The Bigger Picture
Published in

The Bigger Picture

Learning on the Fly

Why I quit my career to teach high school history

(Image/Timeless Books)

Before the first bell of the year sounded, a student walked into my room. I was putting the finishing touches on my classroom decor, ensuring that a bevy of last minute minutia was handled. But I wanted to make a positive first impression at the beginning of the year, so I invited the student in.

He told me he was new to the area. He was a freshman and was going to be part of my homeroom. I told him that was fantastic and couldn’t wait to get to know him, as I made sure — one final time — that my desks were all aligned in the specific order I had in mind.

The student went on to tell me he had recently moved with his mother from Missouri so he could be closer to his grandmother. I double checked the posters hanging from the walls making sure everything was even and secure. He kept talking as I paced around the room, nervous energy giving way to constant motion. He told me he and his family had to move away from a stepfather who had become increasingly abusive. That wasn’t such an issue anymore, however, since his stepdad now found himself incarcerated, at least for the time being.

But, the student informed me as I looked over what appeared to be an ever expanding student roster, even as I held it firmly in my hands, the damage had been done. He suffers from what the medical profession often refers to as PTSD from the abuse he suffered. He is also prone to outbursts of anger and depression.

I nodded along thoughtfully as he outlined his short, tragic life story to me, but didn’t add much to the discussion. This was my first encounter with a student, ever. Welcome to teaching, I thought to myself, this is no joke.

Three weeks prior to this encounter, I had been working in the oil and gas industry making a good living replete with year end bonuses, stock options, and matching 401k.

I drive a nice car, have a cute house in the middle of the city, and can afford to go on vacations with my wife whenever I desire. On paper, I was living the American dream. And that is because — I have come to find out — the American Dream, in its postmodern considerations, is bullshit.

What the materialistic consideration of success ignores is what makes us human: passion.

Yes, on a spreadsheet, my life appeared to be netting nothing but positive results. And, indeed, I am blessed to not have to worry about where my next house payment is coming from. But, at the end of the day, knowing I could pay for my house meant spending ten hours a day sitting behind a desk poring over spreadsheets and documents to answer questions for managers whose only concerns are for profit. (Note: This is not a knock on my managers, as that is their job, as much as it is an observation on the current state of the capitalistic tendencies facing the world at large.) I was in the process of sacrificing my life for security and calling that happiness. And I was miserable.

In lieu of doubling down on a career I knew would never render the satisfaction I desired, I decided to put money aside and follow my passion. Or what I hoped my passion would be at least. To this point, I had never set foot in a classroom, even as an observer. I had never taken a course on teaching, pedagogy, classroom management, or cognitive development. I was, and still am, totally unprepared for the journey I was about to take. However, I had always had a passion for history and a desire to influence people in what I hoped would be a positive a way, so teaching seemed a natural fit. Luckily, the need for underpaid high school teachers is in no short supply so having a masters degree with no other pertinent experience more than qualified me to teach six classes of advanced World History.

I always wanted to be a teacher in the same way people always want to be astronauts or spies, the idea being more intriguing than the actual application. Being a teacher would be so cool, I always thought to myself. Getting to sit around and tell kids the stories from history that, for some reason, always get left out of history courses appeared so desirable it seemed ludicrous anyone would pay me to do it.

I would be different, I would always tell myself. I would be the teacher who would turn history from a mind-numbing list of facts with no real context into a new way of viewing our world. When I get done with my class, they will not only understand why the atomic bomb was the turning point in our world’s history they would be able to appreciate the philosophical implications of that turning point.

At least that’s what I hoped. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was taking a leap of faith based on little more than what I could learn from inspirational movies and listening to those engaged in the profession try to explain how exhausting working ¾ of the year actually is.

And that’s the part of this process no one tells you about. You only know you are passionate about something after you have pursued it. That means you have to commit to something which, ultimately, may not end up being the desired road. It means leaving the security you had built for yourself in the hope you made the right decision. If you are right, it will be the best choice you have ever made.

If wrong, however… And that is usually where our thinking stops because when we are playing this scenario out in our heads we always assume the worst. We assume we will drastically alter the course of our lives and, in the end, have nothing to show for it, at which point all of our efforts would have been for not.

I disagree, though. So what if you quit one job that is the material version of a living hell to pursue something that turns out to be just as soul crushing? At the end of the day what, exactly, have you lost? So you took a chance, it didn’t work out as you had hoped, and now you must look for another chance to take. Why is that a bad thing, exactly? It seems to me, you have lost nothing and gained the knowledge that this thing you had pictured as your destiny was just another mirage. Now, you are armed with more information and can then make a more informed decision about the next phase of your life. Regardless, trying and failing is still better than working on the fulfill part of the Self Fulfilling Prophecy we are living now. At least we tried, right? At least we showed some passion, some desire, some resilience. Some cock and balls. Are am I being melodramatic?

Further, this is only a losing equation if you convince yourself you are only playing with two moves. Life comes with as many moves as we are willing to take. If I hate this job why am I forcing myself to work it? Go find another one. And if that one is just as bad find another one, and another one, and another one, until you find that thing that sets you on fire. Look, and look, and look, and when you have found that thing that brings you to life the hard part is over. Then you just get to be happy existing. It sure as hell beats sitting in the exact same place, day after day, week after week, year after year, knowing you are living a life that is not yours, being too paralyzed with fear to do anything about it. Sure, the promotions might keep coming, the bonuses might get bigger but the drive to work and the computer you are sitting behind when you get there stay exactly the same.

Fear only works if we believe we are going to live forever. Once we realize this trip is a one time deal and, consequently, things like wealth and security are all lies, we are much freer to give ourselves permission to be who we want to be.

Over the course of the last nine months, on a day-in, day-out basis, I have fallen in love with teaching in a way I had hoped but wasn’t sure was possible. I take my charge seriously because I know the influence a good teacher can have. And because I take what I have chosen to do seriously I have devoted myself to it fully. And because I have devoted myself to my experiment I am as good at it as I can possible be. I’m not the best, to be sure. But not being the best should never stop you from doing anything. Not being the best doesn’t mean you won’t have a positive impact.

It has been my commitment to education that has made switching careers worthwhile. If I had played at this career with one eye on my students and the other on a possible way out I would not have been able to approach the year with the single mindedness I needed to succeed. However, because I gave myself no option but to be the best teacher I could possibly be, with no excuses for lack of preparation time or inexperience, I was able to commit myself completely and truly enjoy the process. And that’s the final rub. If you are going to do something you must do it with a sincerity of being, otherwise don’t waste your time. If a job is simply a job, take it for that and only commit as much time and effort is necessary to keep that job. Save all your other energies for your other passions. However, if you have found something you love doing, do it, wholly and truly. Or don’t do it at all.

In the midst of teaching kids about the Mongol’s sack of Baghdad, the invention of the steam engine, and the conditions of the trenches in WWI, I have had the opportunity to do so much more. I have piled the family into the car on Friday nights to go watch student hockey games. I have helped kids get scholarships playing rugby. I have been, or tried to be, a support while kids lost their parents to cancer. I don’t mention any of this in the self congratulatory way it comes off on paper. I only use these examples to highlight the difference between then and now. Before I was a consumer, contributing nothing and taking much. Now, I consume much less than I give. And it is the act of giving that has made all the difference. That is what sets me on fire everyday; the challenge of compelling people to be interested in learning for their own sake. If I had listened to the voice inside my head, I would still be sitting behind a desk filing papers instead of doing what I love on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, we are all called to find that one things that we crave. And to do it. There are no excuses and there are no exceptions. That doesn’t mean it won’t be scary. But most worthwhile things in life scare the shit out of us. How exciting.

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Alan Foster

Alan Foster

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Father, Husband, and ‘Teacher’ trying and failing, to not take life too seriously. Visit www.thealanfoster.com to get updates about longer works.