Put Forward the Paddle and Draw it Back!

By Karen Corbell

Karen reflects on her path as an educator and making the choice to stay in the classroom.

“It’s graduation day and it’s official, the courses that magically make me a teacher are completed!” The audience, along with the distinguished guest’s voice, faded as the last seven years passed before my eyes. It was not magic that got me to this pivotal point. I watched the movie in my mind of hard work and dedication as the ceremonial speeches continued.

Was it really seven years ago when my youngest of five children turned eight and I walked into Bio 101? Remembering how difficult it was to study while raising teenagers made me smile in pride. Then my smile faded. It had been surprisingly difficult to “be present” for my family. Countless birthdays, holidays, and celebrations were blurred by the next deadline. Was it worth all the sacrifice?

The speaker’s voice came back to my awareness like the volume being turned up on a radio. Catching sight of my family and friends in the audience who were cheering me on caused me to take a deep breath. In that moment I acknowledged that life was a series of choices and that I was now a teacher who had persevered. Out of the sacrifice came a proud sense of accomplishment, but was it the right choice?

Over the years of coursework I often wondered if teaching was my best career option. As an adult and mother I was aware of the many challenges within our public education system. I knew many teachers and was privy to their raw honest opinions about issues educators face, such as low pay, lack of autonomy, top-down management, and inadequate job security. I chose to continue on.

Fast forward to the present. This is my fifth year of teaching. What a ride it has been! The learning curve of a new teacher is steep no matter your age or life experience. The stamina I acquired during my years of balancing college and homemaking served me well. Many individuals leave the teaching profession within the first five years. I almost did. Strategic self-reflection and daily effort helped me to persevere. I gained many valuable skills which have enhanced my philosophy and approach to teaching. A few things helped me grow and stay the course.

I had spent 30 years in Alaska before moving to Hawaii to begin my teaching career. Over those years I learned from indigenous Alaskan Native beliefs that there is much to learn by simply observing. During my first years of teaching, I chose to keep my opinions quiet and to display a positive attitude with a “can do” approach. Teaching children often was a joy. Being a teacher often was a drain.

Surrounding myself with positive people and goals became my top priority. I reached out and made connections. Since my own work environment initially was not giving me the collaboration I craved, I began to understand that finding my own professional learning network would be important. I began using Voxer and Twitter to connect with high quality educators. It worked wonders! Through the use of professional social media I discovered many opportunities for personal growth. Of all the coping skills I discovered, the most important one was not learned from another educator. It came from reaching out via social media and becoming a “connected educator”!

A career in education has many personal and professional challenges. However I believe we can affect change by stepping out of our comfort zone. Making connections face-to-face and virtually is powerful. Take action! Make connections! When we are asked to take a survey, give an opinion, speak to a policy maker or our colleague, we must be willing to share our insights. Why should we raise our voices? I believe that teachers have expert knowledge in the areas of improving the education system and providing positive support to our fellow team members.

During my years teaching in Hawaii I have been privileged to learn more cultural lessons. The indigenous Hawaiian people have a proverb that helped me to visualize being both a committed and connected educator. E kaupe aku no I ka hoe ako mai! “Put forward the paddle and draw it back”, which means to go on with the task that is started and finish it. Paddlers rely on their crew, canoe, and the ocean to move them forward with perseverance and focus. Teachers must rely on their team (PLN) and a positive, solutions-oriented mindset to move the profession forward. In order to give our children the best education possible we must connect and help each other navigate what is ahead.

Did I make the right choice all those years ago? As I remember back to the auditorium on graduation day, I can stand firm on the choices I made to pursue a career in education. I just needed a community to guide me through.

Karen Corbell is a fourth grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary in the KKP Complex Area on the Big Island-Hawai`i. Karen was recently named one of Hawaii’s 2016/2017 PBS Digital Innovators and is a Teach Strong Advocate. She is a pillar teacher in the area of technology integration. Karen runs a CS/Minecraft EDU Club and has presented at the 2015 & 2016 HITechEd Conferences. She also created and moderates her school’s twitter account. Karen was selected to be GLC heading her grade level. She has 5 children and enjoys 6 grandchildren with her husband of 26 years. She received her BA in Elementary Education from the University of Alaska. Tweet to her @CorbellHiAk.