Friday, September 27, 2013

Teacher Lady

Most of what I knew about myself at sixteen has long been filed away in the back drawers of my memory--the boys I liked, the books I read, the music I listened to, my favorite movies. But even then, in my youthful naivete, I knew, with quiet certainty, that I would make a good teacher.

No one disagreed. I can recall my parents and their friends, and even teachers, nodding and smiling at me when they asked about future career plans. "Maybe I'll be a teacher," I'd tell them. Everyone thought it a perfect career path for me, I suppose because I liked babysitting, liked learning, did well in school. Maybe it was something about my personality.

When I arrived at Chico, terrified and uncertain about anything in my life (except my own homesickness), my major was Undeclared and my first order of business, after spending the first week wondering if I should have gone to a commuter school close to home, was to join the school's concert band. It was band, and my need to keep being a music nerd--a staple of my high school career--that helped me find my way. By the end of my freshman year, I had a path: I would get a degree in music, with an option in education. And so I did.

I danced into my teaching career full of starry-eyed optimism and visions of adoring students and accolades. It was particularly devastating, then, that first time an enraged parent screamed at me in my student teaching assignment (that's a fantastic story in and of itself; she was known in the school office for being a screamer, but I didn't know that when I was dealing with her in the middle of a field trip to downtown San Francisco, surrounded by middle school kids). The first time I wanted to cry in a classroom. The first time I felt like an absolute failure at communicating to a group of children.

Teaching is not for sissies.

My career has progressed in a zig-zag--never a straight line. I have known many teachers who got a job out of the credential program and stayed there, and had rather hoped, at first, that this would be me...but my path just wasn't meant to be typical, I suppose.

You could argue that I am not meant to be typical, really.

There was the part-time job I loved in Elverta...the one that meant I had to live at home. There was the Wild and Absolutely True adventure that started this blog--a year teaching in England. A year in Washington. Two years of utter failure in Antioch. Two years in Stockton, culminating with being laid off. Two years of unemployment, of being interviewed for jobs that 60 people applied for. Two years of "almost" and "not quite." Two years of wondering if it wasn't time to move on to something else.

But as I tried on different hats, nothing seemed to fit. Teaching fits. This was driven home to me when I got my "stepping stone" job last year, at Petite School. This was a crucial point in my career, because it got me out in the work force again. More than that, it reminded me that I am a teacher.

I am a teacher.

Absolutely, without a doubt, I can make music engaging and exciting and fun for kids. I can teach them the fundamentals, make them sing beautifully.

Every single teaching job I've ever taken--until my current one--I've taken the second it was offered, with a sense of urgency. "If I don't take this, I might not get another offer," I would tell myself--and this is possibly true. The recession was not kind to educators, particularly those in "disposable" specialist subjects.

I left the interview at GB feeling excited. "I could do this," I thought. Any qualms I had about teaching high school (which, after the debacle that was my two years in Antioch, I had vowed never to do again) started fading away as I started realizing one very important fact:

The Meg who failed in past jobs because she was too quick to try to please everyone else doesn't exist anymore. The Meg who lost 90 pounds and bulldozed her way into becoming a runner knows that anything is possible.

Still, I waited. I thought about it, gave it time to form in my brain. When the principal called me in early June to reiterate that they really wanted me for the job, I began leaning towards taking it. I asked him, point-blank, "If I get kids to join choir, will this job grow?" His response was immediate and emphatic. "Absolutely. We want this program to grow. Our school ought to have a thriving choral music program." I asked for the weekend to consider some things, as I was feeling proud of what I'd accomplished at Petite School, and reluctant to just up and leave right then and there. A meeting with the owner of Petite, however, reminded me of the cold, hard facts: I had no room to grow there. The school is just too small, and limited in what it can offer a music teacher.

So I called the high school back on Monday morning and accepted the position.

I haven't looked back.

Of course, I was nervous. But I haven't really questioned myself, and I suppose that is the most surprising part of the last five months. There's this confidence in me these days that wasn't present in the previous six teaching positions I took on--I know I can sing, I know I can help other people sing. I'm not afraid to do what needs to be done to make this job work for me. I'm not afraid to ask for help, to make the occasional mistake--and learn from it.

Today marked the end of my seventh week as the GB Choir Director. It has been a whirlwind--Wild and Absolutely True in every way--in every good way.

It's not a perfect school. Perfect schools don't exist. I quietly grumbled my way through a hopelessly boring staff meeting last week, and I know, as I continue there, I will have moments that make me want to scream. They just don't matter as much as the really great things about this job: the rapport  I've built with my students, the support I'm feeling from everyone there. Instead of being starry-eyed and hopeful, I'm being realistic and positive. I'm putting a lot of time and effort into doing this job, and it is paying off.

An email arrived today, from my boss. He sat in on my class on Tuesday for my first formal observation of the year--the first observation in my school career in which the butterflies were at a minimum, and I simply thought to myself, "I've got this." When he walked into my room at the start of class, I smiled, greeted him, and then proceeded to ignore his presence for the next 85 minutes, because he's not there to chat with me, he's there to see me teach.

I've been anxiously awaiting this first feedback. I still have, in my files here at home, the terrible evaluations from my principal in Stockton, and in my mind, I still have the bruises from that experience. I felt my lesson went very well on Tuesday--it wasn't anything particularly special or out-of-the-ordinary, just a regular choir rehearsal with warm-ups, some solfege (I do that with my kids at least once a week), and some down-and-dirty rehearsing for our upcoming concert. My kids are great every day, but of course, the presence of the principal had them on their best behavior. Still, they were themselves--asking questions, making suggestions for the mash-up we're creating of Styx's "Come Sail Away" and "Sail" by Awolnation (yes, it's absolute madness, and yes, we love it). They giggled when I joked with them. They sang beautifully.

Still, until you hear back from that admin, it's so hard to know if that was all in your head, or if he thought it was terrible.

He sent me his immediate thoughts in a voice recording, recorded right after he left my room. (Hilariously, it took him a few days to get it to me because, oops! He sent it to the wrong teacher! We have the same last name.) He said, first and foremost, "It's obvious you and the students have a great deal of mutual respect for each other." In just under five minutes of recording, his only real concerns were not so much with my teaching, but with the behavior of one student in my class, as she seemed attentive, but sometimes a little unfocused. We chatted in person this afternoon and I told him she is quite troubled by things outside of school, and has great days, and "off" days. He told me I handled her very well, and put her name down for referral to a support group our counselors run for kids who need to talk.

I'm at this point where I feel...tentative...about telling people how much I'm loving my job right now. I'm optimistic enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, I've found my place, that job that I can grow in, stay in. I am absolutely (finally) living and working in the part of California where I want to be for a good long while. I know that running a choral program is something I can do, and can enjoy. Part of me wants to shout from the rooftops that THIS IS IT! I'm making this job my own!! It will be full-time!! I'm staying!! But there is that small, wounded part of me, left behind from the six jobs before, that quietly sits in one corner of my mind. It gets smaller every day, but it also serves to remind me that I must not take anything for granted, I must not stop working, and giving everything I can to this job, while not losing that crucial work-life balance.

I spent a full day at school today, subbing my last day in the guitar class, teaching my own class, getting a ton of stuff done in my office, running around as I do. A little after 3:00, I loaded up my backpack, dug my purse out of my desk drawer, and started shutting the place down for the weekend. Something compelled me to stop for a moment, and I stood in my office, looking out towards my choir room. I looked at everything I've done so far, and the work yet to do, and felt very, very satisfied.

As I turned out the lights and took out my car keys, I paused again and looked around. I said, out loud, "Don't you ever forget how very blessed you are."

Don't ever forget, Meg, that you are a teacher.

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