Thursday, March 21, 2019

a calling recalled

This week, I submitted my resignation from teaching.

I can't remember not wanting to be a teacher. I was an only child for nine years, playing School most of that time with a makeshift classroom of stuffed animals arranged in relentlessly neat rows, each assigned a name in an old ledger from my grandpa's business. Occasionally I roped my younger cousin into joining me but only as a student, never the teacher. If he thinks of those days fondly, he's being kind; I was a rigid taskmaster in my early days, assigning him (and the hostage toys) leftover handouts my former-teacher uncle gave me in an old briefcase. I also remember conjuring infractions to punish him for, as I hadn't yet learned the art of positive behavior reinforcement. Later, I divided my time between torturing my cousin with math & spelling worksheets and preparing 'lessons' for my baby sister, using Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Kangaroo as inspiration. As I got older and better at interacting with others not as a tyrant, I found myself seeking out other broader, more finessed ways of sharing information I learned from my constant reading and TV-watching.

All through real school, my favorite parts of the day were staring at cute boys, reading, and writing (order may vary); on the best days, I helped cute boys with their reading and writing. The one time I skipped class in high school was to finish an English paper due later that day. I admired most of my teachers, especially the English teachers, and those I didn't served as examples of What Not To Do when I got their job. I also babysat a lot and spent most of that time reading to and interacting with the kids before watching TV and eating snacks; I felt like I was a natural.

In college I fell in love with Thirtysomething and the idea of becoming an Advertising Executive (never mind that I was unclear on what that actually meant), but really I was only in love with the cool houses and wardrobes that apparently came with working as an Advertising Executive (maybe?). Teaching was still in my periphery but I knew it wouldn't pay well and in the late '80s, making money was The Goal. In my junior year, an honest professor mentioned that anyone not willing to sell every awful product being sold would never make it in advertising; I dropped the class and promptly enrolled in the School of Education. I relished the Literature classes directed at future teachers; I tutored other students in writing; I spent time working at the campus preschool and babysitting for graduate students. During student teaching, I surprised myself with instinctual moves like bonding with an otherwise difficult kid through our mutual love of football, and gently redirecting the teen who earnestly asked me to prom. I also incorporated Wayne's World and an SNL skit into lessons. Rock star.

I cherish the highlights of my time in classrooms: from the middle school where I designed curricula from scratch and helped 8th graders plan community projects to the GED prep work in a group home with adjudicated youth to the substitute teaching where I perfected my Love & Logic techniques, to these past 12 years at my favorite place outside of my own home. Despite the sometimes long hours and occasional emotional beatings, I continually felt called to teaching.

Until this year. When I signed my intent to return last spring, toward the end of my sabbatical, I didn't think twice. Why wouldn't I go back? I had gladly dedicated most of that time off to my daughter and she was graduating; I'd pursued some Fun Things but none of them had specifically offered me a new career. I put my classroom back together, planned some fresh lessons for different classes, made connections with my students, as usual. Yet, it felt different. My boy continued his monthly chemotherapy treatments; my girl marched alone in football games 450 miles away; I kept comparing my hours of preparing lessons to the hours I'd spent volunteering with homeless youth and at film festivals and with public radio pledge drives, and I longed for that freedom to use my time as I wanted. And, I realized, as I needed.

I knew what I was accepting when I chose to be a teacher. I have loved even the hardest, most mentally trying moments of all of my experiences as an educator. I consider every instance a gem in my crown - I couldn't have become the wife, mother, friend, or woman I am without having absorbed the digs and disappointments along with the praise for and pride in my classroom time.

It is strange now to be at the half-century point of my life deciding to change direction, to alter my identity, to become Something Else. More than strange to not even be able to name the Something Else I'm becoming - I might write, I might be a professional volunteer, I might be the substitute teacher some people love and others think is weird. Yet all of these things feel more acceptable than staying in a position where I ought to be uplifting but am instead feeling like a slow drain of inspiration & joy.

I hope that those coming into my place are feeling how I did for a couple of decades - excited about designing ways to engage sometimes-surly teens, energetic in their desire to instill a love of learning - and that they are open to embracing the unknowns of classroom life, the demands of loving other people's children, the challenges of balancing dedication to teaching with necessary self-care.

I don't think I failed, but I am exhausted and ready to move on.
Here's to a new calling.