Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why I left teaching

As I write the new edition of Mojo Mom, it has been rewarding to find that I am having new insights into old issues.

This morning I was thinking about why I left my teaching job after I became a Mom. I had originally thought I'd go back after a semester or a year, but then I didn't. It was an Opt-Out/Pushed-Out situation where there was not necessarily a ton of flexibility. Our family's life was complicated by the fact that we moved to North Carolina when our daughter was one year old. But even that could have been temporary. We were originally planning to move back to California after six months, but we liked it here so much that we decided to stay.

Here is the additional kernel of truth that I was thinking about today: the problem with teaching high school was that I never did make that job truly sustainable, even before I had a child. It was the kind of job that demanded 110%, which we all know is impossible to keep up over the long run. My first year I was up at 5:30 am every morning and frequently stayed up past midnight. After that first crazy year it got better, since I was more prepared, but there were always going to be papers to grade and classroom plans to be fine tuned.

And teaching at an independent school is the kind of job that extends tentacles, grabbing your time in many ways that are not listed on the job description or discussed during salary negotiations. In addition to teaching five classes, three sections of Brain and Behavior and two sections of Chemistry, additional expectations were: running an advising group, being on many committees, co-authoring the school's accreditation report, attending some student groups, chaperoning dances on the weekend, attending student performances, leading an "intersession" activity during several days before Spring Break, and making personal financial donations to the school to get 100% staff participation.

I remember one fall an eager new teacher came in to ask me to enroll in the blood drive and I thought NOW YOU WANT MY BLOOD, TOO?

There were two important things going on: first, the school would demand all it could of us (sort of like a family, hmmmmm?) and second, I willingly dove in headfirst. Both my husband and I were really job-focused at that time, and it all seemed to work at the time.

However, without really realizing it, I was laying the groundwork for a tough choice after we became parents. Had I shaped my job down into something manageable, maybe I could have continued teaching. I could have set up more realistic expectations for myself, and the others around me. I had a great time during my three years of teaching but did veer into burnout my final year, I can now see looking back. There was no handle I could grab on to envision a way to jump back into the fray at that school (which was also a 38-mile commute from my house, another complicating factor would have worked against any sustainable childcare arrangement). In the long run, it may work really well for some parents to create a job that can be done while parenting. If you can do that, and get some seniority so that you have some leverage in your work situation, your job may be sustainable, and your bosses may also be willing to accommodate you to keep you.

I didn't see any way to make that particular teaching situation work, so I looked for a teaching job elsewhere and almost took a position teaching at Stanford after we returned from North Carolina. But then we moved, I fell in love with the Triangle, and I got the new textbook to review during our "temporary" stay. I took one look at the Behavioral Neurobiology text and realized that my heart just wasn't in it. It was a reminder that I had left neuroscience for a reason, because I had learned that I was a Generalist who was becoming trapped in a Specialist's world, and once I got to that Specialist level, I really didn't care about the questions we were asking. There was nothing wrong with me or the field, but it just wasn't the right match over the long run. If I was going to go back into teaching, and work for someone else rather than myself, I wanted to be something I would enjoy and be good at.

So, in North Carolina I settled into motherhood, still needing to learn lessons about sustainability and burnout (ie sleep deprivation over two years is NOT a good thing). I thought about what was next for me, and reconnected with my passion for writing. I had started a young adult novel years before, as procrastination when I was supposed to be writing my Ph. D. thesis! That project had fallen during the wayside when I taught, even though I could have worked on my novel during the summers. So now, reinventing myself in North Carolina, I decided that I would commit to taking my writing seriously. I managed to finish High Water, wrote a screenplay, and then had the inspiration for Mojo Mom.

So you can see why I believe that life is not a ladder to climb, but rather a path to explore. My own career journey has had loops, side tracks, pauses, and days stuck in the wilderness. But when it comes down to it, I love where I am now, and I think that opportunity is open to many of us, if we give ourselves permission to explore and not beat ourselves up because we're not doing it the way we're "supposed to."

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Blogger WordyDoodles said...

I love the thought that "now they want your blood too!" Ah yes, that end-of-my-rope feeling.

And congratulations on _High Water_! I love that even their names, Lisa and Molly, are next to each other in the alphabet. No escaping each other indeed.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous mariah said...

I love your closing thought. Our culture does not make it easy for mothers to find a balance between our personal and professional lives. It is up to us to pave the way. Thank you...

8:50 AM  

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