What is the MOST authentic work?

This is something that's been on my mind for the past few months and I think maybe I should share it on the blog. This is not a rant, but it is long.  This is about being self-employed, being a photographer, being a teacher and how each of those identities have changed so greatly in the past year of my life.

When I decided to go to full-time photography last year after leaving Chicago Public Schools, I anticipated a lot of what ended up happening--I anticipated feeling more stressed about money (check), having difficulty balancing and organizing my checking account without a steady paycheck (check), I anticipated feeling nervous about buying my own healthcare for the first time ever (check), I knew it would be difficult sometimes to organize my days or to meet deadlines when I was the one setting them (check), and I definitely knew I would have times of feeling lonely and isolated (check) when working from home during the week.

What I didn't anticipate, though, that perhaps I should have, was having to explain to so many people that I WAS indeed still working, just not for a corporation or a company--I was working or myself, or, as I prefer to think about it, for my clients.

"Oh, next year when you're working again you can plan for that to happen."

"Well, now that you're not working, you have a lot of extra time, right?"

"It must be great to not have to work! I wish I could do that!"

"Emily's not working--she's taking a year off to relax."

(Seriously. These are things that people have said to me in the past year. And never maliciously, but nevertheless, they've said it!)

This frustration of confusion came to a head last week I was on the phone with an institution talking through some financial matters.  The particular person knew that I own my own business and that I am a full-time wedding photographer, but he also knew that I have been thinking about going back to teaching high school as well (mainly because that type of pay difference would matter when it comes to a loan, capital gains, etc). As he and I were talking through different options with my current income and economic status,  I generally referenced an upcoming job with a photography client--and the person on the other end said to me, "Oh, did you get a job?"

Long awkward pause.

Now, I know that he meant did I get a teaching job for the following school year and I know he meant absolutely nothing rude by this statement, yet it just irked me to the point where I laughed and said, "Well. I have a job. I have a full-time job that I work at least 50 hours a week on and I own a business that was profitable within the first year. So I have a job already..."

And he laughed uncomfortably and clarified he meant, of course, did I get another job, a teaching job and I sort of laughed uncomfortably too and we moved on.

But it caused me pause, and made me to think about how we view self-employed people in this country. Because I think there's a pretty big bias about being self-employed among a lot of people.  Simply because I don't punch in or report somewhere at a certain time, I know there are many people out there who literally believe I am not working, or am, indeed "taking a year off."  

I get it, I was there myself not too long ago--If you had asked me 2 years if I would ever have felt financially comfortable owning my own business as my full-time work, I would have laughed.  When Ian was in the process of starting Vinejoy with his partner Steve, I remember having absolutely NO idea what even step 1 of starting a business would be, much less ever in a million years start my own.  My good friends Julie and Andy, too, started a custom graphic design business years ago, and I've watched them grow and struggle and succeed in a very competitive market--but I never thought it was for me.  I always needed more security, a steady paycheck, health benefits--that's the type of mind I have. Pragmatic to a point of difficulty at times, some might say.

And yet, here I am, working for myself, working for my clients, setting my own hours for the most part, organizing my schedule, clocking in 8-10 hour days, arranging my taxes quarterly, discussing with my accountant, keeping (somewhat sloppy) books for Sarah to filter through every few months, traveling hundreds of miles on weekends for weddings and paying for my own health insurance.  Hello, I'm THROWING 3 weddings for couples on Friday--I'm definitely working.  

But what I've been thinking about a lot is the difference between a job and work and a career and a dream.

I wouldn't say that owning a running my own photography business is necessarily a lifelong dream.  My lifelong dream is riding horses for a living, but doing photography, traveling the country with my husband and our dogs and having a chance to enjoy my life certainly is pretty fantastic and one I'm very glad I took the leap to try this year.  But there are even times when I need to stop and remind myself that I am working and that I do have a full-time job and that I DO need to make space to pay myself or to take a day off here and there. 

But what does it say about our society and our country that so many of us don't consider something to be a "real" job unless it involves a 401K, a pension, a time clock and a required 40 hours a week at a desk?  And along those same lines, why can't a job also be a dream?  And why can't a job be something that makes you smile on a regular basis and makes you feel great? Why does it have to involve answering to a higher up or signing your life away simply to pay the bills.  

I want to have a job and a life's work that feels authentic.  And real.  Right now, to me, photography and the work I do with my clients feels authentic and it feels real. It feels honest and true and it reflects them on their day at their very best--and who wouldn't want to be with people on their best days? I know I surely do.  

I have been thinking a lot about work the past few weeks--not only because there are many times when I sit back and think "Wait, this is my JOB. And this is FUN," but also because I have been thinking about myself as a teacher and if going back to teaching is what I want to do next year.  

Teaching is real and true and authentic, right?  Well....sometimes.  But more often than not, I'm starting to think it's not anymore.  

I truly miss being in the classroom and working with kids. I miss the opportunities to talk about literature and influence students to see the world differently. I miss the reliability of the financial situation that teaching affords me and I do, at times, miss the schedule of a school day.  

But I don't miss the feeling that I am sacrificing who I am to be a teacher--and when I was in Chicago for the past few years, I was feeling that way--that I was trying to teach students only to succeed on a test and that by not preparing them daily to fill in bubbles on a scantron, that somehow I was impeding their opportunities in the future.  The culture of testing and test prep and standardized learning is a gigantic problem in America--truly. And I won't go on and on about it, but I will say that it is driving quality, good, passionate teachers out of the classroom.  

If I'm being honest, that's what happened to me.

I was a passionate, excited, happy, joyful teacher (Just ask my students if they ever saw me without a smile on my face--they'll tell you no).  But when I got to a school during my last year in Chicago where the only true emphasis of a student's learning was the change in his or her ACT score from quarter to quarter, I realized that I no longer believed in my work.  And for me, believing in my work is one of the most important parts of being who I am.

I believe in literature and books and discussions and students learning and arguments over if Daisy is actually the greatest criminal in The Great Gatsby or if Jake really was just impotent in The Sun Also Rises or if Holden Caulfield was actually in jail at the end of the novel.  

That is real. That is authentic.

I do not believe in test prep or losing 30 days of instruction a school year for students to take standardized tests or graphing and charting data only to turn around and throw it out to start over again with a new set intended to reduce students to numbers and test scores rather than the holistic and whole and real and authentic humans that they are. 

That is not real. That is inauthentic. 

Work doesn't define me, but it does mean a lot to me and I simply couldn't justify continuing to work in an educational setting that was not challenging students to think critically.  I love teaching, yes, but I want to be a teacher where I can really get kids to think critically and to challenge their beliefs about literature and the world and I am sad to say that I don't see that sort of education happening in a lot of public schools anymore.  So when I think about going back to teach next year, I worry that it might not be the right fit. I need to believe in what I do.

All of this eventually leads to a few revelations on my part--first and foremost, I really have greatly, greatly enjoyed this past year of my life.  To a very great extent, it might have been one of the best years of my life thus far--I traveled extensively, I spent more time with my husband than probably at any other point in our marriage, I made a (small) profit in a business that I started from the ground up, and I stayed true to my belief that education should be critical and rigorous and challenging for students and I walked away from it when it was not.

But, this year has been unbelievably challenging too. It has resulted in many nights of crying or sleeplessness worrying about bills or travel schedules. I have missed deadlines and caused myself great anxiety worrying that a client might be upset.  I have refused to take days off in order to meet an unrealistic deadline I have set for myself.

One of the ways this year has most greatly influenced me, though, is in how I have come to view myself as a member of the educational field and myself as a teacher.  I have felt intense guilt for not using my education degree or for leaving students when what they need the most is a teacher who cares about their learning.  I have come to a much better understanding of who I am and what I believe in. I have come ot understand myself as an artist, a photographer, a teacher and a wife on a totally new scale.  And yet, it's the middle of June and I am still grappling with if, and when, and how and where I want to reenter the teaching field and if, indeed, this year away from the classroom has done what I needed it to do--give me the energy and the passion to push past the standardize testing culture that is plauging our country and educate kids to the very best of my abilities to give them the skills they need not only to succeed on a test that will determine their future, but more importantly to succeed in the world once they leave the high school classroom.   

Lots to think about during an already very busy week.

If you're interested in talking more about testing and what impact it has on students and our classrooms, please reach out---as I've said many times, I could talk all day about education and it's time that we start doing so as a community, especially if you're a parent of children in the school system.