Archive | November, 2011

Go ahead, contradict yourself

28 Nov

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)                                       –Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

To remove judgments is one of my biggest challenges in my quest for enlightenment. Since I have such a deep memory, I’ve pointed out my loved ones’ contradictions far too often. “Just six months ago, you said XYZ, and now you’re saying ZXY. What do you even believe?” Perhaps I should have considered a career as a political journalist. That annoying habit would finally come in handy.

Since I value genuine people with principles, I used to view contradiction as not holding on to one’s principles. Even though I was flip-flopping all the while. You can’t see yourself in the mirror clearly: it’s always at an angle and reversed. So when I was staring at everyone else, I saw every wrinkle, every blemish. When I listened to them speak, I heard every misplaced sigh, voice crackle, and could compare old tapes with new tapes. I couldn’t hear myself because I was so busy talking. AND BEING RIGHT.

Over the years, I’ve learned to value contradiction. The more we learn, the more we change our minds about things we so vehemently believed prior. We didn’t have all the information before, or we lacked an important perspective when we formed that passionate opinion. Sure there are clear-cut lines in our world and a place for black and white thinking. For example, we all agree ethnic cleansing and child molestation are wrong, but there are few issues that can be reduced to pure good vs. evil. Life is easier when it’s a superhero world of good guys vs. bad guys, and it’s popular during election season–black and white campaign promises get the loudest cheers. People want something to fix their problems, to un-muddle their confusion. Black and white solutions are appealing for exactly those reasons. Wallowing in gray area just makes us feel more overwhelmed. At least at first. But if you study the gray long enough, clarity emerges. In teeny, tiny pieces at a time.

I recently started to grapple with my own contradictions because of my current feelings over my career. If you ask any of my former colleagues they would likely tell you I was one of those annoyingly-positive teachers who did not sweat the daily irritations of my field. Someone who approached teaching with an open mind. Someone who believed most obstacles could be overcome. Someone who cared deeply about the success of my students. Now I see someone  who is only partially those things. So all those old feelings of “how long will I stay a classroom teacher” have resurfaced and gained strength. At first I was disappointed in myself because I viewed not wanting to be a regular classroom teacher for the rest of my life as giving up. On the system, on myself, and ultimately on the kids. That last little devil gets me. All you teachers out there who want to give me the “stay a teacher” speech, don’t worry, I know it by heart. I’ve given it several times myself. And that’s why it’s such an emotional subject for me. Because even at my lowest point, I have not stopped caring about my students. I’m not the jaded teacher who believes the next generation is doomed. Here’s a very long post on my optimism if you have some time to kill.

Since I’ve taken up residence in this career crossroads, I’ve developed even more empathy for my fellow teachers. Their dedication to education inspires me every day. They’ve made it harder for me to consider leaving for other pursuits because I’m so honored to be part of them. Contradiction at work again: I want to want to stay teaching because I believe my job is important, but my heart is somewhere else right now. It may come back to the classroom, or it may follow my other interests. Either way, I am grateful to live in the gray until the lines seem less blurry.

“Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

–Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights

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Come on, ride the train

6 Nov

August brought me a Triple Crown of anniversaries. One third of them made me smile and walk around in shell-covered beach bliss. The other two thirds left me with brief excitement followed by frustration and more career confusion.

August 21: First wedding anniversary

August 22: Tenth anniversary as a teacher on the first day of school

August 28: First anniversary as a Floridian

The combination of the latter two have me feeling especially conflicted. The 10-year anniversary of  9/11 is the only reason I realized it was my 10-year teaching anniversary. I remember clearly being a brand-new teacher on September 11. I remember being asked by a student why everyone was freaking out over something that  happened in New York and DC. I also remember not handling his ignorance very well. Ten years later, handling ignorance without losing my shit  is a daily part of my job. But there are moments of brilliance along the way to inspire you. Or just keep you hanging on for another year.

When I started teaching, I thought I’d do it for five years and see what was next. Then during year three, I started advising a publication which kept me invested for longer than I predicted. After year four or five, I started to love teaching (and especially advising), and thought maybe five years would turn into ten one day.

Well,  at the start of year 11, it’s  very one day at time down here.  As I’ve started boring myself with my own career confusion, I decided to postpone any future decisions until the end of this year.

Transition is one of those long train rides that never  ends. The train keeps stopping at every seedy station, but you have to stay on the train. It’s not your stop. So instead of looking out the window and counting the miles as they crawl by, I’m trying to close my eyes, listen to my iPod, and go to sleep. When I wake up, I hope to arrive at my destination. Or stay on the train because I like the ride. Either way, I’m searching for peace.

Before a new order can emerge, there is chaos. Similarly, whenever you are about to have a breakthrough you will experience confusion and chaos. Confusion really is a prerequisite state in order for us to have breakthrough experiences. This means that whenever you feel confused, there is something happening within you. —Henri Junttila

I spent the earlier part of this semester feeling like I was regressing, reverting back to last January when nothing made sense, and each day was longer than the one before it. This was frustrating–wasn’t I past this? The above quote I read on Dumb Little Man made me think about my confusion in a different way. Maybe I’m not going backwards, but instead to a new place  I’ve never been. And like all clarity, it has to come from struggle. The kind of struggle that has me in a mental boxing match every week, sometimes every day.

Part of me thinks I’m burned out from teaching, especially in the anti-teacher climate gaining movement in my state and around the country. In earlier times I would have completely ignored it, and followed the “shut my door and teach my kids,” mantra of teachers everywhere. But this year I’m finding that difficult–my heart is with the kids but not in my job. While I still love my kids (even when they are auditioning for the role of difficult student in an after-school special), I don’t find the same rewards from teaching I usually do.

It’s not them; it’s me.

I used to feel so lucky to be a teacher–while it was often stressful and overwhelming and full of work I was never actually finished with, I loved it. It kept me energized and creatively challenged. And my students and colleagues kept me inspired (and laughing). It never felt like a job. It was a community. A life.

This year it feels like a job. Suddenly I have so much empathy for people who feel like this all their lives. They go to a job, and their life is what they long for at the end of each day. If I’m just going to a job every day, I don’t want to do something as important as teaching. Ultimately I worry it will affect my students. And I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t stay a teacher if I couldn’t best serve those kids.

My new colleagues have coping mechanisms I haven’t yet developed to survive the bureaucracy of my county and state. I watch them in awe as they trudge through the minefields of education policy, gritting out smiles even though they witness the effects of over-testing every day in their classrooms. They see the defeat of the kids who have been christened failures by standardized tests since before they can remember. My students define themselves by the 1-5  score on state  testing. The kids know they are 1’s and 2’s and they behave accordingly. It’s much more difficult to motivate my Florida students to work hard enough to improve: they have too much evidence to convince them that’s impossible. And yet, this same system will institute merit pay that will base teachers’ pay on student achievement. When you’ve set up the kids to fail, you’ve set up the teachers to fail eventually as well.

And by fail I mean stay motivated to push through the day-to-day demands of being a classroom teacher. When you care,  you need motivation. And I’ve learned this year that I’m terrible at not caring.

I’m on the train, headphones on. But sometimes I sneak a look out the window.