Learning How to Lighten the Load

Yesterday was my last day as a teacher in the Texas public schools for an indefinite time. It’s true, my contract in Korea is for a year, but experience has taught me I have a habit of making plans to return back to places, and it never pans out. I always planned to return to Austin, and now can’t imagine moving back to my beloved hometown. When I moved to Fort Worth more than six years ago, it was supposed to be for six months, and then I’d return to Huntsville. Huntsville has now become a pit-stop on the way to Houston or Galveston. How does the Robert Frost poem go? Oh, I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back. I would like to come back, but I don’t know what plans God has in store for me. And I’m willing to accept I may never come back to Texas to teach. I’m also willing to accept I’ll be back next year.

This has been the theme of this season. I don’t yet know the plans God has for me, but I know He has them. I stumbled through my goodbyes at work yesterday, trying to stay composed. It’s not that I’m unsure if I’m making the right decision to go, but I’ve lived a lot of life in Arlington the past six years, first in wholesale land and then the last three years at a junior high. And when you spend most of your waking hours in one place for years, it tends to work its way into your heart and sets up camp.

This was my first big-girl job. You know, the one that jumps you into a different tax bracket and changes your lifestyle. The kind that requires and appreciates that I use spell check on all my emails. The kind that doesn’t pay me overtime because of the expectations that come with the word “salary.” Suddenly I went from living paycheck to paycheck to actually having a savings account. And if God had told me when I started that I’d be leaving now to move to South Korea, I would have laughed, and then cried, and demanded to know how exactly He planned to prepare me for all that. The shock I would have had from what He would have said.

Very distinctly, I recall the first time I heard Him preparing me for this move. My colleague and I had just had a fight, most of which I know had nothing to do with me, but I received the worst of his anger. It left me sobbing on the floor, under my desk, yelling at God, “Why did you have me move to this position?! Have I made a mistake? I don’t know how I’m going to survive this year like this!” And all God had to say to me was, No child, with Me, there are no mistakes. Do you trust me? And thus began the personal turmoil and spiritual seed-planting and peace that brought about this move.

A lot of life has been lived at that school for me, and I’m so grateful for it all.

This is what I learned in my years teaching at a junior high in Arlington, Texas:

Plan on disappointments, both professionally and personally.

Sometimes, your favorite student skips out on a project, and you have to give them a failing grade. And it really does hurt you more than it hurts them; it’s not a line. Sometimes, your team insists on using a terrible lesson plan that you knew was terrible. Sometimes, you use a terrible lesson plan, and you have to go back and re-teach. This is perhaps the most disappointing. Sometimes, you cannot do all the side projects that make a school better that you wish you could, and so you disappoint your colleagues or administration. This is the world we live in. It’s fallen, imperfect, and broken, and it’s disappointing.

The hardest part, though, about a high-energy and high-stress jobs like teaching is that your personal life doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t consider the fact that you don’t have time for your life to fall apart. I’ve gone through numbing breakups, losses, moved several times. My mother died the last week of school my first year, and then her mother died the week before school started, two months later. God did not ask me if that would be convenient; He was just sticking to His plan. I moved three times in the middle of school years, and only one of those moves was planned. Husbands have passed away at my school, babies have been born early, creating mini substitute crises. We teachers all have real-life, beat-you-down hard shit we deal with in the middle of our work. But the thing about teachers is we got each other’s backs. Sub plans are made, conference periods are given up to cover. And yet, I know if I were in any other profession, the same life-is-what-happens-when-you’re-busy-making-plans stuff would happen, regardless. If I were a lawyer, I’d take work home (and would probably still face the same work/life balance crisis). If I were a doctor, I’d cover for sick colleagues. If I were a nurse, there would be nights where we’d be short. This is adulting.

Draw some boundaries.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have fallen asleep at 7:05 on a Friday night. While with a boyfriend for the evening. With a redbox rental. That I’d picked out. That we’d started fifteen minutes before. I know. I’m completely shocked no one has snatched me up yet! Kidding aside, I knew I needed to get better about my work/life balance my first year when one boyfriend said to me while we bantered over which movie to rent, “It doesn’t matter anyway. You’ll be out in half an hour.” We left with The Hobbit. At least I didn’t have to watch it.

But more than that, working at a Title I public school will drain you in ways you never imagined. I’ve lied awake at night, worried about the kid I had to call CPS for, praying they’re safe. I’ve borne the brunt of kids’ pent-up anger, which I know has nothing to do with me, but the absentee parents who are working, trying to make a better life for their child. Or worse, parents who are absentee because they don’t know what it means to love selflessly. As an empathetic woman, it’s very hard to absorb all those emotions all day, everyday, and still have the energy to plan, grade, analyze data, implement strategies and procedures, determine the best educational plan for special needs students, differentiate for our regular and G/T kids, and fix the moody copier, all in 7.5 hours. If you don’t leave your worries at school, and sometimes, your work, you will burn out.

Lighten up.

I used to carry this weight regarding the seriousness of my work. And indeed, educating the future of our country and world is incredibly important. But ultimately, we need to put that anxiety down. We cannot make children choose to have a better future. We cannot make them give their best on their state-mandated exams. We can try, we can give all the positive behavior interventions we know, but in the same way a doctor can prescribe medicine, he or she cannot force the patient to take it to make them better. So do what you can, take it seriously, give what you’ve got, and then go home. I used to worry so much that what I “got” just isn’t enough to make a difference. Because if it was, then why weren’t all of my students making radical life changes, going from doing drugs to giving hugs, from failing classes to acing them?

The truth is, we have a romanticized expectation of teachers. We expect teachers to be able to change students’ hearts and minds – and by God’s grace, often times we do! – like how Jesus changed the hearts and minds of his followers. We’re expected sometimes to be educational missionaries. We (both society and ourselves) expect to turn every Saul into a Paul. And certainly, over the history of Christianity, there have been more Saul to Paul conversions, so we shouldn’t give up. But those conversions were never all at once, but rather have happened over the course of the last two millennia, in hundreds of different countries, under thousands of different rulers, in different languages. And absolutely none of them happened because of what one person did or did not do. It was all driven by God’s divine plan, the Holy Spirit, and His children who were willing to be used as instruments of peace. So if you’re a Christian teacher, lighten your load. Pray, teach, love, plan and grade, and then go home. It’s that simple.

His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.

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