I knew I wanted to be a teacher in my Junior year of high school. This goal drove every one of my academic moves. The strengths of Education programs rooted in my college search. I sought summer jobs and extra-curricular activities imitating teacher-like roles. My holiday breaks volunteering with teachers: grading, organizing, decorating, and planning. I ate, slept, and breathed being a future teacher.
My enthusiasm for teaching was consistent and persistent. When I graduated from college, I immediately stepped into a classroom teaching role. It was as challenging and unglamorous as they say, as I was learning lessons unteachable in college or student teaching. Nonetheless, I was confident in my decision to become a teacher and my capacity to grow and learn from the mistakes and challenges that are the first year teaching. By my third year, my confidence grew. I confronted my weaknesses with an intentional growth mindset. I consulted mentors and worked tirelessly to refine my skills. After months of trial and error, I moved leaps and bounds, particularly with my classroom management skills.
My third year of teaching presented new challenges impacting my mental and physical well-being in new ways. In the midst of my efforts to be the most impactful educator I could be, I was completely unaware of the fact I was literally losing myself. I lost 30 pounds in about a 5 month time period from anxious vomiting, lack of appetite, and sleepless nights. An incessant eye twitch and an obsessive one-track mind revolving around all things school-related replaced my peace and clarity. After eight-plus years of carefully considering my career choice, I felt I, my mentors, and my teachers lied to me. I was not meant to be a teacher. What were we thinking?
In February of that year, I was sick for a full week with simultaneous flu, ear, and sinus infections. Ironically enough, that week spent writing sub plans in my bed between naps was my wake-up call: this was not normal. I considered other career options, resigning to the fact I was not strong enough to teach. After all, the tale of the overworked, underpaid teacher is common and real. I accepted this as my situation, ordinary and unremarkable. This is the price good teachers pay in the interest of children, and I clearly cannot live up to the task, I thought.
This is the price good teachers pay in the interest of children, and I clearly cannot live up to the task, I thought. Click To Tweet
Thankfully, time, space, and reflection taught me otherwise. I am not a disservice to the profession, as I had convinced myself that February lying sick in bed. My students that year had many known social, emotional, and academic needs I was ready to address. I knew we could do it with the right supports in place, so I reached out to leaders and coaches in my school community early in the year to collaborate and problem-solve. What resulted was an increase in observations, critique, and blame for everything regarding any one of my 25 students. I was a hamster on a wheel, and I seemingly couldn’t do anything right: from discipline to math lessons to small reading groups to students’ choices in the lunchroom in my absence. My perceived proactivity and vulnerability stabbed me in the back. Feeling unheard, idiotic, worthless, and helpless, the message I received was, “Figure it out.”
The most challenging roadblock to my progression forward was realizing I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I grappled with questions like: Is it the profession? The school? The leadership? Is it really any better anywhere else? Is it me? I have since moved to teach in a building and position where I am valued and healthy. It is possible to be well doing the work I love as a teacher, and I am glad to say this is my reality today. Teachers are still overworked and underpaid; but I am sleeping, eating, and navigating the world in a normal, acceptable manner that I, like every other professional, deserve. It took me months to accept this. There are many professionals in more severe situations; I finally acknowledged, however, this didn’t mean I had to tolerate my own.
My story may sound dramatic or even extreme. Some may assert I am to blame for what I endured, or that my circumstances did not warrant the reactions my body presented. You could make assumptions about my teaching or self-esteem, and you wouldn’t be the first. At the risk of such criticism, I am compelled to share my experience. Educators need to know the company in such realities. A popular narrative circulates that teachers and working women, in general, are inappropriate, unprofessional, or selfish when advocating for themselves or demanding certain working conditions. This narrative is a lie. I’m not here to tell you when it’s time for you to look for something new. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your time. I do know the time was right for me to find something better; not out of weakness or selfishness but, rather, out of strength and generosity. I hope the educator who needs to hear this can be assured of their own worth and demand something better, too. It doesn’t have to be this way.
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