“Stand close to the edge, for on the edge you can see all sorts of things you cannot from the center.”--Kurt Vonnegut
Well, I stood close to the edge. And I saw a bunch of stuff I couldn’t see from the center.
As many of you might recall, a few months ago, I posted an entry about how I had accepted a new job at an administrative level within the Grand Rapids Public Schools system and I was going to be leaving the classroom to write curriculum for a brand new school. I was really excited about this and also a bit nervous--trepidation is natural in moments of significant change, of course--at least that’s what I kept telling myself.
On March 31, I bid farewell to a fantastic school district--one where I had worked for almost 3 years as a pretty kick ass 9th grade English teacher in one of the BEST English departments I’ve ever been part of with some of the BEST students I’ve ever known--to help start a new high school. Leaving my classroom was one of the hardest and most worrisome things I had ever done, punctuated by a conversation with a family friend only days before I was slated to leave, where she asked, in a very well meaning manner, “But don’t you just love kids? Education is only worth it because of the kids,” and I found myself grasping for the right words to say in response--because she was verbalizing EVERY fear I had been telling myself for weeks--I love kids, being around students is the best part of teaching, changing kids lives is what drives me...and here I was walking into a job where I would not be teaching, but would instead be surrounded by spreadsheets and Power Standards and all the educational things that don’t get me out of bed in the morning, but instead make me want to stay buried under the covers and pretend Betsy DeVos isn’t a real entity.
But still, I was driven by this excitement of being part of a new school, of doing important work in a community I care deeply about and for creating educational equity for students from across the city. I was basically being asked to start a new high school and I was going to be at the forefront of that work--this was amazing. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. And so, I told myself that it would be ok, and that I could always go back to teaching (I had been told that after a year of curriculum work, I would become the 9th grade English teacher at the school, so I knew I had a direct path back to the classroom), and that leaving my current district was ok.
I waded through Parent Teacher conferences in the weeks leading up to my departure, and cried in front of more than a few parents as they told me how much they and their student would miss my class. I cried when my department helped students make a farewell video and when the secretary on the last day quoted the lines from “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Suess over the school intercom and when a line of over 100 kids was outside my door waiting to hug me goodbye, including kids I had never thought liked me, much less would want to give me a hug. I did all of that, because I told myself that I would be changing the educational face of Grand Rapids by taking this new job and taking this risk.
I convinced myself it was right.
On April 10, I started at my new school and, I can safely say, within 24 hours, it was clear, that it was not right. While there is a lot I can say about why this new position was not the right fit, I don’t want to go into too many details because there were MANY things about the job that were great, starting with the people I worked with--they were wonderful from start to finish, and intelligent, kind, passionate, creative--they made going to work each day worthwhile for me and I value them as educators and friends. The kids too--in the small amount of time I was able to spend with kids, I loved the students--again, kind, creative, passionate, interesting kids.
But what was wrong about this position was that it wasn’t classroom centered and I was isolated. I spent much of my time working alone in a room, considering standards and benchmarks that meant little to me. I realized within a very short time that this is not what drives me as an educator--kids drive me. Spreadsheets and standards do not, and while those are important aspects, of course, of being a teacher and changing lives, for me the relationships I create and maintain with students and families in a community are the reason I want to be in education. There were a lot of other things that were not the right fit too in a lot of ways--I realized that very quickly, and I will not go into all of these here, except to say that I know I made the right decision to leave. It wasn’t the place for me at this point in my professional life--I’m sure it will be an amazing, life-changing and transformative school in the future and I will be excited to see all the amazing things I know it will do for Grand Rapids, but right now, I’m not the person to lead that work.
Long story short, I gave my notice 2 weeks notice and I jumped again--into an unknown world. When I resigned, I had no job lined up, I had very few leads, and while I desperately wanted to return to my previous district, due to belt tightening and monetary realities, it looked as though they wouldn’t hire my position, but instead would move other teachers around to fill the gap. My principal from my first school was extremely transparent with me about this possibility from the beginning and he was supportive of me throughout my transition out and beyond and did everything he could to help me look for a new job, and has acted as a great mentor and coach in a lot of ways; I am enormously grateful to him for everything--he epitomizes an effective and caring principal and the district is lucky to have him.
The realities of public education in America is that the amount of experience one has is a double edged sword--while having a lot of years of teaching experience and a Masters degree and professional development like National Board Certification (like I have) is great for students who are in your room because it means you are kicking ass at the education game, it is sort of a negative for the budgets. Hiring a teacher with experience and advanced degrees is expensive for a school and even though principals KNOW they want a teacher who has experience and education, oftentimes affording that teacher is a challenge (trust me, I realize how unbelievably backwards this is, but it's reality). Thus, when I left my first district, it was a BIG move--I knew that leaving would mean it might be difficult to find a job in the future--switching districts here and there isn't really something that is done a lot among teachers once they reach 4 or 5 years of teaching, because it will be difficult to get a new job....yet another reason why leaving Northview was super scary....and also why leaving GRPS was super scary--was I setting myself up to be closed out of the classroom? I didn't know. But I knew that staying as a curriculum writer wasn't the right thing for me--and so I needed to jump and leave, in the desperate hopes of finding a new teaching job.
But, I jumped and June 14 was my last day of employment with GRPS.
Thankfully, I am resilient and I bounce back from setbacks pretty well. I take huge risks and they often come with huge rewards and huge changes, and so that is what this experience has been for me--rewarding and changing. I have learned in this time that being a teacher is what I want to do. Yes, being an administrator means one can have intense impact on a community, and that is amazing, but my heart is in the classroom. Sure, that means as a teacher I will never make the salary that I ultimately know I am worth, but it also means that I can go to work each day knowing that it will be a new, exciting, challenging and unique experience, because that is what working with students means.
I learned that being a teacher and “just a teacher” is completely and totally legitimate. I learned that students and their excitement (or their saltiness) is what gives me energy. I learned that having a voice in my career is important to me. I learned that sometimes in order to see the truth, you have to take the leap, and taking a leap can be extremely terrifying and extremely freeing. I’ve learned to not look at previous experiences with rose colored glasses. I’ve learned, perhaps most importantly, to trust my gut instincts.
So, this is where I am on June 28, 2017 and I am totally fine with this and the unknown. I am learning from the unknown and I will be ok.