Saturday, January 3, 2015

Deciding to Change

Some of you may already know about my decision to leave my M.A.T. program. Those closest to me know how long I agonized over the decision, biting my nails and complaining that quitting felt like failure, a concept to which I've always been a stranger. My husband knows how many sleepless nights I spent, tossing and turning, nearly crying with frustration and disappointment. When my health finally started to deteriorate--first sleeplessness, then ulcers, then arrhythmia, until finally my doctor, my parents, and my husband all said "enough is enough"--I realized that I was standing at a crossroads and the direction I took was entirely dependent upon me.

I either had to shoulder my disappointment and press forward, or I had to acknowledge that teaching secondary English was simply the wrong career path.

But if you quit, you're a failure. If you quit, everyone will think it's because you couldn't handle it. If you quit, you're a loser. You're just another loser who didn't finish her grad program. If you quit, what are you going to do then? Where are you gonna work? You graduated top of your undergraduate class! What are people going to think of you now? What will you have accomplished since college? Nothing. If you quit, you'll disappoint everyone...if you quit...if you quit...if you quit...

The self-deprecating mantra chanted in my head, over and over. Relentlessly making me feel ashamed and disappointed. Until one day, as I stood in a seventh grade classroom, a revelation swept over me. Cold and clear, it silenced my wheeling, battering thoughts and left a solid purpose in its wake.

The classroom consisted of thirteen seventh graders, mainly girls who were all attitude, ponytails, and lip-gloss, trying to hide the fact that they were really still children. With a soft smile, I remembered being a preteen, how boy-crazy and desperate to be a teenager I was at that age.

I sat in the back corner, my objective to watch the teacher, observing every aspect of her classroom management, strategies, methods, materials, curriculum. My primary focus was to ascertain whether the behavioral needs of one student, receiving special education services, were actually being met. All of these notes would eventually be compiled into a large observation paper and behavior-change-plan. Biting the end of my pen, I quickly realized that my project would end up being a tremendous mess, because the classroom itself was a tremendous mess.

Although the class consisted of less than fifteen kids, although an instructional aide and co-teacher were also present, chaos reigned. Students were up and down, in and out, leaving their desks and materials behind to wander who-knows-where in the hallways. (Without hall passes, although these were available on the door.) Those who remained behind chatted with their friends, chewed gum, tossed candy at each other, shouted, and played computer games. The two or three students who actually attempted to do their work were pestered by their peers into frustration, their hard work going unrewarded. Where were the teachers, you ask? At their desks, grading papers and occasionally shouting out "Be quiet!" "To your desks!" "Stop that now!" "This assignment is for a grade, people!"

Later, the teacher sighed and remarked to me that "This was just what teaching was...eventually you would burn out and just accept the job for what it just had to get through each day and hope you taught them something." When I remarked that one student appeared to be particularly struggling with reading, she nodded and shared that, although he was enrolled in seventh grade, he was reading on a first grade level. To put this into perspective for you, this meant that this thirteen year old boy was reading the same material as my five year old nephew. And he was not alone in his struggle. Only one or two students in the room were actually able to read seventh-grade material. The rest struggled, every day, in every class. If you can't read, your work will suffer not just in English but in every class you pass through.

"We're supposed to help them, but what can you do when its this bad?" his teacher asked me. "You just have to get through the day. You have to figure out how to teach what you're told to teach, but on their level." Her smile bitter, she finished with "You better love this job, because if you don't, nothing you do will be worth it. Because you sure as heck aren't getting paid to do it."

As I stood there, listening to this veteran teacher, a hard thought burst onto my mind: I don't want to be like her. Disappointed in my job. Hiding behind my desk as more than twenty children, entrusted to me by their parents and the state, passed through my classroom learning nothing but how to sneak and play Minecraft. Shouting instead of teaching, bitter and unhappy. I didn't want to just stand up there, letting kids down, one by one. Anger bubbling in my thought, I wanted to demand, "If you hate it so much, why don't you just look for another job? Or DO something other than hide behind your desk and maybe they would learn to read, for pity's sake!"

Yet then, I remembered the snakelike whisper if you quit, you're a failure....if you quit, you're a loser...if you quit...if you quit...

My anger melted into pity for her and for her students. I thought of my other mentor teachers, of my professors, of my peer teacher-candidates who each clearly loved their job and, when faced with the same discipline and teaching issues, met and conquered the obstacles. They had the same teaching struggles, received the same pay, worked the same hours as this unhappy teacher...yet they did so with strength and grace and happiness. I realized that she was wrong. No, teaching was not what she described it to be. Sure, if you let it, it could become that overwhelming burden, but only if you let it. Clearly, other teachers were happy with their vocation.

I wondered: how much pain and discomfort do we put ourselves through when we're too scared to make a change? How much pain do we cause others, because we're too scared to make the decision that needs to be made? 

I drove home, walked in the door, tossed by tote on the couch, and walked into Mark's office. "I'm done," I said. I refused to let myself turn into that: someone who was in the wrong career, knew it, and sludged through anyway.

Teaching at any grade level is one of the noblest professions a person could enter. A teacher literally changes students' minds, permanently shaping and expanding their brains with new knowledge and information. Teaching is an art and a science, profoundly difficult and rewarding. Now that I know a measure of what my teachers went through, the hours they put in at home, the struggles they faced when politicians belittled their work and cut their wages, the extra effort they made to ensure that I received tougher curriculum, that my learning needs were met... I wish I could just hug every one of them.

Teaching is a tremendously fulfilling, challenging, and noble profession, but it is not for everyone. Therefore, I finally made the decision to leave my M.A.T. program because I owe it to myself, to my family, and to my teachers to follow the career path that is correct for me. To reach for the goals that I truly want to attain. To be happy and fulfilled in life. To stay true to who I am and never compromise out of fear.

1 comment:

  1. Your entire post WAS a huge hug for me, Abi. You have written with such clarity about the challenges and rewards and difficult decisions that MUST be made for our own intellectual and emotional and spiritual growth as well as for the people affected by those decisions. I won't say anything about "the way education is today" because it is what it is; some can work within the current paradigm and survive; a few even thrive. But if it does not feed your spirit. . . the kindest, most intelligent choice is for you to get out! Your choice says, "I tried it and I did not like it and I am wise enough to turn my energies elsewhere"--nothing about failure.
    There are other ways to use your many gifts, as your post testifies.
    You are a writer.


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