisurely breakfasts, of a few weeks without school.

    And just by the by, by week 15… teachers can be zombies, too. 😉

    Come and see me sometime, if you are so inclined.

    Truly a beautiful piece of writing. Congratulations of being FP’d. This piece deserved to be there!

    • I remember just as well being the same in university; whenever the break approached, I was counting down the classes.

      Our B.Ed. professors pulled a switcheroo on us, though. We just finished all of our big projects and our placements for the fall, and were heading off for Christmas, when suddenly they went, “Oh by the way, your internship plans are due the day you come back from holiday. Merry Christmas, y’all!”

  40. Excellent story, while reading I was easily able to relate to your experiences. I am an Instructor that teaches soldiers, but my students are affected by a “Zombie disorder” far more than seasonally. Couple an early wake up time with a heavy lunch, and any Instructor teaching in the afternoon must face a room full of men and women with brains on autopilot.

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