The decision to get back into teaching has been a very long, convoluted process. When I left back in 2011, I was essentially burned out. The public education system in Michigan had been under brutal attack by Betsy Devos (our current federal Secretary of Education), funding had been cut annually for years, we were losing tenure, our pay benefits were under attack, class sizes were ballooning, we were under mounting pressure to meet No Child Left Behind's annual yearly progress, and us teachers were constantly being portrayed as greedy and selfish for simply asking for raises that came relatively close to equaling inflation. We were increasingly losing autonomy to individualize instruction to meet the diverse needs of our students, and we were being blamed for this failure.
It was painful and demoralizing.
So why the Hell would I want to go back?!?
The Interim Years
After leaving the profession, we spent two years traveling the country teaching people how to run better. Then we settled in San Diego and started training jiu jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, and mma. During our time here in SoCal, I've worked a few different jobs completely unrelated to education, including:
- Delivering packages and working in a warehouse for UPS
- Working as a materials handler and receiver at a local lumber yard
- Working as a freelance writer and blogger, which eventually led to writing Squirrel Wipe, Earthquake, Kids, and the development of Das Man Camp
- Working as a lead generator and writer for a real estate agency
- Driving for Uber
Somewhere in there, I decided to dabble in education again and took a job as a high school substitute teacher, then eventually school security jobs at an adult school and a middle school. Initially, I had zero desire to get back into teaching. Early in those experiences I didn't really experience anything that would significantly change my expectations about public education.
Two major experiences changed my perspective, though. First, I had the opportunity to work with some phenomenal adult education administrators at my first school security job. From them, I learned the ins and outs of the programs available to the kids who, earlier in their lives, were the kids who fell through the cracks and dropped out, were expelled, etc.
Second, I had the opportunity to work with some phenomenal middle school administrators at my second school security job. From them, I learned two major lessons. I had the opportunity to really peer into different families and how that affected students and administrator decision-making, which provided a much more complete picture than I had as a teacher. I also learned what educational experiences kids brought with them when they entered high school, and how that affected the various "types" of students I experienced as a high school teacher.
In essence, these experiences gave me a far better understanding of the entire landscape that is public education. The decisions others made that used to piss me off now made a lot more sense, and many of the kids we couldn't "save" would end up being just fine down the road. That monumental shift in expectations made me realize public education was a whole lot more effective than I had previously perceived. Once that hurdle was cleared, the motivation to return to the classroom came flooding back.
So What's Different?
What exactly has changed from 2011 until today? Quite simply, it's nothing more than a wealth of "in the trenches" experience coupled with realistic expectations.
Before I started teaching back in '99, I was like most fresh-out-of-college educators. I had spent years immersed in various educational theories, most of which claimed to be "the solution" to all problems plaguing public education. I saw myself as a motivated, enthusiastic reformer who could do what all previous generations of teachers had failed to do - make a real difference. I was going to be like Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds", only better. I had all the answers.
Yeah, it was pretty arrogant.
It didn't take long for reality to crush that delusion. As it turns out, not all kids can be inspired to learn. Not all kids behave. Not all parents are supportive. Not all administrators appreciate crazy new ideas that cause them problems. Innovation wasn't something that was welcomed. Or even effective. As it turns out, the education system is resistant to change. Throughout the twelve years I spent in the classroom the first time around, I never really understood why the system is so damn resistant.
Now? I get it. I have a far deeper understanding of how the machinery of public education works. What I previously saw as complete failures in the system are actually carefully-designed systems to help kids in the future even if they can't be helped today. I now fully understand that the system isn't broken so much as misunderstood. And a deeper understanding of the system has made all the difference.
In about fourteen weeks or so, I'll step back into a classroom as a full-time teacher for the first time in seven years. This time around, I have a vast toolbox of real-world tested pedagogical methods (how we teach) that can be deployed based on individual student needs. I have a well-honed toolbox of classroom management strategies to deal with a culturally and economically-diverse student population. I have a thorough understanding of how the various personnel, from administrators to secretaries to custodians, work together to make a school successful. I have the confidence and patience to deal with pretty much any situation that may arise because there's not much I haven't already experienced. I have a deep understanding of the trials and tribulations of school finance, and have have a wealth of strategies to do what I need to do with zero financial support from the school.
Aside from these education-related experiences, I've also had a plethora of non-educational experiences that have made me a far different person than I was when I first started. I've learned a great deal about myself through overcoming adversity via ultrarunning, learning to be humble via Brazilian jiu jitsu, and learning to not fear the possibility of physical altercations via mixed martial arts training. I've also learned to overcome my supplicating and sycophant "Nice Guy" tendencies. I've also learned, thanks to my Das Man Camp project, how to actualize my masculine characteristics I used to fear, which has led me to develop the skills to become a real leader.
Most importantly, though, I have the enthusiasm and passion I felt before getting that first job some twenty years ago. When coupled with a brutally honest set of expectations, I feel I'm finally in a position to maximize my ability to really make a difference.