Sow. Cultivate. Bloom.

An online journal of an uprooted life.

Archive for the tag “Teaching”

Quitversary

One year ago today I returned to a cold, rainy dark place after teaching in a hot, humid sunny place. It was, on many levels, a shock. The biggest shock is that I quit. I quit teaching. I’ve never made a good quitter so it’s been a long slow acceptance/denial/acceptance cycle.

Oh sure, I probably quit plenty of things in my past, but this one was BIG. It was my career. I hadn’t padded my way out of it into a lucrative other job. I hadn’t saved up thousands of $$. I didn’t even have a car anymore. Or much of a working computer. 

What I did have was an utter sense of loss and failure. 

In the last year, I’ve dug out from under that feeling but it still loves to rear it’s ugly head. I run into former colleagues and they ask what I’m doing now, and I internally cringe, when I say I’m a barista. It’s like ripping the band-aid off all over again. But I’ve done it so many times now, it stings less and less. 

Because the truth is, on many levels, I’m ten tons happier. What I am not is ten tons of financially stable or less stressed.  Since last December, I’ve worked as a virtual community organizer for a wonderful education non profit (temporary), as a barista at two different places, subbed a handful of times and worked for Burning Man. I have applied for (I’ve lost count) countless jobs for which I am absolutely capable and qualified for and never heard a word. At this point, I’d love a rejection letter!!

I’ve consistently worked between 24-30 hours a week. I’ve tried to get more hours but there are none to give. Because I do not have a car, I commute via bus. My bus ride to/from work is upwards of 45 minutes each way,  which pretty much bars me from getting a viable second job. I suppose it isn’t impossible, it is just that I have my limits. 

I’ve learned that it’s one thing to do the food service job in one’s 20s and a whole other beast in one’s 30s. My body has finally adjusted and I cannot boast too many aches and pains anymore. When I first started? My calves, feet, hamstrings would all conspire to make my lower back a mess. I thought I’d done a lot of standing when I taught but I was ever so wrong. In the first few months at this gig, I’d have days when I couldn’t do much else after getting home other than sit or lay down. 

It became clear pretty early on that being able to buy groceries was going to be a struggle. A friend urged me to apply for food stamps and I did. I began receiving $113/month. In May I took a barista job much farther from home with a $2.31 raise per hour and the possibility of health benefits after 90 days. I failed to realize the daily bus commute would cancel out any extra monies earned. Because the weather was nice I occasionally rode the 12 miles one way, on my bike, to save money. 

Around June I received a letter from DSHS asking me to please update my status. I am not a good liar so I reported my new job. This magically made me then receive $16/month. In late October I received a letter that my food stamps were being cut to $15/month and finally last month, they were cut altogether, with the explanation that I make too much to continue to receive benefits. Funny because there was no change in my income. Except I now was having $99.84 taken out of my paycheck every two weeks for my newly activated health benefits. 

I feel a little remiss giving so much information about my financial state. It’s not to garner pity, but rather to tell the truth. In the last year I’ve gained a much different perspective on the great recession and how a growing number of people in this country barely live. The luxury of savings is lost on me now. My dreams of continued world travel are effectively on hold until who knows when. My ability to pay off my credit cards is a joke and my student loans are on deferment.  I live paycheck to paycheck. In mid September after a bout with strep throat, and at an especially stressful time about money, I developed shingles. (Thank goodness for health insurance!) My experience has me wondering what other realities hard working folks in our country face day-to-day. My empathy has never been more honed. 

All this said, I am still privileged. I could ask my family for money and have. However, they are not in a position to help as they grow older and deal with cancer (in remission) and a major stroke (now recovered from).

I’m white. I’m educated. English is my first language.  In the social welfare system, these three facts give me privilege. 

So, all this reality doom and gloom aside, 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 (and I still knee jerk this) whenever anyone new asked me what I do I’d say “I’m a barista, but I used to be a teacher.” I STILL do this. It drives me bonkers that I still knee jerk “…but I used to be…!” 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. 

Nay, it is not.

I’ve come to realize my self worth isn’t in what I do, but rather in how I make do.

My self worth is worth far far more than what others think. My self worth is in the vocal jazz lessons I meticulously save my tip monies for, in the meals I plan (so that my little bits of money go far) without losing my love for good food, in how I’ve managed to help friends by offering them a literal place to stay and how I can now dye my hair crazy colors without my ability to do my job being questioned. 

The other incidentals of quitting are that I’ve learned to be really creative and resourceful. I can now plan five meals based on one baked chicken. Sure I could do that before, but I didn’t have to do it out of necessity. I’ve learned to not dwell too much on what I don’t have but rather to try to stay focused on what I do have. Because I am not exhausted all the time, I think I’ve learned to savior things more. Every Tuesday or so we go to the local ice cream shop and play pinball, eat ice cream and sometimes enjoy $2 cider/beer. We dance around the house to Bollywood music. We make sure to try to see art on the nights it’s free. I’ve been able to read SO MANY books this year.

Lastly, a note about teaching. I miss my kids fiercely. I wonder where they are and how’re they’re doing. I fret for my former colleagues. From the outside looking in, the environment for teachers and students doesn’t appear to be getting any healthier. I encourage all parents (I do this on the bus when I strike up conversations) to help teachers by opting their children out of standardized tests. Every parent I’ve talked to, has had no idea they could opt their child out. Go here, spread the word. Opt out. 

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The Aftermath…

Some months ago I felt the need to process my choice of leaving. So now what?

I struggle every day to feel I have purpose. I’ve begun to just say I am on sabbatical. I live paycheck to paycheck and am familiar with the inner working on how to get food stamps and then how those food stamps can be reduced to $16/month when I take a “higher” paying job (whoo $2 more per hour).

I ride my bike to reduce bus costs so I can pay for my groceries. I have no health insurance and am lucky to have found good care at a sliding scale clinic.

My massive amounts of student loans are on deferment.

The pros are that I have had time. Time to do things I always wanted like plant a garden, take voice jazz lessons, redo my backyard, paint in the house, reconnect with old friends and am gearing up to paint the exterior of the house.

I’ve taking up cooking a bit more again.

I’ve learned to just say I am on my gap year.

But…oh and there is always a “but.”

Slinging the java bean has its limits for excitement and purpose. I long to continue in education but I know for my own health I cannot step foot back in the classroom. I feel quilty for not having been able to hack it while I see and hear of my colleagues fighting the good fight.

I’d have thought I’d have been decided and over my decision by now. But the truth is, I am in mourning. I left behind stability and a piece of my heart.

That said, there have been many lessons in finding the bright side of having walked away. I still stay connected by working with a wonderful group of educators around education policy. I’m still passionate as ever about education issues.

Though me and my self-worth like to wrestle now and then–am I irrelevant? What do I do now?

It hit me the other day, I’m in mourning. Though I gave up a career, I also gave up a lot of stability. I am neither angry or frustrated by my own choice. I accept it. But is isn’t stress free. I’ve come to know what it must feel like to be somewhat poor. I’m thankful for the free meal I get at work every lunch so I don’t have to spend what little I make on one more meal in the day.

This is not a oh pity me post. It is, for me, a record of what my “gap” year is teaching me. I’ve learned to be resilient, positive and to keep my humor about me. I am so grateful for the little things like a friend offering me a ride, helping me run an errand b/c I am at work and for cooking me dinner.

My gap year has given me time. And I’m ever so slowly healing. I’m reminded of a long ago motto from my high school years by one Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Do not go where the path may lead,

go instead where there is no path,

and leave a trail.

Dropping out…not just for high school anymore.

Dropping out…not just for high school anymore.

Since writing my post entitled “So I become a statistic…” I am seeing more and more posts and publication of teachers dissent, heartbreak, distrust and sorrow. Maybe it is that effect like when you buy your first new car, you swear you see it everywhere? 

But this isn’t like a new car. This is public education. We work with developing humans. We are in our prime and we are giving it up. We are dropping out in vocal ways.

I’m left to wonder how we channel this sea change to create real change. 

So I become a statistic…

Ten years ago, this year, I stepped into an elementary school as an AmeriCorps VISTA to help run the 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 scraps 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. I simply had moon lighted at a coffeeshop a block down from my current gig. All’s fair in love and coffee, so I say.

Still flailing about in my existential goo, I took the job at the 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 began. I worked and I studied. I had to retake the writing portion of the state mandated test that is a prereq for getting into graduate school for teaching.

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. 

Que 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 yet I had some unwavering undying source of hope that I could do this, that I could make 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 miracrulouly be at grade level!

And through all of this I could somehow stay in tact in my psyche? 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, the strength to do this.  Maybe I wasn’t meant to teach.

Still, I kept on. I believed in education. I believed in my students abilities to learn. I wanted to believe in the system.  But at every turn it felt stacked against me and my students. 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 and yet here I was supposed to lead them to the next level using curriculum materials that essentially laughed in their faces? 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 I did have 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 were 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 still rages to this day. When I listened to or looked at the media I was constantly told how to do my job and what about my job I was doing very wrongly. The union seemed an antiquated joke far from helping create a professional atmosphere in which teachers could labor.

Sure 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 this way. I wanted change and got it in the form of securing 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. (See um, well, all previous posts!)

I left Costa Rica to come back to the middle of the school year in the U.S. and was hired as a sub in my former district. I have the distinct honor of working with very talented teachers through a great nonprofit. I recently was working on my application for a hybrid role through said nonprofit and it hit me. I don’t want to do go back full time. The thought of returning to the classroom with the possibility of no hybrid role, sends daggers into my heart. 

Yes I’ve built it up.  Yes I am extremely hard on myself.  But the thing I loved about education has morphed into some unrecognizable shadow of itself. What JOY is there in learning anymore? 

I most certainly feel that a big part of my trepidation is lack of solid classroom management. But I think it goes far beyond that. What have we allowed our schools to become? What environment are we creating for teachers and students to labor in? When every minute of every day is regimented and accounted for and taken to task over? When teachers are no longer trusted to know what to do with those precious minutes? No wonder I have a hard time with classroom management when the environment of creativity, discovery and curiosity has been so hijacked by competitive lust for passing tests.

So here I sit, tears literally flowing from my eyes to say, I’ve become a statistic. I’m not returning. At least not this fall. It is such a painful admittance I hid it from myself for a long while.

It stings. It aches. It smarts. 

I’ve not reconciled it one bit.

I oscillate between the exhilaration of freedom and the depths of having failed. I still wonder, have I failed or did the system fail me?

Ten years I’ve been in education. If we can destroy it so readily in ten years my hope is that we can begin to heal it in the next ten years’time. 

To all my colleagues past and present, I lay my heart at your feet and ask you to safe keep it until I find the strength to jump back into the arena. You are all my heroes/heroines. 

 

 

Schoolyard Troubles

As I begin to wind down my time here I’ve been reflecting more and more on some of the similarities and hilarity that I’ve encountered this year. My first two years teaching yielded a plethora of funny yet maddening events. Just yesterday I was reminded about how in my first year, one of my students pushed another student off a small wall onto cement which caused fallen student to break both her ulna and radius on her right arm.

My time in teaching has not been without drama. Oh boy, has it not.

I used to write a little end of the year diatribe to my colleagues called Me Teach Pretty Someday. And here I am about to finish up year 5 and well, I’m still not teaching pretty.

So without further adieu, some schoolyard troubles and funnies from my year:

1.) The other day a student put his hand on my belly and said “Teacher? Baby?” Keep in mind I’m 5’11”, run 5K three times a week and lift weights. What I’m saying is, I don’t really have a belly. Later that day, I pulled him aside and said “If you learn anything from me this year, ________, let me tell you, don’t do that ever again to any woman. Trust me.”

2.) Just the other day, a kid bit another kid enough to break skin. Did I mention, this was an almost 6th grader? Yup. Defense is rough.

3.) Once during question of the day, which was “What would you do during the Zombie Apocalypse?” a student replied “First I’d paint myself like a zombie, then I’d hunker down and start folding my thousand paper cranes.” I had just taught them about the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Priceless.

4) Just yesterday someone took a fancy to squirt rubbing alcohol into a classmates eye. They had made some project in Social Studies….I have no idea! All I know is, WHAT?! How do you even do that?!

Though my list is long, for now I’ll leave it at that. These are the moments I like to look back at and laugh at because they are the ones that make this job so dynamic. I’ve learned it doesn’t matter where you go, kids are kids and dang do they do some random things.

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