New Years is not when I feel most pensive about the “last year”. It’s today. June 25th. As I walked out of the main office at my school earlier this afternoon, a colleague passed by me and said, “You look free!” I smiled at her as I continued down the hall.
“I’m not coming back here next year.”
It might not have been the right thing to say to her, I have no idea how loyal she is to my school, but that is the reason why I feel (and looked) so free. It just tumbled out of my mouth! There are, of course, many students, teachers, and administrators that I’ll miss a LOT, but on the whole, I am grateful to be out. It wasn’t the right place for me.
And I don’t mean anything more than that. For a while I worried that I disliked my job because perhaps I was just a spoiled brat, too idealistic, too pessimistic (yes you can be both of those things!), too disorganized, too nice and/or too confrontational. Worse, maybe I was on the completely wrong path! But really, it’s much simpler than all that.
Teaching in that school required me to use more of my weaknesses than strengths.
I realized today, perhaps a little late: I am a softie.
Like, in every sense. I like to think of myself as tough-as-nails (and you’d better believe I can be, when I need to be) but a lot of the time, I’m a pile of mush. I’m incredibly sensitive, I like sweet and cute things. I am a sucker for beauty, tenderness, kindness, and warmth. I take shit personally, even though I try not to (and I’ve gotten better!). I see things from so many different angles it’s hard to be “hard” and super-decisive. I’m competitive, but also excel in beating the hell out of myself when I “fail”. I’m learning to talk to myself a little more nicely. It helps. But I felt like I failed hourly, pretty much every day, for two years. You tell me how fun that sounds.
At my new placement for next year, I’ll be working with grades 1-12. That means lots of cute kids (and teens too, whom I DO also adore). But that means I get to be my soft, silly, playful self. That means I can be kind and gentle and not be stomped all over for it. That means I can give extra chances and not get taken advantage of. Because they’re all recent immigrants and refugees, English skills are low, so we have to use heavily structured lesson plans, every single day. I don’t love doing that, and it’ll be a lot of work (especially since I’m teaching eleven different grades), but I’m good at it. I’m excellent at planning and writing, and I’ve got the energy and drive to do it. Low English skills also mean a focus on process, feeling, critical thinking, experience, and visual expression. I’m good at modeling and eliciting all those things. I also love doing them. Last, it’s a small staff, and so there is a lot of collaboration and team work–something else I enjoy and am good at.
I had a lot of fantasies about my career that, over the past three years, have been completely shattered. I thought I could just walk into an inner-city classroom with all my precious ideals and optimism and help kids find themselves through artistic expression. I thought my gentle nature would be a welcome respite. I also thought I could be way tougher/stricter when I needed to be, and imagined my perfectly functioning classroom because “even though she’s nice, DON’T MESS WITH MISS DUANE!” Yeah, right. I’m not so tough and strict, after all. And my gentle nature was more of a problem than a respite. And many kids, unfortunately, see art as a total waste of time, since they “don’t need it to pass.” I had to keep my door locked all the time because of the amount of chaos in the halls, which meant I was shut in, and alone, most of the day. Due to the huge number of staff, there was little team work, and at today’s final staff meeting, I met several teachers for the first time. Collaboration fell by the wayside when there were so many other more pressing matters to be taken care of (and my admins did a hell of a job trying to take care of those matters; I pretty much commend them endlessly for what they do). But I like to be a part of a team, not a lone ranger. And finally, I was close with a few kids, I was there for a few who needed someone to talk to, gave a few lectures-of-a-lifetime to kids making incredibly poor choices, was there to help a few turn around–but for the most part, the kind of person I am was NOT terribly appreciated in that building. I don’t need a fan club, but I don’t want to be routinely disrespected for being who I am, either.
Oh, and I also realized this: I am not a hero, nor do I ever want to be one. I’m just a facilitator. Some of my kids, though? They’re like, total super heroes/heroines. I can’t save or fix anyone, but I can help students learn some of the skills necessary should they ever need to save or fix themselves.
It is so different from the inside, most of the world, and that certainly includes urban education. From outside, we can make so many judgments and form so many ideas. But it’s only from within that true understanding can even begin, and then slowly develop over time. If I had a dollar for every tear I shed my first year as a teacher, for every moment I wanted to die, I’d be rich enough to retire now. Three years in, the tears and death wishes are few, but I don’t want to spend my days strengthening my weaknesses and putting my strengths on the back burner. The best jobs, I think, both require you to strengthen your weaknesses and also let your strong points shine and be put to use. I’m hopeful this will be the case next year.
I learn a lot from reading, observing, and listening, but I learn most deeply, and infallibly, through direct experience. It’s easy for me to generate a lot of ideas about how I think something will be or should feel, but it isn’t until I do it that I know if it’s right or wrong, wanted or not, whether or not it works, if it fits or it doesn’t. In trying to be that fierce, tough-but-gentle teacher whose students produced stunning works of art, I realized I simply wasn’t that. I’m soft, silly, a little disorganized (but a great planner and writer), enthusiastic, intense-but-not-aggressive, and process (not product) oriented. I think my placement for next year will allow me to be all those things, while continuing to strengthen my weaknesses.
Just like I learned on the west coast and in Ecuador, I have learned in the city schools–don’t make too many assumptions or judgements from the outside. Go there, be in it, witness the world from the inside of a foreign place–whether it’s across the ocean or around the corner–before you assume you know anything about it, or even much about yourself. And do it for a while; a few hours or days, even weeks, won’t suffice. I thought I hated New York until I lived far away from it. I’m introspective to a fault, but Ecuador brought out parts of me I’d never seen before; so has urban teaching. And not all of those parts are pretty. I guess it comes down to this: As I get older, I seem to learn two things, over and over.
Do the work. And, more importantly: The more I learn, the less I know.
Oh yeah, and there’s a third: Question everything!
And whoops! There’s also a fourth:
(PS: pic at top is my classroom, emptied, from the past two years, the kids were some of mine, this past year, painting paper and their clothes).