I make a difference…

Sue Wyatt tagged me with the meme  “Looking back on your life, what was the worst‘job’ you ever had, that ironically made you a better teacher?” I have to admit that I was tagged with this meme a few months ago by Anne Mirtschin and ignored it because I wasn’t comfortable giving the answer. I wasn’t sure how my answer would be taken. I was afraid to revel a little secret that I have held for so long.

When I was 12 years old I started a lawn service. It was very tough work. I worked up to about 10-15 properties. I loved that job. A few years later I started washing dishes at a mom and pop breakfast/lunch joint. Really hard work, but I loved it. A couple years later they moved me over to the bakery where I eventually moved up to opening and closing the place. Holiday weeks meant working 15 hour days, there was no such think as a break or lunchtime. I really loved that job. With those jobs going on I added in working at a BSA camp away from home during the summer. I led the Scout Craft and Nature sections. Really loved that job. Then I moved on to lead hikes to the Rocky Mountains. Really, really loved that job. Worked at a deli for a month—wouldn’t say I loved it after cutting off the tips of a couple fingers, but it was a great experience. Worked at a dairy farm for three years—loved it. I have been scoring beginner teacher portfolios for the Connecticut Department of Education for 13ish summers—love it. Worked in two different “natural food” stores for 5 years—loved those jobs. Started my own small farm—love that job. So that leaves only one other job that I have ever had…teaching.

I have had a love hate relationship with teaching.  There have been days that I could not imagine waking up and going in, and other days where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  But something has begun to change recently–I no longer have those days in which I hit the snooze 5 times.  This was not the case for my first 10+ years.  For my first ten I was in a school that created a lot of pain and stress.  Every single day there seemed to be a new roadblock put in place to prevent a kid from getting an education.  There were many days in which I would have preferred to wash dishes instead of going to school…actually I would have preferred to wash dishes everyday.  I remember distinctly that it took 5 years before I was able to get in bed at night and fall asleep.  That school was so challenging, depressing, and full of anxiety that it made me deeply reflect on who I was and what I “should” be doing.  Teaching was at that point the worst job I have ever had.  That “worst” teaching position forced me to examine why I had to use a one-size-fits-all curriculum, enforce rules that were senseless, do things that crushed my students spirit in the name of school policy, give grades, adhere to a schedule that stifles creativity, not able to get the supplies or tools I needed to get my kids fully prepared,  work in an environment in which I might be one of a few who believes that a kid’s spirit should come first, and an environment in which my belief in integrating technology in a project based classroom might get me burned at a stake. Everyday all of that weighed on me. Everyday I couldn’t do what I believed in my heart was the right thing to do. I had learned to constantly twist and manipulate the “rules” and “curriculum” to make my kids learning journey a positive one. When I saw some of the things that kids were made to do, and some of the things that were said to them and how they got treated it broke my heart. I agreed with John Gatto. Teaching was at that point in my life the worst job that I ever had. I questioned whether I would ever make a difference.

That laundry list of things that have made teaching my “worst” job also drove me to figure out how to make my students time in class the most valuable of any they will spend in their life, and ironically have made me a better teacher.  I spent years experimenting how to overcome the obstacles. How to over come a traditional grading system? How to make school “real?” How to treat 100 kids as individuals? How to implement a classroom management system that is not coercive and does not strip kids of their pride and dignity? How to give kids freedom in their learning and allow their curiosity to flourish while still following the curriculum? How to get them to succeed in a classroom environment that is a paradigm shift from what they are used to? How to empower them even though they have to ask me for permission and a pass to go and simply pee? How to fully integrate technology into class so that it does not distract or mimic textbook learning, but leads to growth in creativity, collaboration, and communication? How to involve myself in professional development that is innovative and not just full of ideas that I have already read online or led by someone who has never used the ideas in a classroom? How to do all of the previous things in an school environment that does not support change, risk, creativity, or mistakes, and with colleagues that think I am nuts?

Some 14% of all new teachers quit after their first year; 20% are gone within 3 years; and almost 50% are gone within five years. For science teachers it is even higher – about 50% leave after 3 years and  67% after 5 years. Why do up to 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years?  I spent some time this morning researching the reason why and found out that they quit because of many of the obstacles that I have listed.  The only difference between them and me, is that I did not quit.  I knew in my heart that teaching was my favorite job, I just needed to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.

One by one I am slowly overcoming the obstacles and finding the answers to my questions.   It has been a long uphill battle but teaching is no longer my “worst” job.  I am really looking forward to Monday and Tuesday’s classes.  I am excited about the project we are doing next week.  I can’t wait to hear what went on in my student’s lives this past weekend.

Teaching is now becoming my favorite job because in the last few years I am sure I am doing something that I was not able to do before.

Everyday I make a difference.

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