The Anatomy of a Major Life Change

I’ve written a little bit about why I’ve decided to go to graduate school already. However, I wanted to go more in depth as to the thought process that goes into a decision about giving up on a chosen career and finding a new path. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last, to make a drastic career change midstream.

Since about my junior year of high school I knew I wanted to be a high school social studies teacher. Or so I thought. My number one love, however, has always been the content of social studies. Sometimes this put me at odds with some of my classmates in my education program who were becoming teachers because they loved working with kids. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids just fine, but I really loved the intellectual wrangling involved with being a teacher. I love history, sociology, psychology, economics, and government. Being the “practical” individual that I’ve always been, I figured the most marketable profession to enter that allowed me to work with these topics was teaching.

For the past three months I have worked as a full-time substitute teaching sophomores in high school economics and government. Before that, I had a year and a half of very steady substitute teaching jobs. I am now cutting my fledgling teaching career short to pursue graduate school. Over the past three months, I’ve learned some things about myself, what I need from a job, and the value I place on personal freedom.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEING A FULL-TIME TEACHER

  1. I need more control over my time: Teachers have zero control over their time. Zero. I can’t even pee when I want to — I have to wait for my planning period, lunch, or the end of the day. This is something that really began to bother me the longer I taught. I need to have the freedom to decide what I’m working on and when. In hindsight, it seems really stupid that I decided to get into teaching when this is such an important aspect to my working life. I suppose it’s something I didn’t really realize until I got an actual taste of what it’s like.
  2. Assembly line teaching sucks: I had six classes of students. Each class was made up of as little as 31 and as many as 35 students. I saw each class for 48 minutes. It is impossible to explore anything in the amount of depth with that many students and that little time. The clearest way I can think of putting this is that every teacher, regardless of how good they are, has to learn to care a little bit less. It is absolutely impossible to do this job if you follow up on every single missing assignment, every single low test grade, and every single kid that isn’t living up to his potential. If you devote the amount of time that is truly necessary to analyze, critique, and improve a piece of writing to every single student’s work it is absolutely impossible to do anything else. You cannot care at the absolute highest level about every aspect of this job, planning, teaching, following up with students, parents, and providing feedback on work and keep your sanity. The best teachers figure out what aspects to care about the most and let other things slide. The worst teachers just don’t care about anything. My nature found it incredibly difficult to reduce my caring and by the end of the three months I had run myself fairly ragged. I would be burned out at the end of 5 years if I continued like this.
  3. I have a desire to affect events on a larger scale: The American education system is falling apart. Plain and simple. The funding structure is disintegrating — just look at the recent protests in Wisconsin and Michigan. Every year since I began my studies to become a teacher, there has been almost zero good news about the educational system. Funding is constantly being cut. Unfunded mandates are constantly being placed upon schools. The result is a PERVASIVE environment of pessimism. I’m not talking about teachers’-lounge pessimism. I’m talking about up to down pessimism throughout the entire profession about the future of our educational system. Our system is on the verge of collapse and it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. I think positive psychology holds a lot of the answers to the questions kids are asking in school and not finding satisfactory answers. What should I do with my life? What actually matters? How can I be happy? I’m going to be tackling these questions in my graduate studies and the overreaching application of these answers excites me like nothing has in a long time.
  4. I have a desire to affect events on an individual scale: This may seem paradoxical considering point number three, but I don’t think it is. While I want to affect and improve the world on a larger scale, a scale that wasn’t feasible as a high school teacher, I also want to have more of an affect at the individual level. With nearly 150 students I couldn’t give nearly the individual attention that each student deserved. I felt like I was skimming along the surface of my class and learning bits and pieces about my students. Getting involved in life coaching and small group workshops/speaking will give me the opportunity to help people on an individual basis. That scale is impossible in a modern high school.
  5. My ideal day is impossible as a teacher: I’ve done plenty of personal development exercises that asked me to write out my ideal day in extreme detail. I’ve done this many times and it’s only now that I realize my ideal day is impossible as a teacher. Yet, it’s very possible if I run my own life coaching, consulting, and writing business. Why give up on being able to live my ideal day everyday if I can see a path to that end? It won’t be easy and it doesn’t mean that everyday will be the best day of my life, but I want to have a shot at being able to live my ideal day everyday.

I will be the first to admit that I obviously did not give teaching a lot of time to grow on me. I’m sure there are plenty of teachers reading this and scoffing, “Three months?! Of course you hated it after three months.” I know that the first year is generally considered very difficult. I get that. In fact, I was starting to get into a bit of a groove by the time my subbing assignment ran out. However, just because teaching may have gotten easier for me over time does not mean that my underlying issues with it were anywhere close to being resolved.

LEARN FROM MY EXPERIENCE

You don’t have to settle for less than ideal. I get that I’m a 24 year old single white dude with no responsibilities. I don’t really have much holding me back. I know, I know. But you can always take steps toward your more ideal future. I started this blog on a whim to keep me occupied while I searched for a job. I sat down nearly everyday and just wrote about what I found interesting and about my journey to improve myself. Over time this became an obsession that led me to research positive psychology more intently. Which led to investigating graduate school. Which led to filling out a couple applications. Which led to actually pulling the trigger on moving across the country. All while continuing to do the best job that I possibly could teaching my students and writing at my blog.

This process took nearly two years and now I’m on a path that I think is much closer to leading me toward my ideal life. But I never would have found this path if I sat back and settled for what I knew wasn’t fulfilling me in the way I expected. It was a matter of taking tiny steps toward the direction I wanted to go. It’s all you really can do anyway.

Lastly, I’d like to address the guilt that I’m feeling about this decision. I feel badly to be essentially turning my back on my future students. According to the students I’ve had for the past three months, my colleagues at the school, parents, and the administration, I was a damn good teacher. I will freely admit that I was good at being a teacher. I’m sure if I were to stick with it I would only become better. Casting aside a profession that I think I would have eventually excelled at in favor of an incredibly uncertain future is something I’ve sat awake with quite a bit over the past few months. What if I blow it? What if I can’t hack graduate school? What if I fail a class? What if I can’t start my own business or end up having to work at a job I dislike more than teaching? Everybody will face questions like this when making huge life decisions. What separates the average person from the exceptional is the way you respond to these uncertainties. I know the road will be hard. I know that people will be doubting my decisions. I know that some people will feel let down or betrayed by what I decide to do. I’m tired of letting other people’s expectations dictate what I do. Or, more succinctly, I’m done making excuses for my lack of happiness.

As I laid in bed a few nights ago one sentence kept flowing through my consciousness.

My excuses are going to seem really stupid when I’m dead.