Today was one of those rare days that I was let out of the building where I teach to learn about teaching. PD, or Professional Development, is always a blessing, particularly as we sail into the warmer, happier days of spring and summer. My PD today lasted from 9 to 11:45 am, meaning I woke up a full two hours later than I normally would, and I had the freedom to wander around afterward, making the sort of frivolous springtime purchases that this sort of unexpected liberty provokes.
Now, sitting in the buzzing Union Square B&N, waiting for my tea to cool, I can’t keep my eyes from darting around every couple seconds, taking in the page-flipping, finger-clacking, lip smacking mass of humanity surrounding me. What are they all doing here? What enables them to just sit here, blithely undisturbed by the kinds of responsibilities and anxieties that plague me nearly sun up to sun down? The obvious response, of course, is they could very well be thinking the same about you, and who are you to say they aren’t as stressed out, or more, or of course mind your own business and put the lid back on your tea before it spills all over your laptop.
Growing up, I often heard my father assert that an individual will know she’s found her calling when she would happily do her job for free. Now that I am more or less Grown Up and have my own Real Job, his words haunt me whenever I have a moment of quiet reflection – which is usually on the train, when the battles and political intrigue of A Feast for Crows grow too wearisome. And I come to the sad realization, every time, that no, I absolutely would not do my job for free.
As with most families, I unwittingly followed my father into the arena of education. I do not use the word ‘arena’ with creative whimsy. Most days feel like I am fighting a battle – whether it’s a battle of wills between me and a student, a battle with unforgiving curriculum and learning standards, a battle with the deplorable state exams we subject the students to, or simply the battle that continually rages within me, struggling to keep up with the myriad duties I have while others are flung at me out of left field.
‘Learning on your feet’ does not do justice to the experience of a first year teacher, particularly one who works with students with special needs. ‘The blind leading the blind’ feels more apt. Basically, this job is hard. It’s constant, and it’s relentless. I have to get up and walk into this arena every single day and essentially put on a superhero cloak when I would rather whimper in a corner. So, no, I don’t think I would do this for free. In fact, I would posit that I am not compensated enough. But as I am merely a first year teacher, the scaly, damp underbelly of the Department of Education leviathan, there is no point in entertaining that thought.
However, of late I’ve found more reasons to pause my cynical musings. There have been moments, increasingly often as this academic year crawls to an end, when I feel compelled to stop and examine a situation with a student before reacting to it. During the pregnant pause between scolding and response; discipline and acceptance (or, more likely, the lack thereof) I gain a sense of clarity. Their insolent smirks, rolling eyes, sucking teeth – these are not actually declarations of war nor aspersions cast upon my worth as a human being. They are very immature reactions to being told off, when they know they’re wrong, when they know their friends are watching. They are, if we’re going to get really real, the exact same things I did 10, 11 years ago. But when I became a woman, I put away those childish things. My students? They’re still stuck.
Seriously – do you remember being a preteen/teenager? Do you?
I wanted to be a writer. I dreamt of publishing the kinds of books I devoured when life was chaos and school was chaos and my parents were chaos and the only things that shut up and made sense were the worlds I could escape to. I found solace in these words, words written by adults who knew what it was like to be a teenager and somehow made it through, mostly intact. I wanted to provide the same comfort, the same sense of loving camaraderie, be the literary shoulder that other struggling kids like me could cry on. I wanted to never forget what it was like; in my eyes, that was the heinous crime so many adults committed, daily, with oblivion and disdain. Forgetting. And life has oh so subtly assured me that I won’t: I’m surrounded by adolescents. Every. Day.
I still have faith that I will fulfill my original dream one day. I’m in my 20s, so the proverbial night is young, however dark and full of terrors it may be. But it makes sense that this is where I am right now. I don’t love my job and I wouldn’t do it for free – but maybe that’s not the point. An all-consuming passionate love for my job, at my age, is a myth. (And if you’re 24 and adore your job, spare me and keep it to yourself.) I’m too green to have found my dream career, and I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m still growing. Like my students, I have days where I just want to suck my teeth and roll my eyes at the world. But when my tantrum has passed, I remember to grow up. I remember exactly why I’m here: my students. Their education. Their well-being. Not, necessarily, my paycheck.
This epiphany, each time it graces me with its presence, makes donning that superhero cloak much easier.
Professional. Developing professional. You know what? It’ll work for now.
This post appeared on The Penny Ledger on September 3, 2013.