When I began teaching, 30 was a magic number. After 30 years, a teacher had earned full benefits in the public employee pension system and most could retire with an income close to the one they’d been earning.
Back then, it seemed to me that almost all colleagues nearing their 30-year mark were just a bit past their sell-by date. They looked tired. They sounded tired. Many said they were ready to go. I could hardly imagine ever being one of them. I knew, of course, that one day I would be, but that day was so far away it didn’t seem or feel real.
And yet, here it is. Here I am. I began my career as an educator at the end of January, 1990. 30 years ago this week.
A lot of things have changed in 30 years. In my initial teaching certification program, we had one half-day class on instructional technology that included a rotation on how to use a ditto machine. There was no mandated language arts curriculum in the Seattle public school where I did my student teaching, so I was able to make up my own. I had a snazzy new Mac with software on floppy disks, but no email or internet. There were no standards, no annual standardized tests, no school report cards. And–oh, yeah–no school shootings, no lockdown drills, and no room clears, either.
I finished my licensure program at an odd time of the year (December), and I was entering a tight job market. In a seminar on how to conduct our search for a teaching position, we were told that only one in eight of us would likely get a job. The eight of us earning a secondary language arts license all looked at each other when the presenter said that. Well, I thought, if only one of us is going to get a job, I need to be the best so I can make sure it’s me. I braced myself for a grueling search and at least six months of being a sub (the idea of which terrified me), but then I applied for a mid-year opening at a high school just outside of Portland, and the next thing I knew my young husband and I were packing up our belongings and heading south.
I don’t really know how to capture 30 years in a short blog post. I’ve been an English teacher, an instructional coach, and a district librarian. I taught grades 7-12, in 6 different schools, including an alternative school and a charter school. Twice I’ve been involuntarily transferred, which isn’t really the same thing as being fired (but it feels like it is), and once my colleagues recognized me as one of the best teacher-librarians in our state. In addition to teaching English, I’ve also taught keyboarding, humanities, and personal finance. Right now I am the librarian for every student in my district, grades K-12, a job that’s had me reading stories to Kinders and teaching seniors how to use databases.
Over the 30 years I have been on the receiving end of curses, tirades, tantrums, tears, and hugs (from both children and adults). Last year a 2nd-grader threw a pencil in my face and last week a 4th grader asked me for my autograph and last Tuesday high school girls outside my office talked in pretty graphic detail about their sex lives. I have kept confidences and reported secrets. I still choke up when I think about the autistic boy with finger-shaped bruises on his throat or the smart, loud, provocative 14-year-old who turned silent the day we read a short story about a girl with a sexually abusive father. I have both thrown out lifelines and blundered into situations I didn’t know enough about, causing damage I couldn’t repair. I’ve been frustrated, shocked, devastated, and disappointed, but also delighted, surprised, elated, and profoundly happy. I have never been bored. I have some regrets.
It’s such a cliche, but it’s all gone so fast. In my 30 years I have lived in 3 different cities, in 6 different homes. I divorced 2 men and raised 5 children. I graded at least 30,000 essays, give or take a few. (Probably give.) The years fly when almost every day feels like a race against the clock. Starting in year 5, I worked 3 shifts: I taught during the day, parented in the evenings, and after the children went to sleep I graded papers or planned lessons until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Every single week day. Well, I didn’t do third shift on Fridays, but I did it Sunday nights, and I can’t tell you how many sick days I took so that I could work all day to try to catch up. I also regret all the times I was not fully present for second shift because I let third shift intrude upon it, grading papers at soccer games or mentally planning the next day’s lessons during dinner.
It has always, in one way or another, been a struggle. Until a few years ago, I kept thinking that some day I was going to figure out the thing I was really meant to do. In the space that opened after the last of the children left home and I no longer had three shifts or a perpetual stack of papers hanging over my head, it occurred to me that it was probably too late to find that thing and that maybe I had been doing it all along. Maybe what we’re “meant to do” isn’t necessarily what feels most comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe it’s what feels most meaningful and compelling. Maybe it’s the thing we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from, even when part of us really wants to–and it’s not because we’re co-dependent or afraid of risk or incapable of doing something else, but simply because we can’t imagine anything else that could matter as much to us. Maybe it’s not so different from loving a partner or our children: No matter how hard it gets, we just can’t give up on it.
Like the teachers who were ending when I was beginning, I now look a little tired and am past peak freshness. Thanks to pension reforms, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and the aforementioned divorces, though, 30 isn’t quite the magic number it was when I started; I cannot afford to stop working yet. Still, there is a window opening. Being at full retirement age means I could retire from teaching and do some other kind of work that doesn’t pay as much to bridge the gap between here and social security.
I wrote recently about the revelation it has been to notice what I want. That’s something I’m doing now in the realm of work. I read about or watch the kinds of things other people do, and I pay attention to what creates a spark for me, that feeling of wouldn’t it be cool to do that? I don’t think about what might or might not be possible. I’m just noticing where the spark is. I peruse jobs on LinkedIn that I’m not qualified for and ones that I’m over-qualified for. When I see someone out in the world doing something I think I might like to do, I ask them about how they like their job. As I work at my jobs each day, I pay attention to what I love and to what I don’t, and what information those feelings give me about the qualities I might want to have in whatever is next (even if what’s next is more of the same). It’s been eye-opening, all of it, and kind of fun. I never realized how much I shut some thoughts and desires down before they even rose up, just because I thought there was no way to incorporate them into my life. (That’s a regret, too.)
Make no mistake: I am tired (of many things) and a little wilted (some days more than others). But the more I’ve been paying attention, the more I’ve been thinking that I might not be done yet, and not just because I can’t afford health insurance. I can see now what I couldn’t really see in those first years: Energy and freshness are vital, but so is the knowledge and wisdom that come from deep experience. I’ve got a value that no new teacher–even the most well-read, creative, energetic, and dedicated–can have. My profession and our children need both kinds of educators. I’m thinking that (maybe?) 30 is the new 20. Maybe it is not time to leave, but time (again) to make some kind of transformation within this field that is probably the one I was always meant to be in.
Or maybe not?
It’s hard to know. I guess time–and attention, reflection, questioning, and opportunity–will tell.