Apr 21, 2012

Bittersweet Life Changes

Image Credit: Flickr/wirehead2501
One of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my classroom happened this week. I had to tell my students that I'm leaving next year.  I'm not sure I can even write about it yet, to be honest.  But here's the whole story of how it happened:

Just over three years ago I went back to school in order to become certified in Special Education. There was a need in my own classroom--students with disabilities just weren't being served very well. It was no one's fault, just a fact of life. I couldn't expect a special education teacher to leave their school building, drive between 5-20 miles from their own classroom, and serve the kids in my program. But I wanted those kids to have more/better help. So I went back to school. Besides going back to school for the kids, it was also a move to cover myself: for many years our enrollment was so low that I worried there wouldn't be enough students to sustain the program. I got pink slips every year for 11 years. I worried about paying bills and feeding my family. Special Education jobs are available in schools all across the country, and I thought that if I had my degree in Special Education I'd be able to get a job quickly if our program ever closed.

I completed all of my degree except the student teaching requirement. Because I have been the only teacher on site in our alternative program, I was not allowed to student teach in my own classroom. I needed to gain experience in a certified special education classroom. To do that, I'd have to find a substitute for my own classroom, which is not an easy task! I work with kids who have lots of difficulties in life, and sometimes they aren't friendly to substitute teachers.  A special education teacher in the traditional high school in our district was interested in alternative education and he agreed to switch places with me for 8 weeks. He could learn about alternative education while I finished my degree. It was a win-win as far as I could tell! But then things changed, and he took a job in our district's middle school. The role-swapping was off. I felt like all of my hard work in school was going to be for nothing.

I called the State Department of Education and every education university around to see if there was some way to student teach in my own classroom, but all they said was that if I wanted to student teach in my own classroom I'd have to quit my job and find a new one that was designated as special education. Right about that time an ad appeared for the school district where my children attend. One of our area high schools was hiring special education teachers. I got together my application materials, weighed the pros and cons, and decided.........not to apply. I love my job. I love the kids. I love the freedom I have to develop curriculum and build a community of learners. We grow together, learn together, and get to be a close-knit family. I didn't submit my application. That was May 23, 2011. I figured that I'd finish school someday...something would happen if it was meant to happen.

Well, something did happen. My boss from the community college that sponsors our program informed me that I could apply for a professional development grant, get a leave of absence, and finish my degree. He said that the college was willing to search for and hire a substitute for my classroom. I was going to be able to finish school!

While we searched for a substitute and I negotiated a reduction in pay/partial leave of absence, I continued commuting to work each day--40 miles there, 40 miles back. On one particularly snowy day, I carefully drove 30mph, taking a full 2-hours to drive to work; but I still skidded into the ditch. It was very scary! Thank goodness I was okay (another teacher stopped and picked me up--I will never forget it. Thanks Vicki\y!) But it really changed my joyful commute into a white-knuckled event.

On top of that, my oldest baby brought home his junior high registration information (*sob* junior high? where did the time go?) He informed me that they schedule things so that he can play all of the sports he likes: football, basketball and track! But all of their games and meets are right after school. I realized immediately that commuting 40 miles to get there would mean that I probably wouldn't see any of his games. It broke my heart. Soon after, some news stories played on TV predicting that gas prices will skyrocket this summer. My husband asked, "Will we really be able to afford your commute when gas goes up to $5/gallon?" He encouraged me to apply for  jobs closer to home. So I started to look at what was available. There were openings at both local high schools. I looked at their online application system and discovered that all of the materials I'd uploaded in May of 2011 were still there; all I had to do was click the "submit" button.

In a whirlwind of uncertainty, I clicked it. And then I realized what I'd done. Crazy. Unthinking. Impulsive! I hadn't even changed the date on my cover letter; it was still dated May 23, 2011! My sister and brother-in-law are both in the human resources field, and have told me time and time again that they weed out applicants by looking for little things like the incorrect date on a cover letter. I assumed that they wouldn't give me a second glance; but I was totally wrong. A couple of weeks later, my classroom aide called me to say that she'd just received a reference call: was I keeping a secret from her? My heart dropped. I didn't think they'd call! I explained to her that I'd applied because of gas prices, junior high sports, etc. but wasn't sure I wanted to give up what I have. She is an amazing person; she is my former student, who graduated from our alternative program, and then came back to work with me as a colleague. She gave me a wonderful reference and then worried about it being too good, if you know what I mean. After she got her call, I knew I had to warn my other references. I was shocked; the incorrect date didn't matter.

Sometimes, it just seems like things are meant to be. That everything happens for a reason.

For the next week or so, I felt like I was being stalked. All of my references got called, but I myself didn't get a call. I wondered if I would hear anything from the school that already knew a lot about me from the people I worked with. Finally, though, I did get a call: from a different school than the one that had been calling my references! They requested an interview and I scheduled it, because this school is literally five minutes from my house. Soon after, the school that had talked to my references also called for an interview. The same day I took my comprehensive exams, I had the first interview. Three days later, I had another one. I have to tell you, I hate job interviews. I get so anxious and nervous that I forget who I really am, and what I know. I had to do a lot of positive self-talk and relaxation exercises to prepare for these interviews. I told myself that I just needed to BE ME...and if it was meant to be, it would be. If they didn't like me after I'd been open, honest, and 100% myself, then it wasn't a good fit and I'd just stay in my alternative program. You know what? I did it! I was 100% myself in both interviews and was so proud of myself for not being a big bundle of nerves the whole time. The second interview really went well. I loved the interview team and the way they interacted with each other. Their questions for me were so thoughtful. After years of working with only one other person, it was interesting to think about being a part of a well-functioning team.

When the first post-interview call came, it was a test to see if I could really believe what I'd told myself. The first school said that although I'd done really, really well they were hiring someone else. To be honest, I was sooooo relieved. But at the same time, I felt the sting of rejection. I kept reminding myself that I did what I'd set out to do, and if they didn't want to hire me then it wasn't meant to be. Meanwhile, I kept waiting to hear from the other school--the one I'd really enjoyed interviewing at. I waited....and waited. Finally, I got a call--but it didn't really appease me in the least because it was really cryptic. They hadn't filled the position yet, but they didn't want to offer me the position yet either. There might be something they wanted to offer, but they weren't sure yet. They couldn't tell me anything else until later in the week. "Hang on," is what she said. So I was hanging.

Every day, my current principal would ask me if I'd heard anything. Every day I'd say, "Not yet..." Pins and needles, nerve-wracking, crazy unknowing, uncertainty-----> STRESS. It was a stressful 2 weeks before I heard anything. All that time I was going through an inner turmoil, weighing pros and cons. What if I stay? What if I go? If there is a job offer, what's it going to be for, anyway? I love what I do...will I love it there, too? So many questions.

Finally, right after I finished presenting at the IAAE State Conference, I received a job offer. All of my internal lists of pros and cons flashed by as the voice on the line said, "Do you need time to think about it?" and I realized that I'd thought about it enough: no more pink slips, no more white-knuckled winter driving, no more worries about the price of gas, and no more heartbreaking absences from my kids' after school events. All that soul-searching led to one possible answer: I accepted the job.

I am very, very sad to say goodbye to my current students. I still believe in each and every one of them and I want to see each of them walk across the stage at their graduation ceremonies. I will be available to them on Facebook, by cell phone, email, and will keep in touch just the same way I've kept in touch with almost all of my former students. I told them all of this on Monday in class, and I swear to you it was the hardest thing I've ever done as a teacher. I feel like I'm letting them down, but at the same time I know that I am doing what is right for my family.

I will continue to work with the same kinds of kids in my new position. I hope that they are as wonderful as the hundreds of kids I've taught over the past 14 years at New Directions. For sure, my new students will have a tough act to follow.

Some of the best #AltEd kids ever, at the state capitol in Des Moines


  1. What a journey you've had with your job situation and trying to complete that one student teaching requirement. I know it will be hard to say good-bye, but ultimately you need to do what's best for you and your family in the long run. Good luck with it!

  2. Congratulations on your new job, Jen! It sounds like when it came down to make a decision, your heart told you just what to do. It will all be great!

  3. Thanks, Ellie! It took a lot of soul-searching, but I'm hoping that my heart led me to the best decision :)

  4. It does sound like it was meant to be and makes perfect sense.   It is hard to make this kind of change and your words conveyed your feelings so very well.   Good luck to you.  

  5. Thanks so much, Roxanne! I appreciate you stopping by.

  6. Congratulations!  Very happy for you.  It is hard to change our work enviroments sometimes, people count on us, we will miss friends etc....  I always try to remember this quote I heard somewhere. "Without change there would be no butterflys."

  7. You inspire me! And yes, everything does happen for a reason. Thank you for being a sounding board and for offering your support, even through your own school/work challenges. Couldn't have gotten through the last few months without it. Try and enjoy your summer and read lots of mind-numbing fiction. :D

  8. Mind-numbing fiction sounds like a wonderful idea, Ezzy! I am looking forward to it :)

    I've decided that school is addictive.I'm betting that in a few months I will already be missing the challenge of thinking critically about everything for papers, and I will be calling you to hear about your research and observations so I can get my fix...  :P I've loved talking to you about your studies and hope you keep on letting me be your sounding board!

  9. Oh, Tara, I LOVE that quote. Thank you so much for sharing it! The change is really going to be hard, especially on some of my students. I will remember the butterfly now every time it gets hard to deal with. Thank you, amiga! <3


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