Imagine it is 1999 and you and I are walking around California Polytechnic University. It is sunny out and we are in flare jeans, my friend. It is the start of my senior year in college and I have just confessed that I don’t know what I am going to do with my life. I have recently changed my major from zoology and let go of my childhood dream to be an animal behaviorist, living in Borneo, studying orangutans. (There is a longer story here about me taking Organic Chemistry II my junior year and not yet having built an academic mindset that could quiet the gremlins in my head that whispered I was not smart enough to be a scientist.) I have also come out of a summer that taught me the business world can be grimy. By the time we are walking and talking, I am pursuing a degree in my second love, English literature and have just been offered a job as a reading tutor in a local elementary school. The principal is willing to schedule my hours around my classes, the pay is very good, and I want to say no – badly.
You see, both my parents are educators. For years I had been telling anyone who asked if I would follow in their footsteps a fast and hard “NO!” I look back now and admit that by the time I entered college, I had become rather biased; telling myself the story that education was not the field for me had become a habit. The joy, significance, and connection were always present in the stories my parents shared at the dinner table, but I listened for the negative anecdotes that confirmed my bias. When I shared my opportunity of becoming a reading tutor with my parents, they both encouraged me wholeheartedly. My mom, who remains one of the best teachers and educators I know, was quick to point out that I used to beg to go to school with her when I was little. She reminded me of the hours I would spend playing teacher to my little sisters, and then my stuffed animals once my sisters fled the room. I can still hear her inviting me to consider that I might be wrong about becoming a teacher.
Despite my hesitation, the “real world” was looming and I said yes to the offer. Within weeks I was working with a small group of fifth-grade boys. Most were English language learners and all were at least two years behind grade level in reading. I learned quickly (and painfully) that they all wanted to be anywhere but in that small reading room with me. It took me about two weeks longer to realize that our small group reading time took place when the rest of fifth grade went to PE. I was just naïve enough to assume this was by accident and audacious enough to suggest to the principal that changing the fifth-grade schedule was the only answer. To say I didn’t understand how master schedules work in schools is an understatement.
Somehow, my genuine horror that kids would be kept from PE convinced the principal to take notice. (Side note, my dad taught PE for most of my childhood and I have a deep love for PE and PE teachers.) To speed this ahead, the boys were allowed to go to PE as well as reading intervention, and by the end of the semester, they had each progressed more than a full grade level in reading. It was hard work and it was heart work. I’d leave some days, many days, questioning whether my efforts were making even the smallest bit of difference. The paradox was difficult to understand; the system was not built to ensure the success of the boys and the system paid me to work hard to make a difference. Each bit of forward progress was met with a harsh and biting wind that tried to push the boys back into their place. I’ve only realized in the past few years that this job and those boys were the birthplace of my heart for equity. By January I changed my major yet again – this time to English education – and I began taking teacher preparation classes. My heart had been hooked and I felt drawn to the classroom.
Let’s skip ahead a couple of years. The very same heart that once felt full of hope and promise was defeated, broken, and hurting. Rather than teaching my way into an inspirational made-for-television movie, I found myself pulling over to the side of the road on my way into work, head resting on the steering wheel, crying. Teaching was so much harder than I was prepared for. I worked in a large urban high school that was plagued by poverty, violence, and low expectations. I spent far too much time wondering if I could ever be enough for these kids. The stress, partnered with a high-risk pregnancy, knocked me out of the classroom before my seniors graduated that year.
Just remembering the experience makes my chest get hot and my throat tighten. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed, and what really made it hard was that I was a good teacher. My first observation earned me a follow-up conversation with our principal because I was the only first-year teacher who had earned such high marks. I was taking some risks with the curriculum. When everyone else in the department was teaching a book from the canon that the kids hated, I closed my portable door, turned the yellowed blinds, and we read Jurassic Park. A local librarian helped me secure 38 tattered copies of the book! When some of my students got in trouble for breakdancing during lunch, I started a breakdancing club. (And if you know me, yes, I can almost hear you laughing.) The only thing I knew about breakdancing was that a few of my kids loved it, they were getting in trouble for it, and I could give them a safe space to be themselves. Every day at lunch they’d crowd into my portable, push all the desks against the perimeter of the thin walls, toss down the cardboard they kept stored in the crack between my portable and the classroom in a box next door, and crank up music that I still don’t enjoy listening to. Leaving those kids hurt me as much as the tearful drive into work had become.
I spent the next six years in and out of classrooms. I have come back to education two times – each time I left I was sure I was done. Yet each time teaching, like a siren, lured me back. Over the past 21 years, I’ve taught in every grade from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and now I spend my days teaching educators and facilitating learning for adults. I have taught English, history, math, writing, and science. If you ask me WHAT I have and can teach, the list is long. If you ask me about HOW I teach, the conversation gets a bit more interesting. I am passionate about inquiry, differentiation, problem-based learning, and visible thinking. As a complete pedagogy geek, I love the science of learning. The question that has given me pause for years, the one that I have struggled to articulate honestly and fully, is WHY do I teach?
At times I have avoided the question and have been afraid to tell the truth, or at least the version of the truth I was settling for. Early on I might have said I taught because I didn’t know what else to do and California was in a teacher crisis. Later I might have told you that it was because I had small kids and teaching was a good fit with my partner’s demanding work schedule. It is possible that at times I deflected and said I didn’t have the money or time to return to school and reinvent my career. And while there is some truth in every one of these answers, not one of them has ever captured the real purpose of my work as a teacher. Time and again I sold myself short.
Last year I once again found myself questioning if my work was making a difference. I saw teachers working harder than they’ve ever been asked to work. Reflecting on my own work, I found myself wondering if my contributions as a professional learning specialist mattered. Being out of the classroom and out of a school building sat heavily on my heart. The Covid pandemic, partnered with watching a national awakening followed by a subsequent denial of systemic and racial injustice, left me pondering who I am and how I want to show up in my community. Many years ago I made a commitment to pay close attention to what comes into my life; when I get present enough the next right thing is almost always placed in my path.
Not long after Edjacent came into my life, I signed up for a Start with Why for Educators class through Simon Sinek’s website. On a Saturday morning, I found myself in a live online class remembering and telling parts of my teaching story that I had not thought of in decades. It kicked off a months-long journey as I intentionally rediscovered, reinforced, and for the first time purposefully articulated WHY I am an educator. This reclaiming of my professional purpose is the lens through which I now see WHAT I do and it helps guide HOW I do my work. Claiming my purpose has helped ground me. When I feel the winds of the status quo pushing against growth and progress I am able to find shelter in my why. My purpose is to build authentic connections with the hearts and minds of educators so that we can be the unique, courageous, and joyful educators that our community deserves and needs.
As we head into another school year that will once again ask a tremendous amount of educators, I hope that you too can hold tight to your purpose. And if you are looking for an opportunity to claim or reclaim your professional purpose, I invite you to join me and others in an upcoming workshop. This virtual workshop will guide you through a process that helps your unique purpose emerge. Through storytelling, we will begin to put into words the very reasons our hearts chose education in the first place. Together we can bravely head into the coming school year anchored to our purpose, knowing that when the water gets rough and we question what and how we are asked to teach and lead, we can remain connected to our why.