The Life Decision Ahead…

I’m in a pickle. I need to make a tough decision, and I pretty much only have 10 days to do it.

I just got word that I’ve been accepted into the local Master In Teaching program that I was most excited about. Since I’m leaving my job of almost 4 years in July, the time has come for new life decisions, and so this is both great news and difficult news.

It’s great for the obvious reasons. The program’s really close by, it’s got a great reputation, and I’ll be set to start teaching by next fall. But what makes it difficult for me is the seeming finality of it. If I choose to enter this program, I’m making a long term commitment to both a large amount of debt (the financial aid in a program like this is pretty tough and I haven’t put nearly enough time into scholarship applications) and a potential life-long career path. To choose this now, I’m essentially sealing in that my job role in the world is to work closely with young people, in and around schools and other educational projects. This is what I’ve been doing for nearly 10 years already, and I do think I’m pretty darn good at it, so it may seem that it’s a given, but I’m resistant to making that conclusion.

There is a part of me, perhaps even an entire half of me, that thinks there’s something different out there for me, and that doubt needs a place to find expression. This is a situation where I need a place like this website. Before I sign my name on that letter I received today I need to give myself a little bit of time to freely ask myself: do I really want to teach? Do I even want to work with youth anymore? What else could I do for work? What else stirs my passion?

I thought I had already answered some of these questions in 2007, when I entered, studied for 2 months, and then left another Master In Teaching program. At the time, I remember feeling like becoming a teacher was too much of a lifestyle choice, not just a career choice. I was worried that I would lose all of my capacity to organize outside of the job and that I would be unhappy having to work under the strictures of public school systems. I thought that I’d be forever looking outside the window of my classroom wondering, “why am I not in the streets?”

However, after almost 4 years in the radical non-profit world, my perspective has changed. In this economic system, radical non-profits also pretty much have to push their workers to capacity, and I do feel too tired to do any other organizing. Further, I feel like I’ve actually been far less effective at doing good work with lots of young people than I was when I was working in the schools. And I also have come to believe that if we want more inter-generational presence in the streets, then youth non-profits won’t cut it. We need more good teachers making the movement connection with youth directly in the schools.

And of course the financial question. As Glendi’s family has grown and grown up, and as health issues have dominated her parents’ lives, our financial burden has skyrocketed. We sent around $18,000 to Guatemala last year, more than half of our total income. Watching as non-profits fold up all around me and as even our own organization is constantly in a precarious position, I feel a need for a stable job that I could potentially get regardless of the economic climate. Non-profits are not that job.

There are other options, of course. Going for a doctorate and doing scholarship, trying for a bigger salary in the private sector, starting a small business, learning a different trade, etc. I still get really excited about linguistics, and I get excited about writing for a living. But here again is where age and economics come to constrict the choices. We can’t afford to enter multi-year training or graduate programs, and we can’t really afford to take risks on new ventures right now. Stability really has to be a keyword until other members of Glendi’s family are working.

But I’m scared of teaching. I fear that so many years of working with youth, while sharpening my skills, have burnt me out. I don’t have the same patience that I once had with young people. I find myself being more cynical about what youth can accomplish sometimes. Where once I was so excited to do new curriculum and to have facilitation opportunities, now I just feel tired. And if I get frustrated at lack of youth participation in a non-profit when youth choose to be there, how will I feel when I’m a part of that occupying force of teachers who are forcing students to sit still and participate? Sure, I want to do things really differently if I’m a teacher, but modern bureaucracies are not often kind to new experiments, and regimented curriculum and instruction techniques are becoming common.

My response to these concerns varies: no matter what job it is, I’ll always feel tired and worn out by work; sure it’s hard, but we need good people doing that work; I don’t have to be inspired by every moment of teaching, because with proper skills and preparation I can teach even on days when I’m not enjoying it; and I don’t have to teach forever, there are lots of other institutional opportunities once one has a few years of teaching under their belt.

Sometimes I’m convinced, but I also recognize that heavy, sad feeling of settling. I do feel like I’m settling, and like the wide open possibilities of youth have finally closed. But this is also a very entitled perspectiv. The very fact that I have this opportunity to get a higher level degree that could almost guarantee me a stable financial future with tenure and retirement benefits (assuming that unions don’t lose the education fight completely!) is really unique, and I don’t want to be ungrateful or shortsighted. But I don’t want to regret my career choices for the rest of my life either.

On the job, I think I would be able to teach well. I think I can manage a daily class load of 150-175 students or whatever and know their names, give some personalization, yet maintain larger, more efficient teaching systems in order to keep cool and go home okay. I think I’ve learned some emotional boundaries that would keep me from taking youth trauma home with me nightly. And I think I could support some great education for a lot of youth, and some personalized support for those who don’t feel like they are learning with me.

But will I be able to write or organize in my off time? Will I also have time for family, community, and hopefully fatherhood? Will the summer breaks be long enough for time in Guatemala?

I feel like I have too many political ideas that I want to experiment with still to sacrifice them to a hard career. If teaching really does have to be my only organizing, I don’t know if I can take that. If I can’t ever get time to write, I don’t know if I have that in me either.

These questions linger, and I realize that I need to ask some of my teacher friends. As the 10 days toward a decision tick down, I’m sure I’ll be writing about this more.

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-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

Congrats on getting accepted! It sounds like you’re thinking about a lot of the right questions. And talking to teachers is a good plan. I don’t think it is true that “teaching really does have to be my only organizing” even if any career path necessarily imposes restrictions and some direction on your organizing. I’d also add that there is no one “right” choice – you’ll never find a perfect option and you can be happy in many possible choices.

As for “feel like I’m settling, and like the wide open possibilities of youth have finally closed” – depending on how you look at it, any or none of your choices can be seen as settling. And whether or not you “settle” now, possibilities will continue to close. But then choosing a path and growing along it opens up new (if narrower and deeper) possibilities.

Greg, I’m loving your comments on this page! Seriously, there’s something about the way you approach questions that really tweaks what I’m thinking about in new and challenging ways…for example that last line about how choosing a path opens up new narrower, deeper possibilities. That’s quite true, right?

This, along with so many comments I’m getting from other people, just make me feel so thankful for the people in my life, and also for the fact that I’m actually reaching out to you all instead of staying in my cave.

However, I must admit that I did spend this morning in my cave playing video games! That’s was actually pretty fun.