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My Personal Road Not Taken: Secrets From a Special Year

road takenIn the past, I've written frequently about my relationship with teaching as a career, taking the time to reflect on what my experience was teaching me about the profession as a whole. Now in my 13th year as a teacher, as well as being an author and a mother, life has gotten more complicated, and for reasons I don't fully understand, I haven't been as inclined to share my evolution. 

As an English teacher, though, I understand deeply that stories matter, that the personal is political, and that we learn from one another's experiences.

[For those who haven't known me long, here is some writing I've done about my current school, and about my experience with motherhood, and "leaning in" to my career from my previous blog, On the Shoulders of Giants. Probably most interestingly, here is this post from 2009 on what I was hoping for in my career.]

Here are a bunch of the secrets that I've been keeping about my professional life this year, and some of what made it a great one:

  • Early in the year, I arrived unexpectedly at a new place in relation to a longstanding internal conflict (see my post from 2009 for details): I realized that if this were my last year in the classroom, I would be okay with it. The caveat, which has always been the case, was that only an extremely compelling opportunity could pull me out of the fascinating, challenging, and exhilarating elixir that is classroom teaching.
  • I have been teaching a 0.8 schedule this year. That means I teach and am paid 80 percent of a fulltime teacher's schedule and salary. The part time status allows me to leave school at 12:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and at 10:15 a.m. on Fridays.  
  • This extra time has been used as sacred writing time for me, and also for the consulting practice I have been building over several years (providing workshops and virtual coaching for teachers). Some days I went home, made lunch and wrote there. Other times I was one of those people working at a table in a coffee shop.
  • I used to carve out time for myself to write in the evenings. Now that I am a (working) mother with a toddler, my evenings are for family time. This didn't feel like a deliberate choice, it's more of an authentic response that I accept from myself.
  • This year, I have felt more balanced than ever in my teaching career. 20 percent time and firm work/life boundaries made a difference.
  • Coincidentally (or not), seven years ago, I optimistically predicted in my portion of the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future that teachers would, after they moved out of the novice stage of teaching, get 20 percent of their time to pursue projects of their choosing, similar to employees of Google. Although I funded this time for myself, I feel like I finally got to live out one aspect of my dream.
  • I aimed to write a book this year in my 20 percent time. I did not get past the Table of Contents. 20 percent is not actually enough time to do all that I want to do in a balanced way. And my desire to write this book has not waned! 
  • I teach 54 8th graders, which is a luxurious sane number for a middle school English teacher. I rarely take work home anymore. 
  • I've taught 8th grade for 12 out of my 13 teaching years. I know this age group well. I know what my big goals are in teaching English Language Arts, what the biggest challenges are, and have many tools and puzzle pieces I can put together in response to my students. 
  • I frequently experienced a state of flow in my teaching this year. (This positive concept from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is worth reading about, if you haven't come across it yet). I did not have to think so hard about every decision. I could experiment, knowing that the framework for my decisions and the foundation I have established with my classes would support my students to try new things.
  • I decided not to stress my curriculum calendar so much, rushing through something to make sure to get to a certain end point by a certain date (that I alone had determined for myself and students). I decided not to get frustrated by "getting behind" due to testing days, field trips, etc. Instead, I would savor whatever we did and make it count. This worked wonders on the "weather" in my classes. (Teacher and psychologist Haim Ginott famously wrote, "I've come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather." Though it's not completely true all of the time, it's quite true much of the time.) I finish the year now content with what my students will walk away having learned and experienced.
  • I even tried something I'd never done this year: leading middle school student council. It turned out to be more rewarding and less stressful than I expected, because students were—surprise, surprise—more capable of leading than I realized!
  • In the context of this happy year, it happened that the compelling opportunity I have vaguely mused about for years presented itself. And so, at least for the moment, I am processing that this, in fact, is my last year of teaching in my own classroom.
  • I'm not much of a crier, but there is a phenomenon that includes water, seeming to originate in my chest and threatening to come out my eyes, that happens even as I write this post.... It actually started about two months ago when I was supporting students in a 6th grade classroom, while they were reading Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." I was in the midst of making my decision to leave or not to leave. I saw those lines, from this poem I loved in high school, but haven't had much appreciation for since. In my current circumstance, they struck me as genius, and have stuck with me ever since:

"...And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference."

I will post something soon about the compelling opportunity that is my personal road not taken. 

[image credit: Filippo Giunchedi via Flickr]

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