I love browsing through other educators' websites to see all the great things they're doing; but I rarely come across anybody talking about their mistakes. It's a huge part of how we grow and I want to share my path to growth in a series I'm calling My Favorite Mistakes.
If your environment is toxic, get out. It’s great to love the kids, but not at the expense of your mental health.
"It took me collapsing in front of a class and having admins show a complete disregard for my health and well-being for me to realize I needed something new in my life"
When I was in college, I accidentally jumped into a swamp. It’s a long story that involves sleep deprivation and youthful male naivety but it ends with me jumping out onto what I thought was a parking lot and ended up being a swamp. Turns out there were regular reports of full grown gators in this swamp and I consider myself lucky to have only lost my digital camera in the ordeal.
After college, I found myself in a swamp of a different sort. It’s the worst place I’ve ever been but I got out and I’m better for it.
I got a PE teaching gig in a local district. It was a great situation. The school had only been open for a year, most of the staff had come with the principal when it opened, and the PE teacher I replaced took a higher paying job in the district (this is important because PE teachers don’t just leave good jobs).
I had a lot to learn and that principal helped me more than he knows. After my first year, he moved on to teach at a college.
The next three and a half years were a disaster. In that time, we had two different principals and every summer, we lost over half of our staff. It was like being on the show Survivor... you didn’t know who you could trust.
I was miserable. The kids were a challenge. Lots of extreme behaviors. But I loved them and I was all about the challenge. I wanted to reach them all. We had high student turnover... which is made even more difficult by the high teacher turnover. There was no such thing as momentum.
I really liked some of the teachers and I met some amazing PE teachers throughout the district. But after that first year, it just felt like everybody in admin was out to make my job harder. For perspective, the principal who hired me rode my case a lot but I always felt like he wanted to get the best out of me. After he left, I felt like I needed to fight to keep my head above water.
Admittedly, I wasn’t very good at standing up for myself. I was new to it. It’s a skill I wished I had learned earlier in life and now it’s something I actively teach my students.
I felt like I needed to be an advocate for PHYSICAL education and when I wanted what was best for my students, I took it personal and made it about me. This was my first mistake. But at least I was attacking the problem head on.
This put a target on my back.
I’ll stray from the details but it was made abundantly clear that they were trying to make me so miserable I’d quit. There was very clear evidence that I was being sabotaged. I got really good at watching my back and covering my tracks with written documentation.
I’ve never struggled with anxiety but I would wait in my car and talk myself up before walking in the doors. “It’s only 8 hours. You can do this.”
On such a day, I breathed a sigh of relief because admin was out for the day. Then at the end of a first grade class, I was lining the kids up and in walks my principal with the superintendent. She didn’t say a word to me. Just went to the bleachers and started taking pictures of the gym (on her iPad no less) and recording me. I had no idea what kind of misinformation was being passed along.
I had a panic attack and collapsed. I woke up on the floor to twenty-something first graders looking down on me, checking me out... principal and superintendent just watching all of this from the bleachers. That was the moment I decided to be done. I had casually looked for other work before that but it took THAT for me to realize I needed to leave and do what’s best for me. I always wanted what’s best for the kids. I loved them and they made me passionate about my craft. But there were so many times before that I should have left. So many other teachers got out and it took me collapsing in front of a class and having admins show a complete disregard for my health and well-being for me to realize I needed something new in my life.
It was a month before my first child was to be born. My wife had just been laid off. And I realized I needed to quit and I didn’t have a backup plan.
And it was the best decision of my life.
Several months later, I picked up a job doing customer support for a little tech start up. It was me and three other dudes in an office. My first day, we had beers at work and that was really weird to me. Over time, some of my hobbies and other talents led me to take on more in the company. After a year, I was managing marketing, social media, website design and redesigning the User Experience of the app. It was amazing. I had a job where my talents were being used, my input was valued, and I felt like a real asset to the company. I also really liked the guys I worked with. It was the best work environment. I never wanted to teach again.
Then we ran into some problems that crippled the company and we ended up going under. I was jobless again. I didn’t even bother looking at teaching jobs. I wanted to design apps and websites. I wanted to do anything but teach.
Then I had some close family friends suggest I apply at this new school. They had been checking it out because they wanted their son to go there for kindergarten. They said it would be different. The school is different. I gave it a shot.
In my interviews, I had nothing to lose. I did NOT want a repeat of the last school. I talked about what happened and what I was looking for. A couple weeks later, I was in the middle of a three hour interview to do UX design for one of the largest tech companies in Kansas City when I was offered the job to teach. I knew it was going to be different and I accepted.
It has been different.
Turns out, many of our teachers had been down a similar path as me. They were the ones who thought for themselves and said “this isn’t good enough for any student I teach” and fought to make it better and more right.
I can’t wait to hop in the car on Monday mornings and get to work. Sometimes the days are long and rough but I know that we are all in this for the students. I get every ounce of support. My principal is the kind of person who would (and has) cleaned up vomit from the middle of the volcano in Volcano Ball. She’s the kind of person who, just last week, covered my classes when a sub cancelled at the last minute because “teachers need their plan time.”
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s never too soon to get out of toxic environments. “Better” is out there, even if it’s not how you expect to find it.
I’ll amend my title. I’ve got 99 problems but admin empowers me to attack them head on.