Saturday, November 19, 2011

I made the right choice

It is now four years since I left my career in education. Prior to that, I had spent nearly thirteen years as a pro, not counting my three years in the minors as a student teacher and undergraduate. During my tenure, a term I use with rather purposeful irony, I have taught: English, History, Language Arts, Spanish, Music, Theater: Performance, Theater: Technical Arts, Jazz History, ESL, Public Speaking, Literature, and Creative Writing.

By way of full disclosure, I should note that I have also served administratively as: Artistic Director of the Theater Program, Assistant Dean of Students, Associate Dean of Students, Dean of Students, Assistant Principal, Director of Athletics, and Head Dorm Parent.

I have served in many ways, though to be frank; most of those titles were earned by simply showing up, clearly giving a damn about the students, and not being a real obvious asshole. What happened after the shine faded is a matter for history to decide. I maintain that I held onto my idealism and genuine belief in education, including the fact that schools should serve the needs of the students and their families. If I had a dollar for every time that one of my bosses told me that I was too idealistic, and that I’d last longer in the business if I learned to “go along” and “let go of the ‘change the world crap,’” then I would have been able to leave the educational industry with far more financial security that I actually did, as it happens.

I have no real complaints about my career as a teacher. I was appropriately awful when I first started out as a young teacher. Deeply inspired by “Dead Poets Society,” Alice Burnett, and my dead father, I spent years imitating and pretending, accomplishing little until I eventually figured out how to I was meant to teach. I learned a lot at SKS, where I was blessed with a group of students who had no problem telling me when my bullshit didn’t work. They were a tough audience, but a fair one. They forced me to give them something that mattered, and I still look back on my years there as among the better years I’ve had as an educator. My students at SKS made me a better teacher. The two years I then had at PJ, which I still consider the greatest teaching I have ever done, were only possible because of the four years I completed at SKS.

PJ was about the happiest time I ever knew as a teacher. I was valued and given freedom to teach the books I wanted to teach in the manner I wanted to teach them. It was really exciting for me as a teacher to be asked, “What do you want to do?” There are many things I miss about my life as an educator, and each school I have left behind has a place in that lexicon, but to date there is nothing that stirs me in the same way as remembering that moment when Fitz told me, “Well, it’s your class…do what you feel called to do. We believe in you.” I would go back there and teach tomorrow if I could.

But, as life happened, I left PJ as I left SKS, and that other place before it. I became an assistant principal in the Boro, and then finally in the Grove. There were a lot of very positive moments during my time there and I felt like I made a difference at times. But I was never really able to shake that sense of dedication to the students and in turn, the families and staff members that genuinely supported them. I still believed that schools were in place to serve students and their families. But as I rather painfully learned, over and over again; schools, just like any other enterprise, will only serve others as far as their leadership will allow them. Leaders, despite our hopes and dreams, sometimes don’t think of others first. So many of the people I “worked for” had lost sight of what a school was really for.

So, Headmasters sometimes think of money before campus peace and personal morality; Superintendents think of their political aspirations before they think of their constituency; Principals sometimes think of themselves before they think of the people who paved the way for them; Some teachers think of their pensions before they think twice about passing a student who truly believes that Delaware is the capital of New Jersey and Hillary Clinton was the Vice President for George W. Bush. Sometimes an elected Board of Education will persecute a teacher who has had a positive impact on her students, simply because that teacher is a graduate of their districts arch-rival. And sometimes they call an educator “uppity” when they don’t think anyone is listening.

All of those things happened. I know this because I saw them happen.

When I left PG, I did so for two reasons-the most important of which is that my wife was receiving an amazing promotion and chance for advancement in her career, which gave our family an amazing opportunity to have an adventure on Oahu. But, the second reason, which I’ve never spoken of in this space, is that I was in my tenure year at PG as the Assistant Principal and the Athletic Director, and while I feel I had done well and felt like I had some support from the staff, kids, and community, and that the programs were doing well overall, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my renewal in the position beyond the tenure year was very much “undecided and up for debate.” I was told, very directly, that despite my performance, my tenure in the coming year was dependent on the decision of the Superintendent, who after hiring me enthusiastically, had soured on me after I chose to respect and admire my direct supervisor, the Principal at PGHS. I was told “you picked the wrong side.” In retrospect, I know in my heart, and in all other manners that I made the right choices for myself during my time there. There were good people that I worked with there in PG and there are good people there now. I wish them nothing but the best.

But, I didn’t trust the Superintendent, or the Board, with the kind of power that they were capable of exerting on my life. As it was, I was working a minimum of six days a week, nearly twelve hours a day, and driving at least 100 miles a day for events and meetings. I was leaving my home before my children awoke and returning after they had gone to sleep. Most of those days, I didn’t see them. If I was lucky, I would come home just in time for bedtime.

I remember vividly a night I came home on the earlier side due to rainouts. As I walked in, the kids saw me, and cheered, “Daddy’s home, it’s bedtime!” and they ran upstairs to their room. They had learned to equate my arrival with bedtime. I remember more nights than I can count where I drove home only to see the lights in their rooms off. The worst of them all would be seeing the lights on as I pulled up only to see them turn off as they had clearly just been put to bed and I had just missed it, by only a moment. That happened a lot. Countless bedtimes missed.

And so, I’m left with my own reflection now on the fact that four years ago, I left my job to stay home with the kids. At the time, the twins were three and the Bear was one. I left my job, gleefully (and providentially perhaps) as it happened, and arrived in Hawaii with absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing.

The Bear just turned five and the twins turn seven on Sunday. I’ve been home with them for most of their lives. And now I feel like I finally get it.

I made the right choice back in 2007. I left my career behind and while I truly don’t know what would have transpired back then had I played things out, I cannot imagine in any way that it would end up being more significant than the life I have chosen. I took a beating from a lot of people in my life back in 2007 when I left my job and chose to stay home. Hell, I still get grief from certain pockets of my family about being a stay-at-home dad. There are those who still don’t understand me. But, I made the right choice and I know it now. The last four years with my children has been amazing in ways that I fall regrettably short of having the talent to describe. I still get grief for “not working” and yet, I somehow manage to have more to do than I ever did when I “worked for a living.”

I made the right choice. I won’t go so far as to say that I am done with education, as I have found myself feeling the itch to teach again, now and then. I think it is safe to say that education, at least as it manifested itself in the old days of my career, may itself be done with me. I’m not who I was then. I have good memories, and I’m quite content to leave those memories alone.

But, as Vonnegut would have said, “So it goes,” and so it does. I have never felt more strongly that my choice to be home with my children was the right one. I had an amazing adventure in Hawaii with them and then another one here in Northern Virginia. My youngest, who I’ve been hanging out with for almost 4 years now, is heading to Kindergarten next year. I can’t believe how quickly it has gone. She and I have been together for her whole life, at least most of the time. While the twins have been at school a year or so now, and readers of this space will know that they have some challenges as well, we have spent a lot of time with one another and worked hard to maintain a sense of togetherness.

The way I see it, had I stayed at PG, I would likely have had to go in front of the board to fight for my job. I truly believe it would have come to that. I honestly feel like I would have been incapable of kissing the amount of asses it would have taken to have avoided that showdown, and in truth, despite it all, I would likely have lost. Without tenure, I served at the pleasure of the Board and the Superintendent. I liked it there, but it was made clear to me that my tenure was a pawn on a rather insidious chess board. I was never so glad to take my piece off the board. I miss the staff and the kids. I could have been happy there for a long time. But it was made clear that I was not going to be welcome, as I had a shelf life in PG. They told me so. It made me sad. I would like to have stayed. But I was not wanted, and so when the chance to move on to be home with my kids arose, I took it. I used to feel guilty that I left during the year, which I know is difficult for a school. I don’t feel that way anymore. I just saved them the trouble of having to watch me fight for my job, which I would have done. I would have fought them. And I would have lost. So, I don’t regret it. My choices have been discussed in this space for nearly four years, and whatever can be said, I will say this: I am imperfect, as I have always been, but I am good at what I do.

Maybe I don’t get paid, now. Maybe I don’t get the prestige of a “title” and the honor of a “business card.” Perhaps I may not be anyone’s idea of an impressive adult, but I truly and finally have come to the point in my life that I really don’t give a turkey. I am a man, and my children are my life. I’ve been with them constantly over the last four years. That is time that I would never have been able to get back. So, I am grateful.

I am grateful for my life. For every district I worked for or wanted to work for that rejected me; I am grateful.

If any of you thought I was worth hiring or keeping, I wouldn’t have had the last four years flying solo with my kids. And I wouldn’t trade that for all anything, including that offered stay at the Waldorf-Astoria.

I chose a different path, and I'll admit that I've struggled with that choice at times over the years. But I know now that it was the right one for me and my family and I'm thankful each day with my wife and children.

I had the chance to make a choice about my life and I made one, as Steve would say, 'way outside my comfort zone.'

I suppose, and that, as Frost said, “Has made all the difference.”

Well said, dude. Aloha.