Teaching English has become the hottest new excuse to travel. Between Dave’s ESL Cafe and discounted TEFL courses, everyone is primed to teach their way around the world. Maybe I’m no different. In a few days I’m headed off to Vietnam to meet new students, teach new books and join you bunch of traveling teachers…again.
At the ripe old age of 27 I’m leaving behind the glittery, cocktail infested world of PR (and its more realistic white walled office days) to re-enter a profession that’s a little closer to my heart: teaching. This is a big change. Not only will my new job pull me (and my extremely supportive boyfriend) away to a new continent, it will also require me to dust off my projector, freshen up old lessen plans and remember what it means to teach.
Leaving teaching was a conscious choice, and one that didn’t make sense to most people. After all I enjoyed it. I was good at it, well good considering I had no idea what I was doing. And teaching and I seemed to fit each other. It required being creative, working with children and, as an English teacher, reading and writing – all things I like anyway. Plus it gave me that whole meaningful purpose in life thing. So leaving the profession seemed out of character.
To understand why I left (and why I’m returning) you have to understand why I became a teacher in the first place: by default. About three minutes before I was set to graduate university I remembered I should probably get a job; my first big, scary grown up job. As an English and History major my options were…limited, to put it nicely. I considered the obvious first – grad school (but to do what after?), journalist (apparently you’re supposed to prepare for that one; National Geographic reps literally laughed at me), trophy girlfriend (definitely still tops my career preferences) – but none seemed to work out. Teaching was an option everyone else helpfully suggested, but at the time I wasn’t convinced.
Then came Teach for America. Yes, it was teaching but it wasn’t about spoiled suburban brats and their parents who bring lawyers to parent-teacher conferences. This was about going into underprivileged schools and making a difference; changing kids’ lives. My inner Michelle Pfeiffer was all set to create Dangerous Minds: The Sequel. Next thing you know I was part of an impressive/intimidating teacher corps, living in Harlem and set to save the children of the South Bronx.
It was a disaster.
Oh, but Kath, you tried so hard. Oh, Kath, you did more good than you realize.
No, really, it was a hot mess. At one stage there was a student-run gambling ring that met on Tuesdays in the back of my classroom. I had, not one but, two students set the school on fire and a child poop in the middle of the hallway. I had no idea what to do, and I hated teaching.
But then, just as I was ready to throw in the ruler and swear off apples for life, something magical happened. I began to teach. To this day I don’t know how or why it started; I felt I’d been doing the same amount of lesson planning and ineffectual behavior management all along; but something clicked into place. By the end of the year I had a real, functioning classroom. Well, sort of. Better than what it had been anyway. By some stroke of dumb luck (read: clerical error in the NYC Department of Education) my English as a Second Language students even made more growth on their state English tests than any other class at the school. Year two of teaching was even better. We went on field trips, started a drama club, worked cooperatively in groups and even learned, like, four new things.
Teach for America came to an end just as my Travel Bug started biting again. Hard. I responded with a move from busy NYC to a middle-of-nowhere small town in Costa Rica. I left big public schools for an equally middle-of-nowhere small private, bilingual school. I traded in my bigger-than-me eighth grade students for still-have -baby-fat Kindergarteners. And I loved it. I had six (six!) kids in my class and by the end of our time together we were reading, writing and doing math in English and Spanish (it never ceases to amaze me how brilliant kids are at that age). I loved my job. I loved my school. The students, parents and administration loved me.
So I did the only logical thing…and quit. Instead of signing up for another year or seeing where else teaching would take me, I gave it up to join the stark world of business. Why?
The short version is that it was convenient. After six years of doing the long-distance relationship thing, my boyfriend and I decided it was time to live together, or at least live in the same hemisphere. So I joined him in his home country of South Africa. I came mid-semester, which made finding a teaching job slightly inconvenient. It also just so happened that his pals owned a business that needed a new hire and were willing to help me get a work visa for their company.
But there was another reason I switched careers. Back in New York, teaching in a school with the lowest test scores in the lowest scoring district of the United States, there seemed to be two types of teachers. There were the young, bright eyed and totally unprepared lot (me) and the older, more experienced teachers. Of the more mature teachers a few still had the passion for teaching. But many of them had lost it somewhere in between roving gangs and spit balls. Their bitterness for teaching, students, life stank up the teacher’s lounge. And when asked why they didn’t just get out and try something new, they responded that they couldn’t. They’d been teaching too long to get a job in any other field.
New teachers won’t understand this. After three or four years of teaching, leaving the profession is no big deal. You can leverage your experience – managing a class, accommodating a whole range of needs, developing interpersonal relationships and getting quantifiable results – into any career you want. But after, say, fifteen years of teaching no other job wants you. You’re a teacher, so teach. It looks suspicious to leave that late in the game. What? Are you burned out? Were you not that good to begin with? After a certain point there’s not much you can do with a teaching degree but teach, whether you like it or not.
And so, scared to death that I would one day become the wrinkled old teacher who brings a bottle of vodka to her classroom, I decided I should be smart about the whole thing. I would try something else before settling on whatever it is I want to be when I grow up. And so this, also, led me into the intriguing arms of Public Relations.
Now it’s been two years. In that time I’ve come to enjoy PR. It’s nice to start your day on your own terms, rather than facing a jumping room of kids. It’s nice to speak to other adults and not have to tie anyone’s shoe for them. In winter I love not having to wipe anyone else’s nose. What a pleasure! But something about the untamable, unmanageable jungle of teacherdom is calling me back into its grips.
So here goes nothing.