Saturday, June 23, 2012

Graduation Goggles

In season 6, episode 20 of the sage TV show "How I Met Your Mother," Robin describes the phenomenon of "graduation goggles," those nostalgic rose-colored glasses you get when about to end a life situation or phase, even if you know that phase was pretty terrible. Even if high school was nothing but bullies and insecurity, right before it ends you can't help thinking that you don't want to go. Okay, it's a silly source for the name of this 'phenomenon,' but in the past few weeks I've appreciated having something to name the feeling I've been experiencing.

I've known for a long time that I was unhappy at my job. There were many reasons why, and it was hard to parse out the source of many of my frustrations. Teaching is a complicated thing because even the best and happiest teachers, those who love their jobs and can't imagine doing anything else, are stressed out and unsuccessful. Teaching is a job where you will always fail at something. You will always fail in the short-term: there will be things you wished you had done differently in any given class period to better support students. You will fail in the long-term: there will always be kids in whom you see nothing but greatness but who fail to meet the bar you've set. Kids will disappoint you in ways you never imagined possible. It is the nature of the job that it is difficult and heart-breaking and that the amount of time and love you put in will never be enough. All of these failures wear on me. And then this was compounded by challenges specific to my school. I had to (and still) wonder: is it the school that's doing me in or is it the profession as a whole? Is my school not the right fit for me or am I just not cut out to be a teacher?

Coming to the decision to leave my school was a gradual process. At first I thought I would stick it out one more year, four in total, to honor the goal of following my advisory for four years. I began with them in 9th grade and after three years together I see them as my own. I have come to love each of them deeply and unconditionally. Every time I moved closer to making the leap away from my school, my advisees have been the (sometimes literal) voice reminding me of my obligation to stay. But the challenges and stresses of my school continued to build up and break me down until they outweighed the commitment I felt to my advisees. Is that terrible? Call me a deadbeat advisor; I chose my own mental health and long-term career prospects over whatever I felt for them. There are lots of arguments as to why the kids will be fine--the school will still support them, they'll all still get into college, I can be a better support if I'm not drowning in my own poor mental health, etc. But I still feel guilty.

In the last week of school, the graduation goggles hit hard, especially as I thought of my advisees. I sat at graduation watching current 12th grade advisors choke back tears and beam with pride as they handed out good wishes and diplomas. As I remembered I am the one who gave up that opportunity to sit on that stage and send my babies into the world, I couldn't help but think, "Maybe one more year here wouldn't be that bad." Earlier in the week as I cleaned out my classroom and realized that I'll never again get to use some of my curriculum and structures in the same way, I thought, "Maybe one more year would be just what I need to get it right." As I said good bye to colleagues who have become good friends, I wondered, "What if my next school doesn't have a Maura?" The graduation goggles made me forget the reasons why this job nearly killed me. It obscured all the times when I cried in the faculty bathroom or prayed I would get in an accident on the way to school so I wouldn't have to go to work. However, being able to name the feeling helped me make more sense of it and remind me that I am leaving for good reason. It also helped me remember that I always have a moment of panic right before I dive into something new--I remember second-guessing myself as I got on the plane to New Zealand and as I moved into my apartment at Stanford, both times thinking about all the things I'd miss about whatever had come before.

Not to say that my hesitation about status quo changes is always a bad thing. I worried I'd made the wrong decision when I started the job I'm now fleeing and, well, maybe I should have listened better to that instinct. Who knows what will happen next? What I do know I know is this: my decision to leave my school is scary, but feels right. More importantly, the circumstances and decisions (mine and others') that have led me to my new role are an incredible combination of acting on my beliefs and of pure luck, so everything feels completely right about where I'm going. No doubt there will be new, unexpected challenges that make me to grumble about how kids/ policies/ administrators/ colleagues/ resources/ etc. were never like this at my last school, but I hope these will be outweighed by unexpected surprises that confirm I'm in the right place. Even through the graduation goggles, I'm eagerly awaiting what's coming next.

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