“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
― Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
If you’d have caught me a month prior to being graduated from college, I would’ve told you my dream teaching position was teaching honors English to college-bound upperclassmen somewhere, probably coaching competitive academics, maybe even assisting coach the cross country team too. I’ll come back to that dream shortly.
I most certainly wouldn’t have been opposed to other positions and placements (we all knew most of us were starting out grinding through freshman ELA classes reading TKAM and covering the basics), but teaching in an alternative school program wouldn’t have been at the top of my list.
In the NFL, is usually works out that the teams with the least things breaking their way the previous season or two end up with a lot of the top draft picks, which (in theory) helps advance parity and equity in the league. In its design at least, I like this idea and enjoyed imagining applying this notion to teaching like Key & Peele did in their 2015 Comedy Central bit “TeachingCenter”.
Aside from the wonderfully fantastical notion of paying the best teachers $80 million contracts (we’d settle for “professionally competitive” over “star athlete” level), the way this bit shows the strongest teachers going to where there is the most need stuck with me. It was an idea I remember Sam Chaltain posting something similar to back in 2010.
So, here I am in 2019, a decade into my career in education, a stones throw from that dream teaching position I’d longed for in college. I was set to teach all of the honors sophomores and juniors in my school, including AP Lang & Comp, Creative Writing, and Sci-Fi Lit (courses I had created and had creative control over). I had built up our school’s competitive academics program, what is called “Scholar Bowl” in Missouri, from a winless organization to a regular conference and district champion with multiple bids to nationals. I was even named to be the high school assistant cross country coach for the following year, a position I’d worked my way up to after coaching at the middle school previously. I was very much looking forward to doing these things.
A year later…
Here I am happily finishing my first year in a nearby district’s alternative school program.
What happened was I was reminded of the importance of doing the most good for the most kids. I was not looking to leave, but by chance and much to my principal’s chagrin, I found myself having coffee with a friend who was telling me all about the position she was leaving, which I seemed to be a good fit for, if I wanted to apply.
Making such a monumental shift would mean letting go of so many things I valued and loved being connected with: My teams. My home room kids of several years. The programs I’d built up. Stipends and side-programs. Tenure. And all the the myriad intangibles that come with an increasingly veteran status in a district.
Could I do it? Should I?
I turned to my wife, because she is wise.
She refused to weigh in except that I should interview and think about it. She asked me to reflect on what was important to me about teaching. She asked me to remember why I became a teacher, was it to coach? Was it to build relationships?
I thought that I knew how to think about those things, after all, I was a fellow with the National Writing Project who’d been through an intensive summer institute in Kansas City where almost all we did was reflect on these sorts of things. However, in those moments, I wasn’t facing an actual life and career changing decision. They were wonderfully philosophical and important, but not real. I had to summon that version of myself, conjur its ghost from the cauldron of memory and hope it didn’t sit in my seat at the dinner table.
What I decided was that my life was telling me something. I was being faced with a new thing my life intended to do with me. Maybe it was a deeper calling, or one more in-tune with the truths and values I hadn’t necessarily lost, but had strayed from.
When I interviewed, it was the easiest thing I’d ever done in my career. Questions weren’t attacks parried, but over-the-shoulder touchdown passes accepted and run with down the field. I found myself effortlessly weaving an authentic narrative into the reality of the school. It took on the form of a literal act of discovery. A Eureka moment that had gestated for nine years prior only to burst into the light perfectly and beautifully. I left that day with more clarity than any moment since proposing to my wife almost as long ago as I had started teaching. I remember telling her I hoped they would offer me the job and then immediately asking what she thought I should do.
“I think you’re meant to do this. How could you not? This screams you.”
. . .
I always tell my students how important it is to think of themselves as writers, and that writing is a tool of self-discovery and not just one of public or interpersonal performance. Looking back on my choice to teach where I do, makes this all the more clear now. While I miss the things I used to do, and I certainly miss the wonderful colleagues and students I had the pleasure of working with and for, I feel uniquely blessed to have reconnected with the essence of why I became a teacher. My job is certainly not easy now. In fact, in many ways it is infinitely more challenging. My students now represent the highest needs of a very large district. There is no one on auto-pilot marching to success. There is no helicoptering parent (though there are many loving and supportive ones) in my inbox, at my door, or on my phone. For the most part, I am needed every hour of the school day as someone who cares for and supports (not pities) these students.
I am so fortunate to now teach in alternative education, and fortunate to do so in a district and with leadership and colleagues who strongly support me in our collective pursuit.
I feel strongly that advancing innovations in my teaching and curriculum here in the alternative program will not only have an impact on these kids, but on how parents, teachers, and leaders all over the district understand the continuum of support needed to have a truly equitable education system for all. What better goal could I have to work toward?
Too cool, Steve! No doubt, you’re walking the talk.