Ten years ago, last year, I stepped into an elementary school as an AmeriCorps VISTA to help run a literacy tutoring program and tutor students in reading. Before I knew it, I was hooked. I’d always vowed I’d never consider teaching because I grew up with two parents who taught. Many of my childhood memories are the hours after school waiting for my parents to finish lesson planning or the myriad of meetings they always seemed to have to attend. I was privy to many of the unattractive parts of the profession.
I dabbled in honing a dream on investigative journalism that took me around the world by starting a local feature written by teens in our town’s paper. I went off to undergrad convinced I would change the world through my writing and travel the world. Well as most things in life go, when the dream scrapes up against the cold hard reality, things change.
I very much enjoyed my journalistic studies and am thankful for having earned an undergraduate degree at a great private university. I was spit out into the “real world,” a ripe young thing having decided I didn’t want to spend my time writing obituaries or take the beat to live in a rural part of the country. My dreams of travel and writing were far from my mind as I took a nanny job closer to my family back in my home state.
Come to find out, spending most waking hours with children as a young person, is especially illuminating and isolating. Playing the Mom role wasn’t exactly my thing either but I did notice I loved being around children.
So I left for the “big” city of Seattle with $300 and no job to my name. It was at that time I allowed myself to entertain this teaching idea but as existential crises go…I was deep in it. A week after I arrived back to the “big” city I landed a job as a barista downtown. I did what most people do in their 20s. I partied, drank too much, stayed up too late and fell into a relationship. I gave my 2 weeks notice and was fired the next day.
Still flailing about in my existential goo, I took a job at an elementary school with AmeriCorps. It was hard. It was exhilarating. By the end of that service year, I’d decided that it was in my blood. I was meant to teach. So I took another job with AmeriCorps to expose me to different aged kids–middle and high school. I began looking into all the prereqs I needed and the task of getting into graduate school to become a teacher. I worked and I studied. I had to retake the writing portion of the state mandated test.
Then, I was in! Two long grueling years of ups and downs, lots of insane drinking, only one all nighter and needing a writing tutor to complete even the simplest paper, I strode across a stage ready to take on the world and my own classroom. Oh sure I’d had my doubts but I loved learning. The process of learning with children, alongside them and in spite of them. I was meant to teach.
I’d been hired months prior to graduation into a school district just south of Seattle. I was placed in a pool and essentially told to wait for a call. All summer, I fretted. Finally in late August, there was an opening and 4 days before school started that fall, I had my teaching home. To say I was excited wouldn’t really do it justice. I was terrified.
I scrambled around in my insecurity and lack of confidence to cobble together some semblance of a classroom. And then here we all were. My first class! As first years go, I hear mine was pretty typical. Bumpy…very very bumpy. This wasn’t like grad school or student teaching at all! It was better and way worse all at the same time. Luckily I was paired with an excellent literacy coach who buoyed me up at my darkest moments and somehow, someway I made it.
Cue the following year. They say your first year is your worst and well, they were very very wrong. My second year was utter and complete hell. I found some unwavering undying source of hope that I could do it and made it work. I could get _____ to focus enough to read, I could get _____ to not push kids down the stairs, that ____ would stop puking under his desk every day, I could get _____ to stop compulsively lying…and we’d all miraculously be at grade level!
Through all of this, could somehow I somehow keep my psyche intact? The joke was on me. I hadn’t chosen a profession. I’d chosen a lifestyle. One that I could not maintain. I was anxious, unable to sleep, fraying at all edges and slowly but surely coming unglued. I didn’t have the experience, the confidence, and the strength to do this. Maybe I wasn’t meant to teach. Still, I kept on. I believed in education. I believed in my student’s abilities to learn. I wanted to believe in the system. But at every turn it felt stacked against my students and I. My colleagues were as supportive as they could be and I tried as many classroom management techniques as I could muster but it felt like no match against a system bent on failing to recognize that a lot of my students, who I was tasked to teach 4th grade math to, couldn’t subtract, some couldn’t read or write above a 2nd grade level. So like I’d been taught and like I knew in my heart, I met them where they were.
But the din of expectations, test test test, and the pressure to perform perform perform never relented. Somehow I made it through that hellacious year.
Cue my third year. I came into my classroom a full month before school started. I was not going to let the last two years drive me down. I met with my administrators in hopes of forming a team feeling rather than an us vs. them feeling. I got an unexpected apology for having been poorly supported. I was starting off on the right foot and had a better understanding of the curriculum and the expectations. Yet a feeling of is-this-for-me followed me around. I went on to have a fantastic year. It wasn’t easy by any means, but I had learned from my past and refined some techniques. I kept an open dialogue with my administrators and called on help when I needed it.
All the while, the expectations of how I taught, what I taught and when I taught it was an ever-tightening belt pinching me into something I didn’t want to be. Complacent. I was tired of teaching math and reading for most of the day, treating science, the arts and social studies as an afterthought. It was disheartening to keep moving forward with the prescribed curriculum knowingly leaving many concepts misunderstood by a vast majority of the students. It began to feel stifling and unenjoyable.
The public climate around teaching was also heating up and rages to this day. When I listened to or looked at the media I was repeatedly told how to do my job and what about my job I was doing very wrongly.
I’d had a banner year but it was getting to me. I began a fourth year and I knew I couldn’t go on per the status quo. I wanted change and secured by accepting a position at a small innovative school in rural Costa Rica. My experience there was illuminating in ways I’d hoped for and in ways that were just as discouraging as the system I’d left.
So, I quit. I leapt without a net—no lucrative job lined up, barely any savings, no car and, at the time, a computer that barely worked. It took selling nearly all my belongings and moving 4300 miles for me to have my big ah-ha. It was simply time to get off the ledge and bravely belly flop.
Since that brave belly flop (who am I kidding, that was more like a blind belly flop!) I’ve come to some hard earned ah-has. First and foremost, I’ve taken a long hard look at my worth. Not my financial worth but my self-worth. Early on whenever anyone new asked me what I do I’d say, “I’m a barista, but I used to be a teacher.” It drives me bonkers that I still sometimes knee jerk and say it. It tells me I live in a society where the pervasive default resides in what I do. That my career choice is who I am.
I’ve come to realize my self worth isn’t in what I do, but how I decide to show up in the world. I starting listening to myself more and started to trust that the path would appear. (It also helped that I had plenty of friends who when I suggested I become a life coach unequivocally said I’d be fantastic at it.)
I finally stopped listening and started doing. I began to cultivate a new relationship with fear. Rather than it stopping me from pursuing my dreams, I decided it was an ally. Like a mile marker that I was on the right path.
The truth is, I also finally had time and space to listen deeply to myself and those around me. I wasn’t filled up with what I thought I was suppose to do but rather more able to decide how to build my own dream. It’s how I came to accept that my calling is to empower others to move big dreams forward and to do what I can do reimagine education.
The role of empowerment coach and edupreneur isn’t such a far reach. I’ve managed to merge my natural talents with my training and continue educating in a nontraditional way.
The big lesson for me has been and continues to be that sometimes the only thing to do is to bravely belly flop over and over and over again.