How Quitting Was the Most Courageous Lesson I Ever Taught

courageous lesson

“Fear keeps your achievements unrealized, hidden from yourself and the world. Love will set them free.” –Ralph Marston

My last 6 posts have partly told the story of what gave me the courage to quit my full-time high school teaching job so that I could write full-time.

To put that story into perspective and hopefully illustrate why I had to leave, I want you to read something I wrote after my first year of teaching.

7 Truths of Teaching and Learning

 

“Are you afraid?”

That’s the question I was asked when first interviewing for the Louisiana Teaching Fellows program. A wonderful principal asked me this because the program recruited teachers for the “toughest inner city schools” in Baton Rouge.

I never even thought to be afraid. Afraid of what? That question could be answered in two ways.

I could potentially be afraid of my self—doubting my abilities, feeling unworthy of the task, etc.

I’m sure, though, she wanted to know if I was afraid of teaching “those kids” who are often perceived as loud, ghetto, uncontrollable, violent, dangerous, and… unteachable.

It never occurred to me to be scared because I was too busy loving. I’m kin to my students. I am my students.

I had tea today with a couple who went through the teaching program with me, so teaching has been on my mind. I hiked a steep learning curve my first year, but here are some truths I’ve picked up along the way from personal experience, fellow teachers, books, and most I already knew from the life I lived before teaching.

1) “Fear keeps [my students’] achievements unrealized, hidden from [everyone]. Love will set them free.”

2) Students sense fear. When they act out in response to our fear of them, it’s probably to inflict pain similar to the pain they feel knowing that someone feared them without even knowing them. Also, they’ll take being feared over being threatened. Society has taught them that those who are feared stand a better chance of survival.

3) Every child is beautiful and BRILLIANT!!! But most importantly, they need to know it, and they need to know that I know it.

4) There’s no such thing as a student who “just doesn’t want to learn.” Students may not want to learn what we want to teach them, but they want to learn something.

5) I must be a student of my students, learning ways to best serve them. Teaching is not about me, so I scale my ego down to size. Teaching is not about my subject, so I dismiss the notion of sacred texts. No book, no curriculum, no standard could ever trump the sacredness of my children’s humanity.

6) I must love my students for who they are right now rather than for who formal education conditions them to be. I mustn’t tell them they can be somebody some day. I must show them they are somebody right now. Even if they have tattoos, gold teeth, or purple hair. Yes, even those things make them special.

7) The world cannot afford to lose out on my students. The world needs each of them to be productive citizens who know, live, and share their value daily.

Teaching and learning is not about fear; it’s about loving.

So, the final question I asked myself before realizing that quitting would be the most courageous lesson I could teach to the students I loved, was this: How can I lecture to my students about going after their dreams, when I’ve never even attempted to go after my own?

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6 Warning Signs that You’re on the Wrong Career Path

wrong career path You already suspect that you’re in the wrong career.

But, like I did, you probably need a little heart-to-heart to give you the courage to do something about it.

You want confirmation that what you’re feeling and thinking actually means what you think it means.

So, let’s have that heart-to-heart, shall we?

I’m going to share with you the warning signs that God shook me with to wake me up and show me that I was on the wrong career path.

And it ain’t pretty.

1. Depression

I was one of the estimated 30 million Americans over the age of 18 who struggle with some form of depression.

There can be any number of causes for depression, and the symptoms vary for each person.

For that reason, it’s important to be very mindful of the conditions in your life and any corresponding changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, motivation, or mood, etc. If it lasts longer than two weeks, you should seek advice on how to get back on track.

In undergraduate architecture school, I didn’t identify myself as being depressed, but what else could it have been?

I spent as much time sleeping in the studio as I did working in the studio.

While my classmates worked diligently, I’d hunch over and stare blankly at my projects for hours, making no progress. Then I’d just leave and go home defeated.

Or I’d endlessly shuffle music on my CD player, believing that just the right song would motivate me to finish my crudely built design model.

The year I decided to quit teaching was especially dismal for me with tearful outbursts and long days in bed.

Reflecting on my time in architecture school and while teaching full-time, I recognized that my depressive states were triggered by the mere thought of the work . . . by the idea that I was trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling days doing something I no longer wanted to do.

Whether it has to do with your career or not, depression is a sign that something has to change. 

Have the courage to face it and make the necessary changes so that you don’t waste another day of your precious life.

2. Declining Performance

Naturally, with depression will come low performance.

But it’s not always a result of depression.

We often start to perform poorly when we no longer care about the work we do, when we feel overwhelmed by the work, or when we lack the motivation to get things done.

I was an student in college, but the longer I stayed in architecture, the lower my GPA sank, even as low as a D. 

That’s right. A in design studio, which was a 6 hour course. So, it really counted as D’s.

While I could make all the A’s I wanted to in tertiary classes, the mark of whether or not I should be a practicing architect was in the design studio. If I couldn’t get a decent grade in the one class that required me to apply the skills it took to be an architect, then what the heck was I doing there?

When I checked my grades at the end of that fall semester of 2005 and saw that D on my transcript, I immediately found the school’s catalogue, opened it, and chose a new major.

3. Irritability

When the ordinary stresses of the job that you once let roll off your back start to irritate you, it may be time to go.

If you’re snapping at classmates, students, customers, coworkers, your boss, you might be on the wrong job, if not on the wrong career path all together.

Try taking a vacation. If you really want to test your love for the profession, make it a really long vacation where you do absolutely nothing work related. Rest like crazy. Travel. Spend entire days with your family. Go to therapy!

If you return, and nothing’s changed, then there’s your cue.

Exit stage left.

4. Ditching Duties

If I was supposed to be in the architecture studio working on a project due the next day, I’d take 3 hour dinner breaks to chat with friends and twiddle my thumbs.

If I had to be up at 5 am to teach in the morning, I’d stay up till 3 am composing poems.

Grade papers? Please! I have to read this new book I just bought, duh.

We all deserve to play hooky every now and then.

But when important deadlines start to slip by over and over again, there’s a problem.

If you ocasionally skip out on work without it affecting your overall performance, good for you!

For those of you who let your work priorities fall of a cliff just to watch movies on Netflix, consider why you’re not motivated to get the work done.

It could just be you, but it could also just be the job.

5. Longing to Do Something Else

This is bigger than just an interest or curiosity, something you’d like to try out.

For me it was a passionate, desperate need to write.

Of course I still wrote while teaching k-12 full time.

But I was always plagued with the guilt that something else wasn’t getting done–an unfinished lesson plan, ungraded tests and papers, an incomplete professional development form, and so on.

I came to resent teaching because it represented the burden that stifled my writing.

Maybe it’s not writing for you. Maybe you want to coach instead of audit. Or audit instead of program. Program instead of sell. And you know you can do it. And you long to do it.

That’s a HUGE sign.

6. They Told You So

My freshman year in architecture, I read a poem to my studio class. After hearing it, a classmate of mine said, “You should just drop out of architecture and become a writer.”

That was an absurd statement to me.

I wasn’t convinced then, despite the clear directive, but about a year later I seriously considered it.

In a private meeting, one of my favorite professors asked me: “Would you rather wake up in the morning and go to the design studio, or would you rather wake up in the morning and write?”

My answer was write.

In his office I realized I’d rather write about architecture than be an architect.

While not necessarily a miraculous revelation, it was a revelation nonetheless. It was such a blessing to have that question posed to me at that moment in my life.

If people that you trust have a heart-to-heart with you, it may be a sign.

Perhaps my open talk with you still isn’t enough?

Then listen to the people who are already in your life, sending you signals that you’ve lost your way.

They can probably see that you’ve lost your luster, that you’re frustrated, or underperforming and unhappy. That’s what my professor saw in me.

But merely acknowledging that you’re on the wrong career path isn’t the end of the road. That’s only the beginning of your journey. Come back next week for more insight on following your courageous compass.

Till then, leave a comment and tell us what signs you’ve seen.

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Re-Routing: Why the Wrong Road Doesn’t Seem So Bad at First

wrong road beautiful beam of lightI went down the wrong road because I was afraid to go in the direction of my dreams.

I became a teacher because I wasn’t sure how to be a writer.

It’s actually not that simple, though.

For a time, I’d convinced myself that I was actually on the right path to my dreams.

In some ways I was, which is why it gets complicated, and why so many people stay on the wrong path for so long, often losing sight of where they’d originally hoped to go.

My mission for this series is to help you determine if you’re on the right track, or if you need to do some re-routing like I did. So, I’m going to explain how I became convinced that I was going in the right direction.

The signs can be a little ambiguous, so we have to be discerning.

Here’s why the wrong road didn’t seem so bad at first.

The wrong road flows easy.

I could be confident that each step I took was a sure one. Updating my resume and submitting applications was something I’d done dozens of times. I understood the process. It was clear, and it made sense.

We tend to go where it’s comfortable and familiar, rather than where we need to go to achieve our goals.

Then I really felt the flow when all of my efforts were rewarded.

I equated success with proof that I was on the right track.

Surely God wouldn’t give his blessing if I was headed in the wrong direction, right?

Well, that’s what I thought.

But now that I consider just how many jobs I can get (the economy not withstanding), I realize that success is not always God’s way of validating what we do. Humans have been successful at some pretty crummy things.

Just because I can get a job, doesn’t mean it’s my destiny to turn that job into my lifelong career.

Just because I can get a job, doesn’t mean I should take the job.

Misplaced Passions.

I actually love teaching.

In fact, I still do it part-time.

But I don’t love being a teacher as much as I love being a writer.

That’s why it was wrong to spend 80 hrs a week doing teacher work, only to fit in writing whenever I could.

When I looked for jobs during that last semester of grad school, I was inspired by the opportunity to work with inner city youth.

I was inspired by the chance to share my passion for reading and writing, to help students discover what reading and writing could spark in their lives.

I wanted to give back to the community that did so much to shape who I am.

All of those things are noble, but all of them could be accomplished without making teaching my full-time, professional career. Teaching was just the obvious choice.

During my interviews I often explained that teaching was the perfect synthesis of my passion for people, reading, and writing.

But notice I didn’t actually say that my passion was teaching!

A lot of times we look for the safe way to approximate our passions rather than pursuing our actual passions.

We often settle for a path that’s merely parallel to the one we truly dream of traveling.

Talent or Calling?

Just because we’re good at something, doesn’t mean it’s our calling.

We often feel pressured to stick with what we can already do, when our true calling may be something we haven’t even learned to do yet.

Too many students are told to major in something they’re good at. That advice by itself is misleading.

The truth is, we’re all good at many things, and we can all learn to be great at many other things.

We shouldn’t just consider current skills, we should also consider aptitude, potential, latent abilities that may be dormant due to lack of practice.

People tried to convince me to stick with full-time teaching because I was good at it.

We may be skilled at something, but that doesn’t mean we have to turn it into a full-time profession.

It’s not enough to settle for what we’re good at.

We should pursue the paths that motivate us to be great.

The wrong road will often mirror the right one, but it’s still the wrong road.

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What Should we Teach our Kids About Colorism?

“Look both ways before you cross the street.”

“Don’t touch the stove.”

“Choose your friends wisely.”

“Always wear your seatbelt.”

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

Sound familiar? That’s because parents and adults are known for teaching children how to survive in a potentially dangerous world. Parents know that if they don’t teach their children to look both ways before crossing the street, their children might very well die in the process of learning that lesson on their own. (An answer to the “I have to learn from my own mistakes” mentality.) Most parents know that if they don’t teach their child about sex, lots of other people will be all too happy to teach them.

Visit the new site ColorismHealing.org

Aside from basic survival skills, good parents know they also have to teach their children social skills and moral behavior. “No, Tiffany, it’s not okay to scratch your brother because you wanted to play with his toys.” We teach kids to play nice, to share, to clean up after themselves, to tell the truth, and to help old ladies across the street. I would include giving up your seat to the elderly, but parents  obviously don’t teach that anymore.

Parents know that each child has a particular nature. Most parents know that it’s their responsibility to nurture.

My question: So why do parents neglect to teach their children how to value all skin colors (ethnicities, languages, etc.)?

Just as we have to nurture a spirit of giving and sharing in most kids, just as we have to nurture a spirit of hard work and responsibility in most kids, we also have to nurture a spirit of acceptance and appreciation, even love.

Below, I present my ideas on what might assist in nurturing such a spirit in our families, especially young children. I have no degree, no personal experience, and no professional experience in raising children or in psychology. I think, though, that this could be useful.

How can we foster in our children, a spirit of acceptance, appreciation, and even love for all shades of human skin?

1) Sort out your own attitude/feelings about colorism. 

This way you can lead and teach by example.

Ta-Nehisi Coates posted about “Dark Girls” on The Atlantic in June of this year. As a kid Coates expressed preference for “light-skin girls,” and in the post he recalls his emotions after being scolded by his mother when he was twelve:

“I remember being really pissed off at my mother at first (“It’s my choice!”) Then a few weeks later, as I turned it over in my head, a bit embarrassed (“I wish I hadn’t said that”) then deeply ashamed (“I wish I didn’t think that”) and finally incredibly curious (“Why do I think that anyway?”)”

Know what you think, feel, and believe about skin color. Dig deep, because we all have that “I’m not a racist” ego we must deal with. Consciously, you might tell yourself “I’m colorblind,” but notice when you’re compelled to comment on how pretty a child is (or their hair or eyes). How does the child usually look?* Notice what you see every time you close your eyes and imagine your ideal mate, or your ideal children.

Before we can heal the world, we must begin to heal as individuals. You don’t have to be perfect to help others, but at least try to be aware of your imperfections and blind spots. I’m not saying everyone’s a closet racist, but if you resist self-reflection, maybe there’s something you’re afraid to face.

If you find that you had/have skin color bias, you can use yourself as a starting point in discussing skin color with your kids or other young people.

2) Talk candidly about colorism with your children. 

They don’t need a lecture. It could be as simple as letting them hear you work through your own color biases. Like Coates, you may point out examples of when you expressed bias in the past and how you’ve changed/are changing. It could be as simple as looking at family photos with your kids and saying, “It’s wonderful that there are so many shades of skin in our family.”

Example: While watching a movie with his family, James notices some colorism at play.** Though the movie is supposedly “targeted” to African Americans, all the major female roles are played by actresses who have very fair skin. Some have light colored eyes and long wavy hair. A few dark skinned women make appearances in roles that are clearly less flattering (gum smacking, loud trash talking, psycho baby mama, gaudy clothes and makeup, hyper-sexual, etc.) James is slightly uncomfortable but lets it go thinking that his kids are too young to be aware of such nuanced casting issues. Then James notices that his kids burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculously comic performance of a dark-skinned character. He cringes, but thinks, it was funny, and the director intended for people to laugh. Surely they would have laughed no matter what color the character was. The movie ends with the leading lady riding off into her happily ever after, validated as the fairest of them all (and she’s quite smart and witty too, and skinny).

Everyone seems to have enjoyed the movie, but James wonders how it influenced his kids’ thinking. He finally decides to say, “That was a fun movie. I wonder what would’ve happened if [funny character’s name] had switched places with [main character’s name].’”

James’ kids look at him funny and reply in utter disbelief:

“No way, dad. [funny character’s name] is too stupid and ugly.”

“Yeah [main character’s name] is so smart and like really, really pretty. OMG she’s so awesome.”

Even though “it’s just a movie” James sees that his kids don’t have the critical thinking skills to see it as “just a movie.” He takes this opportunity to help them develop some critical thinking skills, hoping they won’t internalize the latent message that light skin is good and dark skin is bad.

He says, “You know when actors and actresses play in movies, they can play any part. Right now I could pretend to be a stern judge,” and he makes a stern face and pretends to bang a gavel. “Or I can pretend to be a silly clown,” and he does a wobbly dance with a crazy face.

The kids laugh and join in the fun. One of them says, “I can pretend to be Spiderman!” and shoots pretend cobwebs from his upturned wrists.

James is excited that they’re getting it. Now he must relate this to skin color. “So just because someone plays an ugly or stupid character in a movie doesn’t mean they are stupid or ugly. [Funny character’s name] could play the role of the most beautiful princess, or the most successful doctor, or the smartest politician.”

James’ kids still look skeptical, so he keeps it real with them. “When I was your age I thought only light-skinned girls with long hair could be pretty and smart in movies and in real life. But I learned that wasn’t true. Now I see that all skin colors are beautiful. No matter what I see in movies or on TV I know they’re just acting, and [funny character’s name] is just as beautiful and smart in real life as anyone else, including [main character’s name].”

James’ kids take this in. They process it. He lets it go for now, but the seeds of critical thought, acceptance, and appreciation have been planted. He can continue to nurture them as they grow.

3) Give them positive exposure to all skin tones. 

One inspiring mother wrote an article on New Latina titled, “I’m White, My Daughter is Latina, and I Buy Black Dolls” by Chantilly Patiño. She eloquently sates:

“Maybe it’s not a big deal to some, but for a woman who’s raising a daughter of color, it’s important to me!

I’m aware my daughter is Latina…yeah, she’s not black, but I don’t want her to grow up like I did. Not seeing positive images of people of color…including (but not limited to) people who look like her.  If I look back to my childhood, the only positive image I can recall is the Cosby show…and that’s a shame.  I still love that show, but even today…programing like that is hard to come by.

I buy black dolls for my daughter because I want her to understand the value of everyone, regardless of color. I buy black dolls because I know that the media is filled with negative images and it presents a challenge for our kids to grow up feeling good about dark skin.  I buy black dolls because I want to change the norm.”

WOW!!! Go Sister.

Because colorism and racism are so prevalent, we don’t have to try hard at all to find positive exposure to lighter skin tones. So, survey the experiences your child typically has and see if they include enough positive exposure to darker skin tones. If not, I have suggestions for how to create positive exposure to darker skin tones. This is the practical, get it done today, type of thing. You probably know what I’m about to say. I suggest that you share the following things with your kids, depending on their ages, to nurture their acceptance of all skin tones, especially darker skin, since that exposure is more likely to be lacking or negative:

  • picture books with positive images of characters with dark skin
  • chapter books with well developed, dark-skinned characters
  • magazines with images of and articles by people with darker skin
  • festivals that expose them to the heritages of dark-skinned people
  • museum visits that teach them about the history of dark-skinned people
  • outings to locations known to draw diverse groups of people
  • quality time with family and friends of many skin tones, including darker ones
  • dolls with darker shades of skin
  • television shows featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles
  • movies featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles

I’m  sure there’s more, but this is what I’ve come up with for now. Feel free to add suggestions in a comment.

NOTES:

*I think colorism is most acute in people’s reactions to babies and young children. Adults are more likely to comment on the relative prettiness or cuteness of children. When colorism is present, dark-skinned children usually aren’t lauded for their beauty, but as they get older, they may be recognized for having grown up to be beautiful women or handsome men.

**Two excellent examples of biased casting of the nature described in James’ story are the movies Coming to America and Guess Who. I remember watching these films, Coming to America as a young child and later Guess Who as a young adult, and feeling physically sick about the blatant colorism in their casting of female characters.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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