Day Seventeen: I Maybe Hate Teaching?


homework

Ready to get up close and personal with a real uncomfortable feeling? Here goes:

The moment you realize your romantic relationship will end.

Not that you’re dissatisfied. Not that you’re angry. Not that you’re about to say goodbye right now.

Just the moment you realize that someday, probably in the next few weeks or months, you will need to muster the energy, courage, nerves, & clenched teeth needed to break up.

Once you realize that, there’s no going back. Every kiss feels like a lie; every conversation drags. But it’ll be weeks until the thing is finally severed, and you know it.

That’s how I felt a little bit yesterday when I had a revelation –  I don’t like teaching. And it’s what I’ve built my professional life (and, let’s face it – identity, to some extent) on for the past six years.

Let me start out with the bright moments, the parts of our relationship that made me fall in love. Because there were good times, as any sour pickle of a relationship will have.

My love of teaching is parallel to my love of hostessing:

Planning a menu/lesson. Thinking of the different pieces, and how they’d go together. Making the whole thing balanced. Thinking about my guests/students and their predilections and dislikes. Catering to them. Writing lists of the dishes/lesson components, and all the ingredients/materials that go into making them.

Greeting the guests/students. Making them feel soothed and comfortable upon entering my home/classroom. Directing where to hang their coats and hide their bags. Showing them where to sit and giving them something to munch/work on. Creating a calm atmosphere. Turning on music. Encouraging interactions between guests/students who have interesting things to say to one another. Circulating around the room and making sure everyone has what they need.

Now the party/class is in full swing. The guests/students are eating/creating and are happy and busy. They are engaging with one another excitedly, and enjoying the meal/lesson. The room buzzes with warm conversations and clinking plates/scissors. I flit from table to table, popping in and out of conversations. I stand back quietly by the kitchen counter/blackboard and sip my wine/coffee, and think I made this happen. They’re enjoying/learning what I put out for them.

Never, during a dinner party/class, do I like to be the center of attention. I don’t invite friends over/choose to work with students because I’m dying  to talk to them (much as I do love their company). My greatest pleasure comes from the moments when I could disappear and the whole thing could run on its own. The moment when I see that I have successfully created an experience for others, in full, is the moment I work for.

As a teacher, these moments happened. And I loved them. I miss them. But not enough to be a teacher again. These moments were the bright spots, but my quality of life was grey flannel. I’m ill-suited for teaching; I’m too anxious, a perfectionist, a nervous planner, with the lethal combination of a David Tuterra-like sensibility for classroom projects (I like ’em big and full of pizazz – preferably involving video projectors), and a hari-kari-like obsession with completing any task I decide I need to finish. When I came up with projects for my students, the planning never ended. No matter how much I did, there was always something else I could do to make it better for the kids. I worked for twelve hours a day, thought about it during dinner, felt guilty for breaking before bed, and then visions of chairs flying as I tried to coax my students through learning about Frederick Douglass would haunt my dreams. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I would worry about printers breaking and books getting lost when I was out at parties. Holidays were pock-marked with my sneaking out of the dining room to find a computer where I could lesson plan. I was like a junkie who hated her drug. The first time I enjoyed a Sunday was at the age of 27. This is why I left the classroom. This is why I no longer teach.

So, I did love those moments when the room was humming along like a top I’d sent spinning; but not enough to want to teach again, and not enough to want to enter into a contract to lead workshops, which is what I have been wrestling with for the past few days.

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One of my Pedalogical clients – Urban Roots, which oversees & creates educational programming around urban redevelopment projects – is forming a partnership with YouthBuild charter school, a fascinating place that gives students who have dropped out of high school a second chance. Through YouthBuild, students take academic courses half the time, and engage in real world training in a trade – such as construction or nursing – and are helped at the end of the year-long program to find job placement, or enter college. Schools like this – realistic, innovative, unusual, smart – are what inspired my term “pedalogical” back when I was teaching. They make sense. And I feel lucky to be a part of their work.

That sense of luck, however, was making me feel incredibly guilty about a choice I was facing. I had been hired by Urban Roots to create a workshop for the YouthBuild charter school that helps students learn about the social/community context of construction projects. After numerous meetings with my client and the school administrators, I helped to create a series of workshops that walk students through the construction process in the following steps:

  • City Planning/Zoning
  • Site Survey
  • Procurement Process
  • Community Engagement
  • Sustainable Planning
  • Funding
  • Breaking Ground

Sounds pretty interesting, huh? I certainly think so! I would have loved to take these workshops myself as a student, especially since I’ve always had a crush on real estate ( and I used to torture my poor mother when, as a nine-year-old-yenta, I would get the New York Times real estate section every Sunday and circle rentals we could afford in red, and then sit down with her to review the options. Every. Week.)

So, where does the problem arise? Well, I created the curriculum, the calendar, the materials – but now they want me to lead the workshops. At first I agreed, because I felt like I should – if my work is developing curriculum, shouldn’t I stand behind that curriculum and make sure it all goes well? Isn’t it my obligation to support my client, who doesn’t have a teaching background, and lead them myself? Then again, we’d never said explicitly that I would lead them. And curriculum development doesn’t mean teaching. And he was understanding, should I decide not too. But I really should – shouldn’t I?

Interestingly, it was in writing a contract for said client, that I realized the answer is maybe no. I created two contracts – one that included my leading the workshop (in addition to the other work I do for him), and the other which didn’t. I thought “I’ll let him make the choice. If he sees how much more it would cost to have me lead the workshop, perhaps he’ll end up choosing the other. And if he chooses for me to lead the workshop, at least I’ll be compensated for it. Either way will be good.Then I realized this was insane. And either way would not be good. Why was I putting the choice on him? Because I was too much of chicken shit to tell myself the truth. I was dreading leading the workshop. Not because I don’t like kids, or am disinterested in the workshops – hell, I designed them, and I think the topic is fascinating. What is it, then, that is making me so resistant?

Honestly – I really don’t like doing it. And maybe that’s a good enough reason.

Normally I do lots of things I think I should do, precisely because I think I should do them. Wanting to do something isn’t a good enough reason – if I just did what I wanted, I’d be lying around eating Mallomars watching Millionaire Matchmaker all day, right?

Well, when I really let myself think about it, I saw a very different picture.

I have meetings over the next few weeks to visit schools, teachers, professors, community organizers. I look forward to these field trips, and to planning more. I want to have time for them. I love working with Urban Roots. I am helping to figure out how to start it as a non-profit, and I assist the owner in strategic planning. I help him name his struggles, prioritize his ideas, articulate his vision, and build his resources. I believe in his organization’s mission, and its capacity to make real change in communities that need it the most. I want to be involved in his work. I also want to find other organizations with missions I believe in, and help them get over whatever hump they’re struggling with, too. I’m also a Graduation Coach, and that’ll be starting soon (forgot to add that to the list yesterday!). I hope to meet with my ward every other week for lunch. I look forward to those lunches. I want to make time for them. If all goes according to plan, I’ll have a good deal of activities with my civic association – between running the Young Friends group, and the Marketing Committee. I really look forward to that work. I want to make time for it.

 I am also loving writing this blog. I usually set aside the whole morning to work on it. I get out of bed to write it. I need to keep time for this.

Suddenly, I realized what was happening.I was getting in my own way. (Jesus – one day into a resolution and I broke it? This doesn’t bode well for my January 1st commitment to exiling cookies from the Land of My Mouth . . .) I was putting habit in front of reality, and assuming that I would choose sloth over substance, instead of listening to the siren’s call that was actually wooing me – the sea chanty of  meaningful work, connections with interesting people, contributing to my community and city, and growing as a person. I love Patti Stanger, but this is a much more attractive and true alternative to not leading workshops than congealing on a sofa and watching her tell bachelors they’re sociopaths.

My business, Pedalogical, is aimed at consulting – creating plans for others so that they can do better work. Done is the chapter in my life when I do that work for them over the long haul- as an administrator, or as a teacher (which is what I’ve done since college). I like short bursts. I like making something, leaving, checking in. I don’t want to sit at one table too long – I have other guests who need refills.

But it’s not as easy as all that. As with any relationship that’s hard to leave, it’s not just about making your mind up to do it. The tough part is fighting the doubt.

And this isn’t like breaking up with the guy you started dating freshman year of college because he was so different and ohmygod he also likes the Smashing Pumpkins un-ironically. This is breaking up with the person you thought would be your life partner, make babies with you, stay with you until you were old.

My second clue came yesterday morning, when I was filling out the application for membership at Rodeph Shalom. (Yes, y’all, I did it! Let the driedel games begin!) There was a section where you could tick boxes for the different kinds of community service in which you might be interested. I read through each with excitment and ticked them off. Cooking for homebound members, yep – multifaith community service, mmhmm – Homelessness relief, definitely. When I looked down, I had ticked every single box, except one – Tutoring, Teaching, & Literacy. As a former English teacher, this was somewhat alarming. I stared at the paper and thought about checking the box – but didn’t. I had no interest in tutoring. Beyond that, I actively disliked it. This certainly didn’t jive with my self-image. But it did wake me from my stupor.

After spending the day resolved to put my foot down and start a new chapter, last night I worked on the materials for the workshop this afternoon. I had made sheets to go in binders for the students, which I still had to buy. I created envelopes full of cut up vocabulary words for an activity I’d planned for the kids. I took out my most favorite Teacher Possession – my personal laminator (I shit you not) –  and created glossary sheets for them to keep for the next ten weeks, to reference during their learning as they travel through the workshops we’ve planned for them. On the one hand, I felt preemptive nostalgia. By saying “no,” I would miss out on the learning, on seeing their excitement, on getting to know them, on hearing their surprising questions, on witnessing the whole thing work. And while that was sad, a bigger fear nagged me – was I being professionally irresponsible? Was this laziness masquerading as reason?

Was there an opportunity here to work with this incredible school – and I was throwing it away because it made me too anxious? What was my problem that I couldn’t commit two extra hours a week to something? Was I so busy and important that I couldn’t do this work, which was just what I’d thought I was setting my business up to do?

Then again – am I really doing anyone any favors by making myself crazy & unhappy?

I think the test in a breakup is not deciding to do it, but deciding to follow through with it when the doubt has crept in, and you remember how right it feels to spoon at night, how much you laugh together, and you let yourself languor in visions of a future that hasn’t happened yet.

And while I have been asking many questions here about finding my “cause,” I’m beginning to think that it’s as much about editing as it is about adding. And as much as this might seem like breaking up with a professional activity, I think it’s really more that I’m breaking up with a vision of myself that no longer works. 

So, although it makes me uncomfortable, I’m committing to this. Today I’m going to lead the first workshop (as I’ve promised to do at least that), and present my client with Contract Version 2.0 – the one where I will continue to assess the impact of the curriculum and act as a point person for those who run it, but excuse myself from leading the workshops. It’ll be a big step in a different direction – both in being honest with myself about what part of teaching I’ll continue to do (the planning/behind-the-scenes work), and asserting my professional limits.

I’ll keep you posted on how it all goes!

Have any of you been in a situation like this, where you have to tell yourself “It’s not you, it’s me – wait, but you are me. So I guess it is you“? If so, let me know – it’s encouraging to hear how others have done it!

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3 thoughts on “Day Seventeen: I Maybe Hate Teaching?

  1. I’ve learned the hard way that you cannot be everything to everyone, but you can be many things to a few, select people. Trust your instincts and celebrate the power of possibility!

  2. when i advise people going into medicine or who think they may want to be doctors i always tell them to consider other careers. this usually scares the you-know-what out of pre-med students who have struggled through organic chemistry thinking that becoming a doctor is the only way to work in healthcare.

    for example, last summer i was on a trip to honduras and one of my undergrad students confided in me that she was thinking about going to physical therapy school instead of medical school. “that’s great!” i told her. she was shocked. i imagine it’s kind of the same as telling people that being involved in and promoting education isn’t limited to being a teacher. it’s easy to go for the big “named” professions when entering a multi-disciplinary field like medicine or education but i think it takes a lot more maturity to understand your talents/goals/limitations and use those to work within the field you love.

  3. Pingback: Week in Review | Civicization

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