teaching

Hired!

Today, almost two years since I started looking for full-time work, I found some. I’ll be teaching 8th grade English at a charter school starting Monday morning.

“Two years” is a long time, but it’s not as though I spent 100 weeks constantly pushing out applications. No, the first stage of the job hunt was job-hunt academic style: compiling ridiculous portfolios, forking over money to Interfolio to manage and send the documents, then sitting on my hands for months waiting for any hint of broken silence. (And looking at the job wiki to discover when candidates had been invited to interview and the silence was meaningful rather than negligent.)

I took some time off from job hunting, too, once my spouse and I decided to move the family down to Texas. I was recovering from my decision to leave and taking care of the kids full time. There was no reason (I thought) to begin looking for a job 1200 miles away. I had not even decided what kind of jobs to look for. Soon enough, I was busy with the move.

Once we got to Texas, I started hunting work in earnest. Despite an initially rosy job outlook for my significant other, neither of us had landed steady employment in our first six post-move weeks. My spouse started doing some face-painting gigs, and I started substitute teaching. Reluctantly. We needed the money. My daughter was in pre-K, home at 10:45 in the morning. We could call on relatives to help out watching her (and my son when he got home around 3), but for a long while parental responsibilities kept me from subbing every day, especially once my spouse found a full-time job.

I kept applying for jobs in that stretch. Technical writing. Copywriting. Advertising. Intro-level design jobs. Proofreading. Editorial. One coordinator position that I particularly wanted that was nearly identical to the one I’d had between my master’s and doctorate. I got zilch. As with the academic searches, the “answer” was almost always silence. The few actual rejection notices I got were HR boilerplate. The situation was disheartening (and I commented/complained about it regularly here on Walking Ledges).

In March, I got my first long-term sub assignment. It was at a pretty “easy” school with a reasonable socio-economic mix of students. Some were startlingly wealthy, but the school stopped short of being a suburban island. Getting to teach, to have some control over the lessons and deliver content rather than worksheets…that was good. Combined with the fact that I had finally realized I needed more (or different) qualifications on my resumé, my experiences as a long term sub were enough to push me into an alternative certification program that I had rejected when first looking for work.

At the beginning of the summer, everything looked rosy. We bought a house. I was certain that I’d get a job before the school year started. When that didn’t happen, I started to worry. I was, this week, ready to go back to substitute teaching and stoically get through another year deferring the full-time work I’d been seeking for so long. I was pondering supplemental entrepreneurialism. Then I got an interview invitation. I was invited back to do a teaching demonstration. Twenty minutes after I wrapped up a short lesson on predictions and expository writing, I had a job offer.

A year ago, I would have been skeptical if you’d told me what I’d be doing now. Two years ago, in the final throes of my dissertation and before I’d discovered how chilly the job market is, I wouldn’t have believed you at all. I did not spend most of a decade studying music so I could  teach 13 year olds about expository writing. Here’s the thing, though: that time is already spent.

I could cling to that investment and try to fit life to a Procrustean bed. I tried that for a while…and it only made me miserable and angry. I’ve come as close I’ll ever be to being a professor. I try not to spend too much time on regrets. I got to spend a lot of time with my kids. I completed a doctorate. It’s time for the next thing.

It is exciting and it is daunting and everything that a new opportunity should be. It’s not perfect, but it is in so many respects a first job. Those aren’t perfect. This one is Pretty Good. If there’s anything I’ve learned in getting through and out of grad school, it’s that you take Pretty Good when you can get it. Even if it takes two years.

——

Full-time employment will mean some changes here at Walking Ledges. The three posts I’ve managed each week for the last month will drop back down to two. Nicking from Novels will run on Mondays. The other post of the week—on writing, postac, teaching, or maybe even music—will come out Wednesday or Thursday. I am not abandoning my writing. I’m doing NaNo this year and should have my first novel drafted by the end of this weekend. This is still the place to come if you want a first crack at my writing. With fewer blog posts, I plan to post short updates via Facebook  and Twitter . Feel free to follow me there if you’re keen on the latest news of me.

Teaching Dreams

I’m not sure I ever dreamed about teaching college courses. Intermittently, the dreams of my gradjunct years featured classrooms, but they were never about teaching. That is part of the reason I find the string of teaching dreams I’ve experienced since July strange. Few of them have been the typical ‘unprepared’ scenario (e.g., I just started teaching at this school and nobody can tell me where my classroom is or give me the attendance list). Mostly, they have been very concrete, quasi-realistic dreams about the work of being a teacher.

Last night, for example, I dreamed that I was teaching an intervention/remedial English class. I dreamed that I was angry at the police for the way they treated my students. I dreamed that I screwed up my introduction to the class by saying some dream-honest things about how messed up the system is when I should have started the speech with the encouraging parts that I delivered next. Those encouraging parts, incidentally, were precisely they ones that I have sketched out in the eventuality that I have a class of my own. The only odd thing about the dream was that in the subsequent teacher’s lounge episode, I could not stop eating cake even though I was full. Make of that what you will.

I’m not sure what I am supposed to make of these dreams. They’re not prophetic (I hope—the thing with the cake was uncomfortable). I don’t really feel like I’ve been thinking about teaching all that much. Indeed, I’m trying to take advantage of this time between finishing my certification and going back to work by finishing the draft of my novel. (Getting close!) I did not dream of technical writing jobs when I was applying for them, nor, further back, of tenure track jobs when I was applying for those. In part because I’ve been bereft of optimism lately, I want to read these teaching dreams as confirmation, whether cosmic or subconscious.

I want that confirmation because teaching feels right to me. It’s the part of my old plans that I’ve hung on to. I love writing. Writing feels right, but I’m not in a place to make it my full-time job. Teaching is different, because teaching is service. When I teach, I’m not doing it for myself. The job is bigger than the paycheck. I understand the idea of a life of service differently now than I did when I embraced it as a 17-year-old at a United World College. Not everybody gets the chance to make their work a meaningful part of their community. I have that chance now, which is pretty awesome.

The part of my introductory speech that made it into my dream? “You are all writers. You are all readers.” That’s a dream, not of kids all becoming novelists or or poets or literary critics, but of young people becoming adults who can express their ideas clearly, who can pull the ideas from a text and understand what the author is and isn’t saying. The kids have great ideas and insights. I get to help them understand how to make the most of them. That’s cool enough that I don’t mind my would-be work invading my dreams, even if I’m turned off by chocolate cake for a while.

Unrequited

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Academia-as-romantic-partner is one of my favorite metaphors. We fall in love with our fields, and it’s easy for the heart to rule the head. We plug away as adjuncts because surely, some day, academia will pull out the ring we’ve been waiting for all these years. Maybe it will even put together a flash mob and the whole thing will go viral on YouTube. We all know people who got dumped, and we all know at least a few people who got the proposal, cleared the paperwork, and are now complaining about how their spouse can’t load the dishwasher properly.

Breaking up with academia, for me at least, had an emotional trajectory pretty similar to the one terrible romantic breakup I had. The lady was ahead of me in school and moved across the country (to go to graduate school!). We were in love, but not in so much love that we were willing to derail our life plans for each other. (Again, pretty similar to what happened with academia and me.) When we called it quits I was miserable for months. After a bit of flailing, I found somebody else to love who loved me back and was, actually, willing to rearrange her life plans to better fit with mine. We’ve been married eleven years now. To the extent that our relationship was my decision, it’s probably the best one I’ve ever made.

So what has come next for me as I’ve escaped the miserable phase of my breakup with academia? I love teaching. I remember being surprised at how honest it felt to write that back when I was applying to master’s programs. It’s still true. Once I overcame my resistance to going back to any form of school, becoming a certified teacher seemed like a great idea. That’s what I spent my summer working toward, with the full expectation that when Labor Day rolled around, I’d be a week or two into a full-time job. Labor Day has come and gone, and I’m still laboring at…finding a job. And working on my novel. And mentally preparing myself to resume subbing next week.

This gets tiring, the waiting. Waiting on applications. Waiting on phone calls and e-mails, on appointments. Waiting for the grinding away at my writing projects to break on through to the other side. It’s kind of sad (and a sign that I have young kids) that the Disney song I sympathise with the most these days is Rapunzel’s opening number from Tangled. I am not just hanging out in a tower until some dashing stranger shows up to whisk me towards destiny, but I am wrestling with the sense that I should be somewhere by now.

Instead, I’m stuck waiting, which brings me back around to the epigraph. Waiting for Godot has all sorts of cool things going on in it. Beckett works miracles with simple language, but the play is also as bitter as burnt coffee. Precociously cynical me appreciated that even in my first encounter with it during I.B. English. I’ve got a better sense of it now, and suspect that my understanding of the work will continue to develop as I age. But back to that first encounter. One of our assignments was to do a dramatic reading of a scene. My partner and I decided that the best thing to do was play Vladimir and Estragon as stoners. We turned them, more or less, into existential Cheech and Chong. It was both funny and justifiable.

When you do it for long enough, waiting becomes like a drug. Send out some applications and read infotorials and play video games until the kids come home, then make snack and dinner and clean until it’s time to go to bed. Repeat until Godot finally shows. It is tranquilizing. I fight it with my writing (and with occasional reminders of my bank balance), and I work to keep the hopes that have thus far been deferred from making my heart sick.

Heartsickness brings us back to the initial metaphor about academia-as-romantic-partner. For many of us, our love for our work and our field proved unrequited. Academia might have liked us, might have liked us a lot—publishing our articles, inviting us to conferences, maybe handing us a VAP that looked good at the time—but it didn’t like like us. Maybe we could be friends, but probably the kind of friend who promises to help you move then “forgets.” (Every time.) It isn’t like that for everybody, of course. There’s still that 1-in-3 chance that you’ll end up in a tenure track job.

Right now, I’m worrying that my love of teaching might also be unrequited. I don’t believe it is, but I worry. It’s only been a month and change since I became eligible for jobs. There were some wrinkles of the hiring process that could have been made a little clearer in my certification course. There were only so many jobs open late in the season, and I was reluctant to chase ones that would have involved 50+ miles of daily commuting in terrible traffic. Knowing there are reasons does not make the waiting easier, especially when I consider that I might be waiting a full year to make more progress. I’m not sure I can do a long-distance relationship with teaching for that long.

What about you, o gentle readers? If you were describing your relationship to academia like a romantic partnership, how would it go? If you broke up, did you make any terrible choices on the rebound? Found new love since escaping? How far can we extend the metaphor before it collapses under its own weight?

What Can I Do?

Yesterday was a dark day. It’s been a bad week for news. Social media was full of horrors from Ferguson and stories about depression. (Never mind Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq.) I continue to fight a terrible head cold and have been worn down physically. It was also one of the days that I waited for a phone call about a job that never came. Some big things, some small things, all pulling in one direction: down.

I’m not going to lie. I felt the way Erica Moen describes in the middle part of this comic. Or like George Bailey on the bridge wishing he’d never been born. It’s not the darkest place I’ve gone to (and I’m better today), but I kept coming back to one question:

What can I do?

What can I do to make a world where my black friends and neighbors do not have to worry about their sons getting shot by the men and women who are supposed to be protecting the community?

What can I do to make a world where our response to a crisis isn’t “how can this be happening in America?” but “how can this be happening to human beings?”

What can I do beside shake my fist at the sky as I sink into the morass?

I clung to this question, because it was the only way I could see out of the dark place I’d gotten to.

Look, I’m just a guy. I’m a privileged guy, too, even when I’m hurting. The last time I worried about the cops was when they were taking my picture during post-9/11 protests. I have an intact, supportive family and a lot more education than most people. I live in a house that is only partly owned by the bank. That didn’t stop me from tearing up when I saw the photo of the Ferguson protest at Howard University, or read Rembert Browne’s Grantland piece this morning.  Humans should not be doing these things to each other.

This is what I’ve got: my words and my vocation. Words dragged me briefly to the forefront of those protests 13 years ago. I can write. I can speak out. I can struggle to make the feelings I’m wrestling with intelligible, along with the situations that provoke them. Words matter. Words make people think and make people feel. I will do what I can to write meaningfully, whether that’s stories that help people step out of the dreary for a few hours or essays that make people think or terrible over-referential humor that makes people shake their heads.

The other one is more important. I get to be a teacher. I see sixth graders already leery of anybody in a uniform. I listen to high schoolers talk earnestly about which county has worse police. I see students buying into what society has told them about themselves. I see students fighting that. And I get to be a part of what they learn. I can make a difference. I can help them find their voices. I can listen. If I do that job well, if I listen and teach and believe in the students…I can help them hope.

Hope. We usually oppose it to despair, but it’s a hell of a good opposite for depression, too. When those veils come down, nothing good matters. You can know you’re loved. You can know people would hurt if you’re gone. You can even know, in some puny intellectual way, that things are likely to get better eventually. On the darkest days, though, you can’t believe it. Tomorrow doesn’t matter because today stretches forever, and today is awful.

That is why I clung to “what can I do?” If there’s any answer —no matter how small—to that question beyond “end it all,” then there is hope. There is hope. Hope alone won’t do the work, won’t make the changes. Hope won’t armor you against the evils of the world. But if you have hope, you can get out of bed. You can do.  Hope keeps the door to the future open. Even if it’s just open a crack, that crack breaks the darkness with a little light.

What can you do? Keep the door open. Keep hoping and asking yourself what you can do. Then go out and do it.

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Checking Boxes II

Why Middle School?

My memories of middle school are mostly about bad hair and misery. I spent seven years in Catholic school (for a variety of reasons) and started middle school in seventh grade. I was smart. I was awkward—physically and socially. The only people I knew even a little were some kids I had been in daycare with years before. Academically, there was nothing to challenge me. One day my younger brother and I came home with the same homework. He was in fourth grade; I was in eighth. I became a band nerd and the eleventh-worst basketball player on the B-team. I ran track (poorly). I ransacked the middle school library for anything with swords or dragons.

If I work at it, I can remember most of my teachers from middle school. Few of them made an impression on me—probably not their fault. I came in knowing almost everything in most of their classes. I was a good student, but I was also a terrible student. Those books from the library? I’d sit in the front row of class and just read them. I wasn’t disruptive, but I felt zero need to pay attention.

I had a funny realization, though, as I was finishing up the first of my first two long sub assignments. Out of all the teachers and professors I’ve had, the one whose style I’ve come closest to adopting is my middle school math teacher, Mr. Johnson. I had Mr. Johnson for math and “computers” (this was the early 90s). He made sure we did the work. He answered our questions. As long as the work was getting done and we were learning, he was relaxed about everything else. We played computer games when we were done with our algebra assignments. The favorite among my group was a space trader simulation. You could make the most money transporting drugs, but they could also get you arrested…unless you’d purchased enough guns to defeat the police. We were in eighth grade. It was awesome. (I also played the Moria rogue-like on those back-of-the-room monocolor-monitor computers.)

There were things Mr. Johnson did not have to deal with in a small-town middle school two decades ago. Nobody had cell phones, for one. (I hate them. I really hate them. The only thing I enjoy is the utter disbelief when I show students I still use a flip phone.) That guiding ethos, though… I like that: the work matters. The learning matters. If that stuff is happening, the rest doesn’t have to be a grind. Of course, you sometimes have to make things a grind to ensure that the work and the learning happen.

I started today with “why middle school?” The answer is that interesting things result from both sides of Mr. Johnson’s approach: from pushing the students, and from giving them space. Legitimately interesting things, not just “interesting.” Sometimes they’re awful—to the teachers and to each other—but they’re also growing in every direction at once. Teaching middle school, you get to witness that growth and encourage the directions it takes to be productive.

The Brittleness of Happiness

This post started with my incredulity at how hard I was taking an overheating car. I’ve never been nonchalant about malfunctioning automobiles—I was once so upset about a broken radiator that I couldn’t even get myself to call a tow truck. The overheating, this time, was not a disaster. I was close to home. I added more coolant. Since then, the problem seems to have gone away (or at least not manifested during my spouse’s commute). Like a hypochondriac hitting WebMD, though, I trolled the internet for probable causes and priced solutions and worried for the umpteenth time how many more months we’ll get out of a 14-year old Dodge Neon.

Those are practical worries: Austin’s nearly impossible without a car. My wife and I are budgeting for a down payment on a house; that doesn’t leave much room for new car payments. My incredulity, though, was about how much this threw me off. It was a problem, yes. A grown-up problem. I happen to have solved many grown-up problems in my time as a grown-up. I fixed my washing machine…and barely batted an eye a week later when a hose came loose and I had gallons of water to get off the floor. Why was I so upset about a car? Was my happiness that fragile?

Sort of. I wrote a few weeks back that “my own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.” When I’ve hit lows the last few months, they’ve been valleys, not abysses. It’s harder for the little things to wake up the whole mess of I’ve-wasted-my-life-and-my-future-is-useless than it used to be. None of that means my happiness is complete, or that I’m comfortable, or that I don’t still hear Paul Westerberg keening “Unsatisfied” in the back of my head on a weekly basis. I don’t always get enough sleep, which exacerbates problems.

My happiness is more brittle than I’d prefer. You know what? That’s a non-problem. If it slides back toward depression, that is a problem. Not now, though. Grad school encourages us to make peace with being miserable, a kind of paradoxical masochistic Schadenfreude. The loneliness of the adjunct makes it worse. That doesn’t mean quitting the academy is a free pass to rainbows and unicorns. Mental gymnastics to sell ourselves on our own happiness aren’t any more worthwhile just because we’ve left the system that encourages them.

In, out, or in-between, academia inspires a weird self-absorption. At its best, this enables useful introspection. At its worst, well…one can find himself turning the question of intake fan vs. clogged radiator into something existential. It’s just a car, dude, not a referendum on your success as a human being. Perspective has to come back in one way or another. Having nonacademic friends helps. Having kids helps (sometimes—my seven-year-old has turned bedtime literally into a brawl lately).

Sometimes, perspective comes when life smacks you upside the head with something real. After a few days off, I am back at the middle school where I spent six weeks. Yesterday, I was there as one of four extra subs called in as reinforcements after the unexpected death of one of the school’s math teachers. The teacher was 29, in his first year of teaching, and had many layers of connection with the school. He’d been a student there. His mother taught history there for decades. He’d been part of both sixth and eighth grade classrooms this year. Staff and students were wrecked. It was my job to help fill in the gaps as teachers and students helped each other get through the day, whether that meant covering a classroom or escorting students to the crisis center in the library. After most of two months, I know these students. I know many of the teachers (although I knew the deceased only in passing). It hurt to see them suffer, to see one of my class clowns come into the library barely able to finish a sentence.

I ended the school day standing next to the makeshift memorial set up in the courtyard. Students added notes and cards to the ones already piled on it. (They avoided covering up the neck ties.) Many of them took pictures with their phones. One student, trailing the end-of-day exodus, sketched a sincere but embarrassed bow as she dashed to catch her bus.

When the building was clear, I signed out, got in the car, and drove home. When I got there, I didn’t quite collapse, but it was close. I was empty, drained by the day. I cried some. I made my kids give me hugs and explained what had happened to my son. He immediately wanted to make a card for the teacher’s family. I thought about what I could do, what it meant to be a teacher…what death meant to a 13-year-old. I thought about happiness and about grief and ephemerality. I was reminded that death is one of those things even poetry fails to touch.

Later that night, I discovered the kids had knocked our iPad to the floor and stepped on it, cracking the screen. It didn’t worry me.

Ersatz Redux

This morning I took my first phone call from a parent concerned about grades. Am I a teacher yet?

This is my last week in this month-long assignment teaching speech (excuse me, professional communications) to eighth graders and theater arts to sixth graders. One of the days that first week, I came home and told my partner that I could not imagine myself ever teaching middle school full time. Last Friday, we had a conversation about how middle schoolers are some of the most interesting kids to teach. I’ve played around with lesson plans, adjusted pacing, graded many speeches.

I have also heard more terrible jokes about LeBron James than I ever imagined. I have witnessed the awesomely casual powers of destruction wielded by sixth grade boys. I have banished students from the classroom. Over and over again, I have told students to put their phones away and to stay in their seats. I have spent whole 90 minute classes hopping from metaphorical fire to metaphorical fire, trying to put them out before something on the other side of the room got out of control.

I have learned the students’ names.

I have to resist the urge to write that as “I have learned my students’ names.” After a month, they feel like my students. That first week still felt like a sub job. I was leaning on the lesson plans the permanent teacher had left for me. We were watching movies and finishing up projects that had been assigned before I started. By the second week, and certainly by now, that has changed. I’ve been here long enough to assign projects and see them finished. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the various groups of students. The core progression of assignments isn’t mine, but I have a sense of its ebb and flow. I feel like a teacher, not a substitute for one.

I still go home tired, especially because I end my days with 30-plus sixth graders. My voice gets worn out. I have to remind myself that it’s not my kids at home who’ve been testing my limits for 8 hours. My writing has suffered somewhat because I’ve been working so much. Having a job is work (duh).

That’s what I wanted, though. As nice as it is to have time to write, I pretty keenly feel the obligation to work. Related: I keenly feel the obligation to pay bills. Blogging and working on a novel isn’t going to do that. Waking up at 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. is never going to be fun for me, but the last few weeks I’ve been grumbly mostly because I don’t like being up that early…or haven’t gotten enough sleep…or both. I have not been dreading my job like I have at various points since I started in September.

This might not be the perfect job, but it’s one I can do. Sometimes, that’s enough.

…Of course, next week it’s back to catch-as-catch-can subbing. One choice at a time.

Coming Soon: a long-form essay on leaving academia, frantic attempts to play catch-up for CampNaNoWriMo, and sundry awkward pop culture references.