As I sit here at home during a global pandemic, worrying about our students at home, worrying about our teachers at home, worrying about how to best care for everyone in our school community without sharing physical space, worrying about how to care for myself, I find myself confronted with the reality that I don’t really know what I’m doing. What I do know is that I’m trying, and I care deeply. And I think that may just be enough. In fact, perhaps it was always enough. Do any of us really, and I mean REALLY, know what we are doing? If you are like me, someone who is examining what you are doing and who you truly are, let’s spend a little time together. Thank you for sharing this journey of becoming with me.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a teacher. I know. I know. In the world of education, that’s blasphemy. I found myself sitting in college courses with peers who spoke of education as their calling and ultimate passion. They spoke of a long line of educators who preceded them in their family. Their mom’s, and mom’s mom’s. The truth is – I wanted to be a broadway dancer. I loved the thrill of escaping on a stage, becoming someone different, having other people clap for that stranger I portrayed. I liken it to following a recipe. Practice the routine for hours at set times during the week. Put on the make-up, put on the costume, put on the smile, and people will cheer for you. They will stand for “you.” But it’s not really you. It’s you pretending to be someone else. And I was drawn to being someone else. So, when my mom, a single parent, encouraged me to get a college degree in something else, you know, as a back-up plan, I found myself desperating searching for a different way to be another-to be that someone else because in being someone else, I took refuge. I felt safe. So, I said I wanted to be a television broadcaster. I could follow the recipe. I could read the script, practice my facials and vocal inflections. I could hide behind the make-up and dress like a senator’s wife. I could pretend to be someone else. Now, let me just say that I have much respect and adoration for others in these careers. This is just how I pictured myself in these careers. So, when my mom encouraged me to continue searching for a career path, I settled on being a teacher.
I knew how to do school. There was a predictability. A bell schedule. A predictable way that teachers were supposed to be. A way that school was supposed to be. I could dress and act the part. Yes, yes this will do. And so it began, my uninspired pursuit of a career in education. That is exactly how it started too. Tired and uninspired, but I followed the recipe set before me by fellow, seasoned high school teachers. Assign the reading, invite students to talk about the reading, assign the paper, walk kids through how to write the paper, grade the papers. Pour my coffee, drag my tired self to school, wear jeans on Fridays. Rinse. Repeat. And this is how I lived my life for a few years. Yet somewhere deep down, I realized that this life of mine was a bit hollow and empty. I wasn’t enjoying my work. I wasn’t enjoying my life. I needed a shake up.
But here I was in this career. I had boundaries. I couldn’t go very far without losing what I had already put into my state retirement system. I didn’t want to stray from the comfort and predictability of my schedule, my salary, the safety of this character I had learned how to play. So, where could I go? I was certified in 7-12 English Language Arts. I could leave high school and venture into a different universe. Middle School.
And that I did. My first year teaching 7th grade English was eye opening. I tried to follow my recipe. Assign the reading, discuss the reading, teach the paper, grade the papers. But the subjects in my kingdom were not impressed. They brought their own struggles and teenage angst to these four walls we shared. I was playing the character, and there was no applause. No standing ovation. They were not enjoying my class. Here I thought that perhaps I would venture into the world of middle school, and they would appreciate my efforts more than high school students, but as it turned out, middle schools kids weren’t here for the content. For the books. For the lessons. Just like high school students, they were bravely showing up and hoping to be seen. To be engaged. To be cared for. To matter.
So, I started to engage in meaningful, quick hallway conversations with Dr. Kim Given, the gifted intervention specialist across the hall who became a good friend and mentor. Those 3-4 minute conversation sprints about life and pedagogy as we monitored the hall between classes and greeted students, started to change me as a teacher. As we got to know each other better, I started taking more risks in my classroom. I started reading more books about how to reach students. I started to see that what I did in the classroom truly mattered. That there wasn’t just one way to do things nor one way to do things that worked for every student. I tried and failed and tried again, and I started to slowly become a decent teacher. This process of becoming a better teacher and having my students and other people notice the good in my teaching started to awaken the performer in me. I relished the character I was playing. The applause. The “standing ovations” in the form of positive phone calls, emails, special visitors who came to observe me teaching in the classroom.
And yet still, something was missing. I was still not feeling like a whole person. I was still playing a character. I did not feel a deep sense of connection to the work nor myself. Then, one summer, my husband and I took a trip to Greece and Italy. It was the first time I had flown over an ocean into another country. Wifi was limited. No cable tv. No distractions. And as I looked out across ancient ruins and vast expanse of salt water, I felt gloriously small, stripped from the roles and characters I had been playing, just me. Small and insignificant. Somewhere in all of that, it became clear to me that I had spent most of my life in hiding. Behind the costumes, the roles I was playing, my obsession with being a good teacher, there was a person who didn’t know how to quiet the noise and listen deeply to herself. And that girl was tired. Tired of chasing good pedagogy. Tired of playing the character. Tired of chasing the approval of others.
So, I started spending less time reading and reflecting upon how to be a good teacher and more time discovering how to be a more whole, fulfilled human being. How to be imperfect and scared and show up anyway. I didn’t set out to become a leader, an educational leader, a better professional. I set out to lean into the fullness of the human experience. To become a feeler of all feelings – to be present in all moments, not just the good ones. I set out to become more comfortable with the raw and messy parts of myself. And yet I suppose that somewhere in all of this, I’ve become a better leader because I’ve become a more authentic and present human being. All of this has me wondering what would happen if we spent a little less time chasing professional learning and more time on our inner thought lives. I’m reminded of a Howard Thurman quote, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So, this blog is about coming alive. Awakening parts of ourselves. Doing it scared. Couraging. Learning how to walk in our own humanity. Finding happiness in the human experience, so we can radiate that kind of honest joy back to others. This blog is about how only when we belong to ourselves first, can we truly belong to a community and find a sense of Us-ness. It’s about how we can create experiences for others that invite connection, creativity…that invite them to journey with us in meaningful ways that transcend professional box checking. Because that’s where the magic happens. When together, we all realize that the real work is the work we do on ourselves as human beings, we can do so much more than we give ourselves credit for. When we find ourselves in connection with others who make us feel like we can grow and expand, we grow and expand. Together. And one day, sometime in the near or far future, we will find ourselves having outgrown our current realities. Whether it’s a job or relationship, good things must come to an end. Because there comes a time, when what was once good for us is no longer great for us. Only when we know ourselves and trust our journey of becoming our biggest and best selves, can we know when it’s time to close a chapter. To walk away. Endings are necessary. Without endings, there are no beginnings.
Let us begin.