When I decided not to make teaching the most important aspect of my identity, I felt lost. It’s time to find myself… perhaps for the first time.
It’s something I should have done a long time ago: find my purpose in life, except I thought I had. I knew, from the time I was very small, that I wanted to be a teacher. Still, I did not become a teacher until much later in life, as life and my terrible lack of confidence intervened with my plans. Somehow, though, teaching became part of my job description with each job I took during and after college.
When I became a mother, I thought I had found my way, because being a parent is full of purpose, love, and commitment. That little boy is now a grown man, of whom I could not be prouder. He’s starting his own life, charting his own course, and making a difference in the lives of those who know him. Whenever I write about my life’s progress, I want the world (or the few who read this) to know that my son is the brightest part of my life, and in the darkest moments, his light shines my way toward the light again. I also want him to know that when I write about the darkness, he’s always outside the perimeter, apart from whatever has been plunged into that darkness.
I know, I digress. Forgive me, it had to be done.
When I finally became a teacher in K-12, I celebrated. Finally! It felt legitimate like I did not have to fight to be recognized as an educator anymore. I was one. I am one.
Being a K-12 educator has been, in a word, difficult. I started my career in a residential facility for adjudicated youth. Every day, I left with a broken heart for those kids. Then, I moved to alternative education. Every day, I left saying a prayer for those kids. Finally, I started working at the high school I had dreamed of since I was a student teacher there almost 10 years before. Covid hit and everyone’s life turned upside down like we were living in the land of opposites. My personal life also dissolved into the darkness, with that one exception I mentioned before—my relationship with my son. I’m still recovering from it all.
This year is supposed to be my first year really teaching. This is the year I can put my heart and soul into my practice, improve, reiterate, evaluate, and plan for future improvements. This is the year I can shine, if only in my own mind.
Instead, it feels like the darkness is swallowing me again because I don’t know if I know myself— if this is what I am supposed to be doing. Something feels off this year. I’m not as committed as I used to be. I’m not as obsessed as I used to be. I dare say I’m not as nice as I used to be either.
Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? Instead of losing control of the classroom, I’m firm. I do not raise my voice. I simply tell the kids “No,” and that their behavior is unacceptable, so I won’t put up with it. I’ve changed seats. I’ve moved a large class into the library, so students who want to try their hand at creative writing can, while I try to corral those who don’t away from them. I haven’t smiled when I should frown; I’ve frowned.
I hate every single minute of it.
My behavior doesn’t feel like my behavior. I consider myself, in some ways, a fraud. I keep wondering when I will throw in the towel and return to the way I was, the one who doesn’t nag but tries to redirect gently. The one who tries to smile most of the time. The one who …
The one who wasn’t as effective as she could have been. Admit it, Heather.
When I was a child, my friend Paula and I used to play school in my basement. She and I emulated our teachers, and she was decidedly a LOT meaner than I was because she went to Catholic school (sorry, Paula). Back then, the nuns did not care if you liked them or not, and that was who she was mimicking. Meanwhile, I pretended to be like my gentler teachers, of whom there were a few, and those were men. The male teachers in my elementary school were kind and considerate. The female teachers seemed to think they needed to be overly strict to be effective. I never understood that.
Until this year, I’ve tried to be a kind, considerate, and friendly teacher. What happened? I did not have control over my classroom, except when the students agreed I should have control. I decided to do things differently this year, so I could get my classroom back. I wanted to not feel nauseated every day, worried that today was the day things would devolve into chaos. I wanted more respect. This was supposed to be my year.
What I want is cooperation, freely given, because we have been raised and encouraged to be cooperative. I’d like to have a classroom from thirty-five years ago, truth be told. Back then, teachers and parents worked better together in many cases (sorry, parents, but it’s true in many cases). I can remember teachers being unafraid to criticize because parents had their back.
Back then, teachers did not call addressing poor behavior “redirecting.” No, they called it “yelling,” and “disciplining.” Redirecting. I can see Mr. Williams, my sixth-grade teacher, now, holding his belly and laughing if I mentioned that idea to him.
“Redirection? What the hell is that? Nah, I’d redirect you right to the principal’s office. Watch how easy it is: GO!” Considering his height and baritone, almost no one thought twice about not cooperating with him. I miss Mr. Williams.
And yet, to me, he was kind, considerate, and just all-around wonderful. Cooperation, respect, and genuine friendliness, once extended, are often returned. That’s what I have tried to extend to my students. For the most part, it’s been returned, but then there are those who continue to challenge me.
This year, I find myself not caring as much about those students as I have in the past. It kills me, but I’ve called them out more than I would have before, proclaimed their behavior is unacceptable, and it must stop this instant. I’ve been able to shrug off little comments and snickers. Managing my classroom has become, in many respects, more important than my students’ comfort and enjoyment.
I hate every single minute of it.
That is why I recently figured out that my identity is no longer wrapped up in being a teacher. I am lost in this purgatory between who I was and who I want to be since I don’t know who that future “who” is.
This de-linking has been coming for a long time, since I was told someone thought one thing enveloped my entire identity: being a teacher. It was so boring to the rest of the world, I was told, to listen to someone drone on about education. It was sad for others to know that I had nothing else in my life that interested me as much or more than teaching. (That wasn’t true, either.)
After almost two years, I am questioning this identity. For a long time, I have been what others think I am capable of, and worry incessantly that people will find out what an idiot I am, how incompetent I am, and that I’m going to throw in the towel and go back to being a low-achieving chump. When faced with a challenge—such as a chance to show my teaching skills without COVID-19 hanging over us—I want to crawl under the desk, curl into a ball, and wait for it to be over.
Is it that I need to de-link from this identity and find something else? Or is it that I need to “screw [my] courage to the sticking place” (so says Lady Macbeth) and stop doubting myself?
There is one thing I can do, right now, that I think I’ve been trying to do: stop trying to please every student every day. There are so many reasons why a student might be recalcitrant or sarcastic, and I care deeply about the person, but still must address what could turn the classroom into a toxic environment. I must assume authority, not share it. I’ve been trying to do that.
I hate every single minute of it.
I’m struggling with this notion that someone else has dictated to me who I am. If I could, I would tell this person they have no idea who I am. For one thing, they never asked. I guess I was not interesting enough, what with being obsessed with being an educator and all. It would have been too much trouble, I guess, to risk yet another dull and boring conversation.
I hated every single minute of typing that.
One post cannot transform one’s life. However, writing this has been cathartic. Thank you for reading. If I can help one other person by writing these posts, it’s so worth every letter.