This is the first installment of a series sharing the story of a talented, passionate teacher with a young family who left the classroom to further her schooling only to find that the bureaucracy of education is preventing her from returning to teaching our children. Her story, unfortunately, is not unique. For those of you who have searched to find where you belong, what you are called to, this is a story for you.
We’d already gone over this on my first day. Today was the first day of week two, but still, someone asked, “Are you really a doctor?”
“Yes, I’m really a Dr.”
“So if I have a heart att—“
“She’s not that kind of a doctor, pendejo.”
“We don’t call one another pendejo.”
“But for reals, what makes you a doctor?”
“We’ll go over this one more time. When you guys graduate and go on to college—if you go to a four year institution like UNM (University of New Mexico)—what degree will you earn?”
“That’s right. If, after you finish your bachelor’s, you decide to go on in your education, you’ll be considered a graduate student. The first degree you earn as a graduate student is what?”
“Masters,” calls out Eddie. He’s squirrely. Always half in, half out of his seat, but he listens. Answers every question even if no one can hear him over the din of details chronicling the weekend hook-ups and break-ups.
“That’s right—master’s. When you earn a master’s, you’re still a Ms. or a Mr., but if you go on to seek a doctorate, a Ph.D.—the highest level of education, you earn the title of Dr” Part of me felt pretentious insisting upon it, but I wanted them to see. To know it was possible.
* * *
The majority of my childhood was spent roaming eighty acres of farmland, my grandparents’ farmland, in Wisconsin. It’s not an exaggeration to say we were the only brown family in the county—but that may be a story for another time. Three thousand miles away from my birthplace, I was a lonely kid. Cerebral in a way that was confusing—perhaps even off-putting—to my family. Very few friends despite my father’s constant encouragement.
The game I liked most was school. My sister, five years younger than I, always played the student, as did any unsuspecting neighbor kid who happened cross my path. One of my favorite memories is of the surprise chalkboard and school desk from my grandparents. Purchased at auction, they came from one of those one-room schoolhouses long abandoned. The chalkboard, real slate, was too big for my room, so we leaned it up against the wall along the hallway. I can still feel it. Chalk smudges on my cheeks. And the desk, the kind with the attached swivel chair and the lid that opens, was placed in the unfinished basement. I loved it enough to overcome the fear of making my way down the dimly lit staircase.
When people ask me, “Why teaching?” this memory sits watch. When it came time to decide, I couldn’t. I loved reading and writing too much—and then there were the mentors encouraging me. I majored in English and went on to earn an MFA in English and Writing instead, but the desire to teach was still present. I took adjunct positions whenever they came my way—one course teaching assignments at the college level. Composition mostly, but occasionally, I got to teach an Intro to Lit, and once, I even had the chance to teach an honors poetry. My soul was still yearning. Until the opportunity came—a charter school was opening up in my hometown. They wanted teachers who looked like the student population, and they were willing to pay for the alternative teaching license.
I will never forget sitting behind the teacher’s desk for the first time—writing my name on the board and waiting for the students to arrive.
* * *
I taught middle school English for seven years. It was the time in my professional life when I was the most alive, the most inspired. The thing is, I’ve never been able to stop striving. Someone once accused me of being too ambitious. I don’t know. It’s a drive I can’t explain. I grew up feeling inferior and dreaming of standing up front. I had to go on. I finished my doctoral program in 2013, and not long after, I found myself at university, teaching teacher candidates striving to take their own places.
I’m finally earning a decent wage. I feel respected in my field, and I spend my days talking about teaching. That’s the thing though. Teaching about teaching feels twice removed. Paul Michalec writes about a teacher’s calling as a kind of hunger: “They feel most alive and in synch with their ‘deep gladness’ when they help learners fulfill their ‘deep hunger’ to understand the world.” That’s it. Before encountering Michalec’s blog, I told a friend of mine that I’ve felt “out of synch” the last few years. What would it take to get back into the classroom, and would we be okay with the pay cut?
In New Mexico, there are three teacher licensure pathways available for those with a bachelor’s degree already. I could go the traditional program route, which would mean first returning to school, not as an instructor, but as a student to earn an MA with Alternative Route to Licensure. No. I can’t bring myself to go back to school.
Second, I could interview for a position and hope a hiring principal would be willing to endorse my hire, show proof of six credit hours of teaching of reading, and take the Essential Academic Skills exams (licensure fee plus exams = approximately $600; two reading courses, approximately $6,000). Then hope my teacher evaluations came out as effective or highly effective. Hmm.
Here we go—Post Secondary Experience. Again, there is the $125 initial license fee, but then I’d just have to show proof of at least 3 credit hours of literacy instruction, which I have; and verify experience from my various university teaching. That I can do. In total, I have close to twenty hours of completed literacy coursework. According to the New Mexico Public Education Department website, with six or more years of experience, my starting pay would be close to what I’m making now. I could do this.
I want to do this. I think—ten years since I was a fulltime classroom teacher. God, I’m nervous. Is this the right thing to do?