I am currently a high school English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and as much as I love my students and the teaching of literature, I have to GET OUT. It’s a matter of personal growth really. Let me go back.
Two and a half years ago I was waiting on word from PhD programs and working as a server in a local restaurant. The waiting was nerve-wracking, but the serving was worse because I knew I could be doing something more. I had just spent two fantastic years in a Master’s of English Literature program at Belmont University, where I had presented at a conference, published a paper in a journal, written a full-length thesis, and engaged in intellectual discussion on a regular basis. Going from all of that mind-blowing stimulation to serving up steaks, fries, and Diet Cokes was disappointing, to say the least.
My mentor from my previous teaching position, who I love dearly and who I respect highly for her commitment to students, called me with a proposition. How would I like to come fill in as an interim teacher for a maternity leave opening at their school? I would be working with administration that I knew and trusted, albeit at a school I was unfamiliar with, but working in the International Baccalaureate Programme’s Middle Year Programme (MYP, and excuse the spelling, it’s international). I was teaching 2 classes of sophomores and 1 class of seniors a day on a 4×4 block schedule (the students took 4 classes 1 semester, then 4 classes the next semester on block schedule). It was a great job, I loved the students, and I enjoyed teaching again.
That spring, I did not get into any of the PhD programs to which I had applied. I had set my sights high and had little idea of what I was doing. Four shoddy applications went out, some without recommendation letters, and I didn’t get in. I spent 3 fabulous weeks in France that summer with my best friend Adrien, and I came back and was offered a position teaching at the same school: 5 classes of English II (including 2 classes of MYP) and 1 class of French I. It was fun, but stressful. The thought of preparing these students for the state English exam, many of whom were from low-income backgrounds and who were ill-prepared or who did not read on their own, gave me crippling cluster migraines. I made it through the year, but I suffered from depression. I began to see a therapist in January, went on medication for my migraines in April, and cried. A lot. My students ended up scoring well on the state tests, but I was not happy with my situation. I kept telling myself, “I will do better next year.”
This past summer, I went to training for International Baccalaureate (IB) Language A English Literature training. I was to teach the students the new curriculum, and I was excited. Training was good, and bad. I tried to network, with little success (my hotel was 5 miles away from the training site), and although I kept up with some of the information, for the most part I felt lost and disoriented when we were talking about the assessments. Most of the people in the room had taught the class before, and I had not. I spent the rest of the summer kayaking, gardening, and reading to plan for English II and IB English III.
This year has been tough. A new Tennessee teacher evaluation system, the state exams, IB English, and schedule changes have all heightened my anxiety. Medication and training for a half marathon have kept my migraines mostly at bay, but they are always on the periphery. Depression set in about January, and it’s been a struggle to overcome.
Decision time came in March. We were nearing the state exam, my students were getting antsy because spring break was delayed (who decided that!?) and I was feeling overwhelmed. I looked back at the last two years and realized that the goals I had set out to accomplish three years ago, to write, to pursue an advanced degree, to write, were not being met. Over the last two years of teaching I kept promising myself that if I took a little more time, planned a little more, graded a little more, worked the students a little harder, that I would feel better about myself as a teacher. But I was looking at it all wrong. The problem wasn’t with me as a teacher, it was with me as a person. Maybe this idea of myself as teacher, the image of myself that I had had since I was in 10th grade, was not really what I needed from life. I needed to take some time and figure that out. Conversations with multiple people, including my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, my therapist, and myself, helped me decide to leave the school at the end of this school year. A particularly moving conversation with my parents after the half marathon at the end of April really did the trick. I will never forget my father telling me, with tears in his eyes, “Tamara, you need to be happy, and you are not happy.”
Quickly, there are other issues involved here. Max, my wonderful boyfriend of 5 years, and I moved in together a little over a year ago. We never see one another. If I “worked just a little bit harder,” I would still be making sacrifices for my job and not for the life I really want. If I want to build a family with him (whether or not that includes rugrats), I need to invest in our futures as well.
So, here I am. As Elizabeth Bishop says in “Questions of Travel,” I am going to contemplate “one more folded sunset,” take the time to understand life. If it comes off as petty, please excuse. If it comes off as self-absorbed, please excuse (or go find another blog to read). I am searching for happiness, just like everyone else.