Category Archives: teaching

Love now; look forward; live with grief

I canceled today’s visit with my shrink because I didn’t want to pay him. He kindly offered to meet with me now and bill me later, but that would have defeated my intent to not spend money at all. I rescheduled our appointment for next month. In the meantime, our new insurance will kick in, and I’ll go and find a psychiatrist who can prescribe my meds at a fraction of the price. He’s a great guy, my psychiatrist—old-school shrink and counselor all rolled into one. Four years ago, the old man put me on the right path. Now, I’ve outgrown him.

I outgrew many things this autumn. Amidst the grief and the sadness, opportunities have presented themselves. It just took me some time to read the signs.

My husband and I take “signs” quite seriously. The week after I met him, I sent him a goodbye email on a Saturday morning, only to run into him later downtown on his way to a free concert. Ten or eleven blissful hours after that, I warned him not to read his email. We’ve been together ever since, thankful that, at that time, he didn’t have an internet connection at his place, and I didn’t go out of town that day like I had planned. What would our lives be like now if he had read that email, if I had left town? I shudder at the thought. These are the signs we reflect upon when life doesn’t work out as planned.

Over the years, more signs came our way, inspiring bold decisions. Big changes in our lives came in clusters. 2011 was a pivotal year. During that year, we moved to a new city, thus solidifying fifty-percent custody of his young children who had moved there with their mother three years prior. I became certified to teach ESL, opening up a new path of career possibilities for me in this new city. And I got my Master’s degree in Nonfiction Writing, something I didn’t necessarily need in my field (most teachers went for the subsidized M.Ed.s), but something that I wanted, and something that allowed me to teach at the college level. It was a big year, marking a complete shift in my lifestyle and my thinking—I became a parent, for real, not just on Wednesdays and every other weekend; I set myself up to leave public school teaching for good (big sigh); and I made peace with the suburbs and a quieter life.

Just as everything changed after 2011, this year looks like it’s gonna be another big one.

In the fall, four things happened: my mother was diagnosed with and quickly died from pancreatic cancer; my husband started a new job; we bought another house; and I was offered a full-time position at my college.

My husband’s last job was going south quickly. He was unhappy, and he took a risk with another company doing work outside of his comfort zone. Because he knew that the first six months of this job, at least, would require tons of travel and training and meetings, he told me he was thankful that I had a light and flexible schedule at the community college where I teach ESL. He would need me to be around more often to help him get the kids to one of their many lessons, practices, games, or activities. I was secretly happy to put off looking for a full-time teaching job to help out at home.

When I taught full-time, I did it because I needed to. I didn’t want to arrive at work at before the sun rose and stay until it went down again. Even when I could get out of there on the earlier side, I paid the price by taking the work with me. While a full-time community college position would not demand as many physical hours of my time as a public high school, I’d been part-time too long to appreciate the difference. Some people, when they’re underemployed, don’t feel busy enough or whole enough, or (I don’t know, I’ve never felt that way)… something… when they’re not immersed in their career. I’m not one of those people.

Then there’s the house. We didn’t buy it to move into it. We bought it to be an investment property. For nine years, I have been stalking real estate as a hobby, watching prices rise, noting flips and changing values. I tried to get my husband on board with the real estate thing after we moved, when the prices in our expensive suburb were comparatively low, but he thought real estate was a fool’s game. Suddenly, over the summer, he became obsessed with real estate investment (Note on his personality: He has two extremes—all in or all out and nothing in between.). I won’t go into detail on how that happened, I’ll just say that now, he relies on my time and my interest to legitimately pursue this risky venture.

These days, when I’m not teaching or cleaning, working out or cooking, or writing, I’m learning about licenses and inspections, tweaking leases, new software for landlords, value-estimating spreadsheet calculations, gleaning private money. And I like it. My work with this house, with establishing new social networks of real estate investors, and with researching the business has felt like earning another degree, except this one is hands-on, complete with the debt and the with the potential for financial growth that come with conventional degrees.

Finally, that opportunity I had thought I always wanted came my way—a full-time teaching position at my college. Full-time positions at the college-level, even non-tenure-track positions like this one, are rare these days. And even more rare is one invited into the position. I’ve spent four years at this college demonstrating my worth. My students respect me. My colleagues respect me, and for at least the past two of those four years, they have encouraged me to try for full-time. That is why I got the TESOL degree—it was the one last step to a full-time position in this field. I was finally getting what I had said I wanted for six years. Except I didn’t want it anymore.

For twelve years, I worked long hours and lived for a paycheck. Then I moved here, and I began to explore life outside of constant work. The new path that I have chosen by reading the signs this fall is a riskier one. I’ll be doing all kinds of work from now on—teaching, raising the kids, writing, researching investments. I won’t have a single career to point to when people ask me “what I do,” which I think is a stupid question to begin with. So much more defines us than our careers—the opportunity, for instance, to watch our oldest disappear through neighbors’ yards on his way to the bus stop as the sun rises; or to drop our youngest off at school in the morning because his cello is bigger than he is, and he can’t manage it on the bus. That’s what I signed up for years ago when we moved away from my urban life as I knew it, to this quieter, slower suburban life. No more excitement, no more regular happy hours and foody hotspots with tattooed waitstaff and disturbing art on the walls. And no more road rage, no more anger and prejudice, no more living only for the weekend, and resenting the kids for ruining it. These days, I look forward to our weekends with the kids as much as I look forward to those weekends without them. I just look forward to being here, period.

When I received that full-time job offer and realized that I had the opportunity to turn it down, to pursue anything that made me tick, I felt very, very fortunate. Since then, I’ve gone to bed sober every night and awakened every morning without a headache, feeling optimistic instead of rundown. Because I can be happy.

Yes, I still burst into tears at random when I, say, look at the Christmas gift list that I had started for my mother, or even when people ask me about her. I still can’t keep it together if I really think about her. But grief can’t define life, just affect it. And while it affects my life every day, I believe I can live with that. I wouldn’t want to forget mom, and I wouldn’t want to stop feeling that sense of loss. It’s a tattoo. And while my father would think I was crazy for turning down a full-time job, security, benefits, to be a part-time housewife, part-time teacher, part-time writer, and part-time investor, my mom would toast me with one of her special alcoholic drinks that she only drank on cruises or on New Year’s Eve, a “Dark and Stormy” or something else that’s more sugar than booze. She never had to articulate it. She was always in my corner.

A little love for the teacher

I have a delicious morning routine that I have indulged to the fullest since I quit teaching in public schools. Twelve years of getting up before daylight, rushing out the door, and trying to map out the day ahead as I exited the highway with the sun’s just creeping up over the dead industrial horizon taught me how to really enjoy a slower morning.

Anyway, my morning routine goes something like this:

  1. I hit the snooze on my smartphone (the alarm is always set for a reasonable, productive hour) for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
  2. I think about my dreams. I always have dreams.
  3. I talk to the animals that wander into the room and that finally inspire me to get up and let them out (I know I sound like lonely pet lady here, but I swear I have a husband. He just operates on an entirely different schedule.).
  4. I get up, let the dogs out, pour a cup of coffee, let the dogs in.
  5. I feed the dogs.
  6. I drink my coffee, pour another cup, and drink that while I skim headlines of various news apps on my Kindle.
  7. I choose the stories that interest me most, and I read them.
  8. I stop reading when I can no longer stand being stared at by two dogs that expect me to take them for a walk the minute I wake up, yet never do.
  9. I take the dogs for a walk.

After that, anything goes.   Often, if it’s a weekday, I spend a good chunk of that day preparing for my night classes—grading or tweaking lessons or creating ancillary materials or just generally staying ahead of the students. It’s what teaching should be. All teachers should be able to think during some point in the day and thoughtfully plan during others. Having that time allows us to connect with students and properly differentiate our instruction. It wasn’t until I had this kind of time to live my life AND teach that I realized that I’m a fairly effective instructor—student-centered, with progressive yet research-based methods that drive learning. How about that? It’s all about time.

Lack of time is the elephant in the room that American educators rarely talk about above the grassroots levels, the “trenches,” if you will. It’s one of those things that just about every other developed country on this earth (and many developing countries) including China provide for their teachers. Not every country provides the kind of time off for students and teachers that the U.S. does, but believe me, Uncle Sam and his league of state legislators have found a way to make teachers pay and pay for those extra weeks in the winter and summer. Given the average quite shitty teacher pay rates that rarely keep up with inflation or rising insurance costs, those two months in the summer, if you can afford to take them (and most younger teachers don’t because they need to make extra money), feel more like rehab than a vacation.

I will go back to public schools, I will do it all over again if I can just show up at a reasonable hour and teach a reasonable number of classes a day with a reasonable number of students in them, and attend a reasonable number of meetings and spend a reasonable amount of time planning instead of whatever bullshit the administration needs me to do to keep the school running on a skeleton crew. My last school (and this wasn’t where I spent the bulk of my career, but a place where I dipped my toes after taking a significant amount of time out of the public school arena. As soon as I saw the writing on the wall, during the first week of my tenure, I officially resigned) had teachers doing the jobs of the custodial crew.

I will do it all over again, I suppose, when pigs fly. Maybe when hell freezes over… ok, that’s enough clichés. Six and counting (Can you find the other three?!).

The sad thing is, when I left that last school, the one I mentioned above—where, incidentally, I ended up spending a month-and-a-half because my principal, literally, wouldn’t let me leave—the friends I’d made on the faculty and staff didn’t hide their envy of me or their dissatisfaction with the way things were. More than one single or widowed mother told me, “I don’t blame you. I could do it, if I would.” The way they looked at me when I said I was leaving might have resembled how a prisoner looks at her cellmate when she’s about to be released, or like a soldier might look at his fellow who is about to finish a tour. Probably shouldn’t be that way.

There are other jobs that teachers can do, depending on the subjects they teach. English teachers have the flexibility to get into writing and publishing fields or to pursue a higher degree and transition into law or project management or something.   Math and science teachers have a wider range of possibilities. I’ve seen young teachers transition out of the field rather smoothly. The older you get, though, the harder it is to make that transition into an entry-level field where you have no experience. I have all my eggs in one basket (Cliché number six, POW!), so I’m staying in this field, albeit part-time. My colleagues above who envied my escape are staying in this field, full-time. Our lives are very different from one another’s.

I could say so much more. The English teacher always can. Honestly, I don’t want every teacher to transition out of the field. Who does? We’re needed. We’re just not loved.