May 25, 2012

Careers, Callings, and Coincidences

I don't generally like to talk about my job because inevitably one of two things happen:  a) people don't understand it and I can't explain it in a consice way that really covers all the bases, and b) I end up doing more defending of my job title, my school district, or the public education system in general than actually explaining anything.  But since I am trying to write this blog for me and not for concerned parents or new teachers or union reps, this is going to be real (according to my view of things, at least).

Public education as a system is really messed up.  We are controlled by the government.  When budgets get tight, we lose money.  When new bills are proposed on education, they are often passed or failed with very little input from people who actually work within the public school system or study it for a living.  Unions protect teachers' rights, but sometimes not enough (I'm looking at you, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker), and sometimes too much.  Teachers are so busy trying just to keep their heads above water that it is extremely difficult for them to be knowledgeable about current research on best practices in their field.  Kids are coming from a wider variety of challenging backgrounds now than ever before.  All that to say, working in public education is really freaking hard.

Yet here I am, a teacher.  I loved my second grade teacher.  She was brand new the year I had her, and gorgeous and nice and she smelled good and I liked it when she read books to us.  In sixth grade I helped a student in my math class with her assignments and at the end of the year she wrote in my yearbook that I was the best math teacher she ever had.  I read with first graders when I was in middle school and loved getting covered with unassuming hugs as soon as I walked into their classroom and seeing their eyes light up when they discovered they could figure out a tricky work by themselves.   I found that I was good at helping other people understand things, and I loved the moment when some new bit of knowledge finally had an impact for them.  It's like a drug, helping people do things they didn't know they could do before.  The combination of my ability to help people do and learn and become, and my addiction to the high of watching them do and learn and become makes me believe that I am called to be a teacher.  It sounds hokey, but it's the truth.

My mom tried to talk me out of becoming a teacher because she knew I'd never make a really good living.  I had to pay for part of my BA because the private school I attended was too pricey for my family but offered a first-rate teacher prep program and I wasn't to be dissuaded.  I did my student teaching in a district an hour away from my crummy apartment while my husband was deployed in Iraq.  It's not been an easy row to hoe, and I've considered giving up on it a few times.  The needs are far greater than the resources available to meet them.  It's terrifying and disheartening and hilarious and draining and empowering work.

Five years ago, I became a specialist teacher, a math coach.  The most simple way I can explain my job is that I help teachers develop their own skill as practitioners.  I expected to meet resistance from my colleagues when I started the job- me, a 25 year old helping veteran teachers?  I knew it seemed laughable, and I wasn't even sure if I was qualified to do the job.  But I was drawn to it because I had wanted to quit teaching before- weighed down by the lack of support I had to do my job as well as I wanted to do it.  I wanted to be the stop-gap for my colleagues and for students who struggled in math like I did as a child.

What I didn't expect is that it would still be so hard 5 years later.  Not the actual coaching part, working with teachers and students.  I find that to be rewarding and fulfilling, and I feel like I'm good at it (having practiced for five years).  It's the politics that wears me down.  I could easily brush it off  if all of the nay-saying and tearing down came from outside of my school district, or even if the criticism was constructive (just because I'm in the position of teaching others doesn't mean I don't have more to learn).  I have gotten better at hearing rumors about myself- I am power-hungry (although the last thing I'd ever want to do is be an administrator, yuck), I have never taught in a classroom before and have no basis to understand what teaching is like (truthfully I've only  taught three grades- 2nd, 3rd, and a 2/3 split), I am a waste of district money (even though a quick glance at our math scores or even a conversation with a random teacher would reveal that we are in desperate need of math support), I do nothing but eat bon-bons all day (although I typically work 50-60 hour weeks just like most of the teachers I know), that I don't have anything to offer them that they don't already know (the simple fact that I have spent the last 5 years thinking/reading/practicing math instruction as a full-time job says otherwise), etc., etc.  I still have a hard time not taking it personally.  Even though I know that it is typically defense mechanisms, or poor communication, or politics, or leadership issues that feed these rumors.  I would desperately like to defend myself from these rumors, but often defending yourself simply propagates the rumors you try to dispel the most (call it the Methinks-She-Doth-Protest-Too-Much Syndrome).   So I try to address rumors when I am asked, but mostly I just try do my job as well as I am capable of and let my work speak for itself.

But this past week it had become enough.  I am tired of being abused by my peers and the general public.  I am tired of having maxed out my earning potential.  I am tired of working (unpaid) through Spring Break and all but two weeks of summer vacation and hearing people in line in front of me at the supermarket or in the classroom across the hall complain about how lazy teachers (meaning me) are.  I am tired of the legislature forcing my district to make heartbreaking budget cuts although the state supreme court ruled that our state is not adequately funding public schools (its paramount responsibility, according to its own constitution).  I am tired of working on projects only to have to abandon them the following year because OSPI adopted a different idea and our district is expected to comply (often without funding or support).

I wanted to quit.  Not just go back to the classroom (although I miss having my own batch of kids); I wanted to quit the entire swamp of crazy that is public education.  I could use my skill set to be a personnel developer for HR departments of private sector corporations, and I could make more money at it than teaching.  So I asked Steve: Have I lost my perspective?  Or am I making sense?   He had seen me slowly become more downtrodden and cynical as the years passed and little changed.  He urged me to consider leaving my career in education, my calling, to save my sanity. 

Usually when I ask Steve if I've lost my perspective, he recommends a nap.  I felt like I had been thrown off a skyscraper- more terrified than I had ever been, oddly free... hurtling through space madly grasping for a parachute pull that isn't there.

I was still a jumble of questions and emotions when we met my in-laws for dinner the next day.  I had just started telling them about my consideration when our server came to the table.  He looked oddly familiar.  And I did something I rarely do- I started talking before my brain kicked in.  "You look familiar to me.  Are you in a band?"  Yeah, he said, looking a little embarrassed.  "You're in The Classic Crime, right?"  Yeah, he said again, small smile, still embarrassed.  "You guys are my favorite band!!"  I practically screeched with excitement (just goes to show you that there is no correlation between age and maturity).

I have loved The Classic Crime since I heard their song "The Coldest Heart" off their first album.  It came on the radio, I loved it, and looked them up on the internet.  It was love at first listen.  I have since bought every album of theirs and dragged Steve to one of their shows.  They're a local band.  They play poppy alt-rock that always features a sophisticated sound and honest, thoughtful lyrics.  You can hear their whole collection on iTunes and Amazon.  Yes, you should go check them out.

Here's where things get interesting.  The Classic Crime and their label parted ways after their last album.  In order to make a fourth album that would be similar in quality to the last one, the band needed funds.  So they started a Kickstarter.  If you're unfamiliar with this concept, I'd encourage you to visit the website  It's a pretty powerful model- the general public decides if your project is worth funding.  If enough money is donated, the project is funded.  If not enough money is donated, everyone's money gets returned and the project doesn't happen.  The band was nervous about doing a kickstarter, but their fans chipped in and raised the money for the band to make an album IN ONE DAY.  By the time the funding window closed, the band had raised enough to make a music video, do some PR, do a US tour, and (hopefully) put a little change in their own pockets on top of it.  Here's an excerpt from the band's posting the day the project closed:

This is more than an album project, this is something that completely validates the journey we've been on since we formed in February of 2003. These past 9 years have been... tumultuous. Time and time again our hopes lifted and fell and lifted and fell and then eventually settled in some murky, low, cynical, jaded place where old band dudes with ponytails reside. "Is this even worth it?" We'd ask ourselves. "Do people even care anymore?" Record labels definitely weren't kicking down our door. Maybe we can't do this anymore, we thought.
And then we launched a Kickstarter project. 
And you responded.

And here was one of their band members, waiting tables to pay the bills so that he could continue pursuing his calling despite the ridiculous highs and lows that come with full commitment to what you know you're supposed to be doing with your life.

I think the big coincidence of meeting one of the members of my favorite band was a little more than just coincidence.  I wanted to quit, but I cannot abandon my calling.  Not yet.  I can feel the discordance between what I want for myself and my district and my teachers and students... and how things really are... it's growing louder every day.  I want to be lifted out of my cynical, low, jaded place.  I want to know that what I'm doing is helping mitigate or lessen the discordance for others.  Even if it's a few people.  And if my work supports those few people, makes their lives better or more meaningful, then it will be enough. 

Seriously, go check out The Classic Crime.  Do it now.  In itunes or Amazon.


  1. Beautifully said, Colleen! And I guarantee there are (or will be) lots of adults out there one day who will look back on their 'gorgeous, nice-smelling' math coach who made such an enormous difference in their lives. :)

    1. Aw, shucks. Thanks, Becca!