Getting Your Sea Legs, or The Secrets of My (Wobbly, Five-Year) Success

I know, you want to help people.  Change lives!  Reach out to the disenfranchised!  Create educational equality in an unequal world! My goal was to do all that, and to make it through five years in teaching.  More than half of our new teachers in America quit before five years.  In schools with lots of poor kids, like mine, it’s probably much worse.  I promised myself that I would quit if I was burned out or losing my mind.  I didn’t.  I’m now just a few months from achieving my goal.

Teaching has challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Many times, I wanted to cry uncle and say the challenge was too much.  I limped through these times, half-blind or sullen or broken, and eventually felt energetic and optimistic again.  How can you help man the ship of education through its always-stormy seas?  How can you keep your balance and hold the vomiting to a minimum?  Well, here’s how I did, anyway.

1. Where you work is everything.  You won’t survive as a lone crusader at a dysfunctional school.  You can’t set the world on fire for learning if the kids set fire to it first.  Don’t try to be a hero.  You’ll do more good with five years at an okay school than with six months in crazytown.  My school has 80% poverty, but it’s a pretty happy, friendly, comfortable place.  Just because you want to work with kids who really need you doesn’t mean you have to get treated like shit, or feel unsafe.

2. Your coworkers are your salvation.  No one else understand what you are doing, and the kind of tired you are.  If your coworkers (teachers, but also janitors and cafeteria people and security guards and adminstrators) are assholes and you can’t talk to them, you are going to be miserable.  Once you’re there, invest in these people like they’re Apple in 1980.  You can’t do it alone.  No one can.  My coworkers taught me a lot of the rest of this stuff, and thank you, thank you again.

3. Devote yourself to a mentor you trust.  Teaching was my first “career” job, so it was my first experience with locating a Yoda.  I was lucky to have two wise mentors right from the start, one a fellow English teacher, and one a fellow freshman teacher.  I asked a million questions.  There was no question I was too proud to ask.  I revealed my mistakes and how bad things really were.  Otherwise, I couldn’t get help.  (This goes for family and friends, too, who have donated time and treasure to support me through some rough times.)

4. Take care of yourself. This isn’t a good time to skip meals or exercise.  I know, you’re so, so busy, and so, so tired, but you’re just going to feel worse if you don’t eat and sleep properly.  I’ve tried to get a massage once a month (a student massage at a place nearby is $30), and I really think those should be mandatory for teachers.  You have to exercise.  I have to go to church and meditate and do yoga and take long baths.  I can’t eat junk, or I will not have the energy to make it through the day.  Part of taking care of yourself is also attending parties, seeing friends, and keeping up your hobbies.  It’s better for you, and your students, long-term, to keep your sanity with a healthy lifestyle.

5. Don’t even think about teaching summer school after your first year.  I don’t care how poor you are.  Dig ditches.  Anything.  I would avoid summer school in the subsequent years, too, if you can swing it.  It’s a grand or three versus the risk of complete burn-out.  Dangerous.

6. Be patient with yourself.  There is no perfect teacher.  There is no perfect student.  You don’t know what effect you have on students.  It’s impossible to judge.  Life is too complicated.  You’ll never really know– for good or for ill.  All you can do is try your best and know you’re part of something positive in the world.  Be thankful you have a job that gives you a sense of purpose.  That has to be enough.

7. Take a day off. No one needs you that bad.  Get over yourself.  Let the kids go crazy with a sub and do nothing for one lousy day.  Take that day off, even if your pay is docked.  If you’re maintaining your healthy habits (and washing your hands), you can save your days off for mental health recovery, rather than physical health.  Get your head back on straight.  Sometimes when the kids think you’re being a bitch, you are, and you need a day off.

8. You’re not going to like this, but you can only control what you can control. See?  I told you it was rough.  The main thing that will waste your time and burn you out is obsessing and slaving away at problems you cannot fix.  Your time and energy are invaluable.  Think carefully before you take on an extra project.  Don’t do extra work to “save” a student who won’t work for you.  That’s not helping– that’s enabling.  Especially because students and administrators might not respect your time, you have to guard it carefully.  It’s more valuable than money.  Which you already knew, or you wouldn’t have taken this career path in the first place.

Contradictory Desires


I have the desire to plow out into the world and explore like crazy.  Go places I don’t belong.  Find countries outside and inside myself. 


Also me: I move into a new apartment.  Every day when I come home, I am seized with revulsion.  This is not my home.  My home is the way-too-small apartment I just left.  That’s where I live.  That’s where I’m refreshingly miserable.


You can ask me to run off to a foreign country and I will say yes.  This has happened three times.  Once an acquaintance said, hey, you want to go to Juarez Mexico and build a house in four days?  Okay, actually, this happened twice, but the second time it was a stranger who asked and said, hey, I hear you’ve been to Juarez Mexico and we want to build another house.  Another time my cousin emails, hey, you want to visit me in Qatar?  I’ll fly you over.  I say yes. 


Although I have eaten some Kraft macaroni and cheese in my new apartment, overindulgence in carbohydrates has its limits as a coping strategy.  Although twice in the last two weeks it seemed like a good idea for me to have three drinks in the course of one evening, raising my blood-alcohol level produces mixed results, too.  The first time, my exhaustion caught me with a snap and I almost fell asleep in the car on the way home.  (I wasn’t driving.)  The second time, I fell asleep on the couch.  When I woke up, my anxieties gushed back. 


I can act with such I’m-not-shitting-you power at times.  Only this afternoon I walked into a group of teenagers, gave them a relatively mild version of The Look, and they dispersed demurely.  The problem with such power is just like the alcohol problem.  Unpredictable results, inconsistent successes.


I can’t tell you how lovely the new place is.  It’s my favorite of all the places I have ever lived.  If only I could feel like it was real.  I was waiting for the first bath or the first dinner or the first weekend or cry or nap or floor-sweeping.  Now I’ve been through all those.  It’s so cute here, too.  Cute windows.  Walls painted my favorite colors.  Plenty of room to spread out.  Not so much room that it looms around.  Amazing lines.  I read about architecture while I’m here, and I’m like, yep, somebody designed this 104-year-old structure.  And I know the guy’s name.


I’m concerned.  What happened to Poor Lonely Liz She Lives in Poverty?  True: I still hear gunfire.  True: paint is peeling, windows do not shut properly.  But from some perspective, it seems I have to live with the fact that maybe I have a great, affordable place to live.  I miss Poor Lonely Liz.  I knew what she was about.  She was weak, tired, abandoned by everyone, easily freaked out.  She wasn’t going to score career coups like going to three all-expense-paid professional conferences in a year.  She wasn’t going to nourish her writerly ambitions by attending two retreats packed with supportive colleagues.


The trouble is, I guess, that I haven’t just moved geographically in the last year.  I wrestled with writing issues and relationship issues and career issues last year, ready to make some giant changes.  Although I tried to manipulate and force these changes, they actually crept up on me through the back door.  I threw myself at my old boyfriend in August, not really expecting anything.  But we kept spending time together.  I stuck with the yeses, and ended up thrown into another retreat, a new summer job, and a conference opportunity.  I’ve gone to present at another national conference, and am, titularly at least, the English Department Head.


When there is this much change, I’m like the Cowardly Lion.  Everything, no matter how good, makes me want to hide under the bed.  Everything seems scary, regardless of the fact that I was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place.  I see my career going zoom through high school English teacher ambitions, and I wonder, do I even want to keep doing this high school English teacher thing?  How much responsibility will I take on as a Master English Teacher?  Will my comfort and knowledge catch up to the expectations of my coworkers and boss?  And once that happens, won’t I be thrown back into a fit of boat-rocking again?  Once I felt comfortable at my old job, I moved on.  I needed more challenge. 


I need challenge.  I like to feel like I can bite my teeth into my job, bare my canines to show the task is impossible and I know it, then squeeze down my jaw on the task.  Shake it side to side.  Today I took the essays I needed to grade out to a coffeehouse.  Once I had read through them, I wanted to kill myself.  I was supposed to be getting these kids ready for college, and they are writing like Sarah Palin drunk on Ebonics.  Seriously.  What the hell was I supposed to do about that?  Not only do I not know, actually no one on planet Earth knows how to get kids who are at the bottom of the pecking order writing clearly and firmly.  I wanted to run away.  I went by the grocery store on the way back to work and bought a piece of pecan pie, to return to carbohydrate overload again. 


At least when I find a place to live, I know how to be comfortable.  That’s good news.  If I can just be patient and adjust to the new place, I won’t have the same itchy ambition about moving that I have in my creative life, my love life, my career.  When I find a spot to rest my head that feels like home, I’ll stick with that like nobody’s business.  Last time it was a mostly-sweet eight years.