The Turning Point

Today’s post comes courtesy of a question that appeared on my Facebook news feed, from Marcus Buckingham:

What was your all-time favorite job and why?
If it isn’t your current job, why not?

It’s a timely prompt for me, because I came to my all-time favorite job when I was in a situation not too different from what I’m facing now.  I’d been subbing for a year and a half, struggling with my identity as a teacher and frustrated that I couldn’t find full-time work in the field that I loved.  Then I was asked to cover a maternity leave fill-in April through June at LCA, an upper-demographic private school in Massachusetts.  I worked there for only two months, but I still consider it the best time of my career and the job that turned the corner in my professional confidence.

I remember waking up eager to get out of bed and start my day, instead of groaning about having to go to work.  I remember the faces of those students even better than some students I’ve taught for a full year.  I remember the affirmation of a career I loved, the acceptance of professional peers who became my friends, and the joy of being in a room full of exceptional teenagers.

And they were exceptional.  The teacher on maternity leave often apologized for her “bad” class because they talked a little more than they should and didn’t always turn in their homework on time.  I laughed.  That wasn’t bad.  That was normal.  Her “good” classes blew my mind.  Seriously.  They were a dream: motivated, smart, and fun!

Among other things, I had the privilege of teaching Antigone to the Sophomore World Literature classes, both Honors and regular (which they referred to as “College Prep”).  When I gave the students the pop quiz question “describe Creon’s personality,” most students responded with something like “stubborn, arrogant, nationalistic, hot-headed,” etc.  However, one student wrote this:  “Creon rules with ruthlessness and fear. He seems like a conservative Machiavellian who esteems loyalty to the state far above filial piety.” In 10th grade!  And he wasn’t even in the Honors class!  My head hurt after I finished grading the Honors’ quizzes.

Now, imagine that level of intelligence combined with the wit, snark, and a still-developing maturity of 16-year-old kids. They were smart and respectful, but they were far from boring.  One kid managed to successfully work Pokemon into a skit about Greek tragedy.  Others often joked about the soap-opera nature of the family dynamics.  I laughed more in that classroom in those two months than I ever have in any other teaching job – which is saying something, because I usually have a lot of fun teaching.  The students liked me, too.  They kept brainstorming ways I could stay on at LCA after their “real” teacher came back.  They liked her and didn’t want me to replace her completely, but they still wanted me to be part of their school and their environment.  I probably shouldn’t admit how good that made me feel.

It didn’t work out for me to stay, obviously.  As much as everyone liked me, the administration included, there simply wasn’t an open position for me when the teacher I filled in for returned the next year.  On the last day of school, the students genuinely thanked me for my time with them.  Behind closed doors, I sobbed.  I didn’t want to leave.  I’d found myself there.  I’d fallen in love with my work and with those students.  I wasn’t ready to walk away from that.

I remember a conversation I had with one of the many wonderful LCA coworkers a week before that last day.  I had interviewed for another teaching position for the following school year at a small, urban school that was expanding to include high school for the first time.  Regular readers of my blog know I ultimately took that job, but I don’t know if I’ve ever admitted how close I came to turning it down.  I mulled it over for a week after they offered me the position.  I held out for higher pay, but my main hesitation was that I knew just how stressful and draining that job would be.  I knew I needed the employment, so as I described the position to my coworker, I tried to find the positive spin, but when I was done, she still said, “Christine, that sounds awful.”  And contrasted to LCA, it was.

You see, I struggled with the fact that I have no professional interest in trying to fix what’s broken (or in this case, nonexistent).  Despite inspiring teacher movies like The Freedom Writers, inner city work and the lower demographics have never appealed to me.  Neither has special education work.  Instead, I relished working in the private school with ridiculously high tuition ($20,000/year)!  The idea of building a program where one didn’t exist in an urban school with limited resources sounded… well… awful.  (Later, when I took the StrengthsFinder test, I’d learn to refer to this trait as the Maximizer in me, but this was before I did all that).  I felt guilty for thinking that way, but talking with my coworker helped me come to terms with my natural inclinations.  She understood.  “Smart, rich kids need good teachers, too,” she said.  They needed support to live up to the expectations placed on them.  Too many of them were complacent in their abilities and opportunities.  They needed someone to push them to be better than good.  It’s OK for me to want to be that person.  They need someone who cares to be that person!

Obviously, I still took that urban job, and I formed great bonds with the students there.  They’ve inspired blog posts of their own (like Jacob, Alana, and Joshua).  But it wasn’t the same.  I still cared about my work.  I fought battles for those students to bring them the best education I could, but it didn’t excite me the way LCA did.  Some days I woke up dreading going to work.  Some of my students cried on my last day a year later, but I didn’t.  I walked away from that job proud of what I’d accomplished, but also relieved to have the weight lifted from my shoulders.

I’ve had other opportunities to teach in outstanding classrooms.  The college admissions courses I taught for The Princeton Review reinforced my love of teaching to the exceptional, driven demographic.  The students in those classes came from all over the world, motivated by desires to get into the best programs, to achieve great things with their lives.  And like my LCA kids, they appreciated me, too.  As we talked about potential careers and professions, they asked me about teaching.  “We can tell you love what you do,” one young lady from Israel said.  “It’s so obvious.  I wish my teachers back home were like that.”  “Yeah!” a boy in the back chimed in, “Can you come teach in Holland?”  Again, maybe I shouldn’t admit how fulfilling comments like that are, but there it is.  When I have the opportunity to make a difference to remarkable teens, I’m on fire.  An involuntary smile is creeping on to my face even now just thinking about it.  In moments like that, the paycheck is just an added bonus.

So why don’t I have that kind of job now?  Quite simply, my husband’s career came first.  I keep looking to find it again each time we relocate, though.  I send out resume after resume, network, and leave my card in schools everywhere I go.  I may be taking a maternity leave fill-in again this winter at a Catholic high school.  I don’t expect them to be another LCA, but maybe they’ll feed that part of my passion again in their own way.  Maybe it’ll even lead to connections for more permanent work.  Or maybe it will be just another episode in the series of short stories that make up my career.  We’ll see what happens.  Until then, I bide my time, as I’ve done so often, waiting for the moments that make me fall in love with teaching all over again.

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