Hold ‘em? Fold ‘em? Walk away? Or Run?

Kenny Rogers was certainly on to something when he penned the lyrics to his hit song, “The Gambler”. After serving as a classroom teacher for over twelve years, I have found myself between a proverbial rock and a hard place. In the words of the late and great B.B. King, “The thrill is gone,” and it has been for some time now. In the past twelve years I have spent more time griping and complaining than praising and celebrating. And for these and other reasons, I believe that it’s time for me to walk away. Better yet, I might need to run Forrest!

 

My contemplative state is in no way new or fresh. I considered leaving the profession after my first year (as do many novice teachers), but I mustered the strength and gumption to try a second year (at anything other than a charter school—too much to add for now). In year two I transitioned into a small “suburban” school district in central Ohio, which was certainly much kinder to me than the first year, but it definitely wasn’t easy.

By my fifth year (still in central Ohio) I was again ready to walk away, but chose instead to try a different environment: Florida. In 2008 I packed up my belongings and headed to the “Sunshine State” after procuring a job in Hillsborough County (the “8th largest school district in the country”—the district’s constant claim to fame). Once here in Florida the spark was reignited for a time. By my eighth year as an “educator” (where I had once enjoyed teaching at a Performing and Visual Arts Magnet School) I had once again found myself feeling complacent and jaded. And again, my immediate response was what I have coined the “Goldie Locks Effect”—trying out a different bed, or in my case, a different school (district, state, etc.).

However, unlike years before, the spark wasn’t reignited after I reached school number four (another magnet school—this one IB: International Baccalaureate). I thought that perhaps this school and its students might more closely align with my philosophical beliefs about education: it’s the most important thing to get. I was sorely disappointed and dissatisfied. If anything, my level of discontentment and resentment for what I had chosen as a “profession” had actually intensified to the nth degree. While at this school relations with students and parents (essential stakeholders in education) were in a constant tug-of-war. It was in this environment that I started to seriously question whether I was cut out for teaching. I constantly second-guessed myself, and my efforts, nearly every day. However, I pushed through four years at this school before I had the overwhelming itch to run far-far away (despite its over-glamourized allure in Shrek 2).

This time moving to another state wasn’t going to cut it. I had made up my mind that the landscape of education had changed, and perhaps I was no longer able to adapt to the surroundings. So that’s when I got very serious about teaching abroad. So serious did I become that I managed to get a job offer at a private International IB school in Dubai, UAE. I was on cloud nine. What? How could the teacher who was constantly contemplating walking away somehow be on cloud nine? Great question.

I was determined that teaching in a different country where education wasn’t an afterthought but a highly prized attainment, and educators were esteemed and not emasculated, might somehow bring me the satisfaction that I had lost somewhere along the way. But alas, my emotions superseded my judgment when I backed out of the opportunity. Shortly after I had accepted the offer, I chased after the possibility of “love” instead of the assurance of a new start in a totally different landscape. Turning down the opportunity overseas has undoubtedly been the hardest life-lesson that I failed. And at the end of the day I blame no one but myself. At any rate, choosing not to go a month and a half after being excited about the prospect and the new journey ended up being awkward at my current school. I had to ask myself, could I be happy and/or satisfied staying at the same school? The answer was a resounding: No! So that’s when an opportunity “knocked” in the form of an email from a former principal I had worked with. She had an opening at her school, an opening that came with a leadership position: Subject Area Leader (SAL). I jumped at the chance and was subsequently offered the position. My spirits raised because again, maybe this next school would prove to be “just right” and I could be like Goldie Locks and take a well-deserved nap.

But that wasn’t what occurred. Within weeks (less than four to be exact) I was (am) ready to pack up my belongings—actually, keep them for all I care—and walk away from teaching forever, forever-ever? FOREVER-EVER! And that brings us to my current situation: Hold ‘em? Fold ‘em? Walk away? Run?

Earlier today while reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, I came across the following words that greatly impacted my level of consciousness:

Wherever you are, be there totally. If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must choose now.

These words have been the best piece of advice that I could ask for. And since reading those words I have been contemplating what to do with my life. Do I remove myself form the situation (teaching)? By and large, this option seems like the most practical and viable. After finding so little satisfaction in a “profession” that drains me of my vitality and zeal, leaving public education sounds like the most logical response. Besides, I don’t see how I could change it—the student’s attitudes and postures towards learning as well as the education system. In the past five years I have watched the vast majority of the students who walk the halls of our school do so with an attitude of unconcern and reproach. It is as if they see little, if any, value in obtaining a public education. Aside from their attitudes, the system that educates them is severely flawed from the top down. Yes, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was a step in the right direction, but there is still much more work to be done to make the public education system in this country equitable. Lastly, when I consider the idea to accept it fully, chills run through my body. These aren’t the chills of a mind-blowing, deeply conscious awakening, but chills of horror. It would literally be the death of my soul to accept that the vast majority of public school students don’t give a crap about obtaining an education from a system that is highly dysfunctional. To accept it fully means that I have truly become nothing more than a baby-sitter for middle school students. And on that note I’m with Fred Sanford, “You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you honey!”

Here are the cold, hard facts:

  1. The 2014 graduation rate in Hillsborough County: 73.5%.
  2. The state of Florida’s graduation rate: 76.1%.
  3. The nation’s graduation rate: 80%.
  4. In 2014, only 60% of Hillsborough County’s African-American students graduated, while 68.1% of their Hispanic students graduated.
  5. Most students drop out in their 9th grade year in Hillsborough County.

With these numbers I have to ask myself: Is the deck stacked against me? Am I fighting a losing battle? Is it time to raise the white flag?

Hold ‘em? Fold ‘em? Walk away? Run?

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IDK: Really, I Don’t Know!

“ ‘I don’t know’ is not confusion. Confusion is: ‘I don’t know, but I should know’ or ‘I don’t know, but I need to know’…When you fully accept that you don’t know, you actually enter a state of peace and clarity that is closer to who you truly are than thought could ever be”—Eckhart Tolle

Admitting that I don’t know and/or don’t understand something has often times felt like defeat. As someone who has always strived to do and be better, not knowing or not understanding something and/or someone perplexed me even further (if such a stance is possible). So when I came across this quote on July 12th, just three days after my therapist introduced the concept of a Don’t Know Mind to me on July 9th, I felt as if divine intervention had just taken place within my spirit.

Let me back up for a minute and try to explain this idea of the Don’t Know Mind. According to Zen Master Bon Soeng, “We want to know, we think we know, we think we’re supposed to know. There’s all of this bias toward knowing. But we don’t really know.” The basis of the Don’t Know Mind is this radical idea that we admit the truth: the fact that we don’t know (something and/or someone) and move forward from there. This posture of “Don’t Know” doesn’t scream to the universe that we are incompetent, but that we are open to knowing; we wonder; we seek to be informed rather than assuming we already know.

“A beginner’s [novice’s] mind is wide open and questioning. An expert’s mind is closed”—Suzuki Roshi

Soeng went on to note that, “We fill our minds up with all this stuff, and it gets stale and dead. Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive.” In essence when we ascribe to this Don’t Know Mind we are freeing ourselves of the incessant thoughts where we attempt to rationalize and understand those things and/or individuals we just don’t seem to “get”. So when I think about the above referenced quote by Eckhart Tolle, I am reminded of the fact that it’s okay to not know. In fact, not knowing can be a peaceful place if we embrace it. Take this for instance, “What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up” (Zen Master Bon Soeng).

And the convergence of these ideas opened me up to a clever technique for freeing myself of my incessant desire to control, wanting answers and/or solutions to things I toil over in my mind. On the morning of July 12 I had an epiphany. I purchased, and later decorated the exterior of, an empty craft box from my new favorite store, Michaels. This box has become my IDK (I Don’t Know) Box. The box is symbolic because it represents this new approach to thinking (or in my case, the absence of thinking). Inside the box I have placed small slips of paper where I write down things that my mind would love to ruminate on, things that would literally drive me crazy because I want to find an answer for them. But not any more! My IDK Box serves as my release from the chains of my ever-“thirsty” ego. Yep! There is that dastardly ego again; the ego I’ve been trying to Le’Go. At any rate, once I’ve written down the idea I have literally and figuratively given it over to God and the universe to solve. A wise young man recently told me that I am not in control, that there are things in life that are out of my hands. When he told me this I looked at him with bewilderment and disbelief. In my mind I thought, This is my life! Of course I have control. Sad, but true; he was telling me the Truth. Undoubtedly, there will be events that occur to us that seemingly make no sense. But their not making sense doesn’t discount or lessen their impact on us. And for these, and perhaps other reasons, the easiest, and most practical approach to freedom and the opportunity to truly live in the moment, comes when we throw up our hands, not in defeat, but in surrender, and proclaim: “I Don’t Know!”

idk

If you see someone on the street wearing a black t-shirt with the letters IDK (in white) plastered across the front, it just might be me. And I’ll be proudly sporting three of the most important letters in the English alphabet.