Thankfully, things changed. I decided.
(Part 1 of this story can be found here.)
“So Dave, tell us — what professional books have you been reading lately?”
This was the interview question that should have cost me the long-term subbing job. I didn't know it yet, but when I came on at Cedar Springs High School, I was entering a faculty well-read in a genre I barely knew existed. Fisher and Frey? Burke? Jago? Gallagher? Kittle? These names meant nothing to me at that time, but at Cedar their work was referenced at department meetings with dizzying regularity.
Despite my lack of experience with the professional literature, there was a brighter, more glaring red flag for the hiring committee: it was mid-August! The school needed a long-term sub. Like, needed one. And a guy with three years' teaching experience, unread though he may have been, was better than nothing.
I was hired!
And for the next six months, I had the privilege and pleasure of working insanely hard for $75/day. (That works out to an annual earning potential of $19,500 per year, assuming you can work every weekday of the calendar year, which you definitely can't.) On top of the difficulty of making ends meet at home, life in the classroom was tough. I was struggling. The things I did to reach kids in Baltimore weren't working in Cedar Springs. My approach to classroom management, which had become quite effective in Baltimore, was making a real mess of things now. It seemed like a new kid was mad at me every day. There were glimmers of light every day, but mostly failure. (Some things never change ;))
The thing is, during those first six months at Cedar, I was still actively considering other paths. One night a week, I was driving to Grand Rapids for a seminary night class. I applied to publishing houses, too, getting some interviews for low-level positions, but no offers. I considered re-donning the Mighty Green Apron at Starbucks — the pay would have been better, and the work a lot less stressful.
But I remember there was this night when I arrived to the seminary early to get my homework done before class. I was in the student center, looking around at the other students sitting in there. They were just sprinkled about, going about their seminary lives: studying, talking, debating, collaborating.
And it suddenly just kind of hit me: This wasn't my place. These weren't my people.
You see, even though the long-term sub job was putting me through the ringer, sitting there at the seminary that night, it was like I could see that teaching was my thing. Yeah, I didn't know a lot of those teacher-writers at the time, but I wanted to. I realized that I wanted to get better, and I liked the thought of that pursuit.
It wasn't some magical moment with neon lights in the sky telling me what to do. It's as if a calculation my brain was working on in the background, like some kind of Turing machine, had finally finished its work, and out came this clarity: Dude. Teach.
I thought about it rationally, looking for the components of calling that I had learned during my searching days in NYC the year before*:
- I had an affinity for teaching: I liked young people, I liked English (that's all I was teaching at the time), and I liked the challenge of connecting those two things, even though I wasn't particularly great at it at the time.
- I had an ability for it: I wasn't anywhere near a great teacher, but I was a decent one. I couldn't be the worst one. And I was certain of this: I could improve.
- I saw a clear opportunity (a need) for people to be teachers: On a daily basis, I felt the need for good teaching. I saw the need in the apathy some of my students came with, the sense of entitlement of others, the difficult home lives of others, and the skills that still others lacked. I sensed, rather than had any studies or literature or research to prove, that school was important, and that it could be better, but that it'd only be better if more people stuck to it long-term.
And this huge relief came during that moment because, even though I was at the bottom of this planet-sized mountain called Teaching whose top was obscured in thunderclouds, the thought of focusing on just that one mountain was beautiful. No more sitting at the bottom of a bunch of mountains, torturously fretting about which one to pick. Just, “Okay — teaching. Let's do teaching, but for real this time. No quitting. All in.”
I had decided. That was the first breakthrough — the one without which none of the others would have come. Now I just had to figure out about a million other things, and honestly, at first I didn't even know what questions to ask. That was my next breakthrough: What were the right questions?
More on those next time.
My new book discusses these themes, and more, in-depth. It's the distillation of what I've learned so far about doing better, saner work across the school day, in all the classes. It's perfect for department- or interdepartmental book studies. But don't take my word for it — preorder a copy for yourself by July 24 and get early access to the first three chapters and membership to an online, “Back to School” book club. All the details are here.
*I came across this here. Dr. Timothy Keller had a large impact on me when we lived in NYC, and he still does today. Lately I've been starting my mornings with the daily-read book he wrote with his wife. It's on wisdom, and it is exceptional.