I come from an accomplished family. My mother and father have done well for themselves. My brother’s a doctor, and my sister’s in environmental science. It’s the kind of family in which there’s an unspoken expectation of concrete careers and a certain prestige.
I tried to follow suit. I got a fancy degree, a job in finance (I’m saying it that dully because it’s that dull), and there I was. There was a good salary, a path for advancement, and a tired sense of satisfaction. I was even in my hometown. The only problem was that two years in, I realized I was miserable.
There was no thought of quitting. But I did stop stretching myself thin after hours, and on advice from my mother (she prizes happiness most, despite how I described my family), I started looking for things I could do for me. I won’t bore you with the whole process, but I wound up having coffee with my old high school soccer coach, who’d remained a friend. She coaxed me out to the old field, where I took on a casual, part-time role helping to train her team.
Obviously, this felt bizarre. I was uncomfortable in theory, but it was also fun. What was weird was running into old teachers and the younger siblings of my own peers. What was weirder was when an old English teacher who’d become the department chair (Hi, Mr. Ashcroft!) suggested I interview for a part-time teaching position. He made it sound interesting: just two courses, I could pick the reading, I could come and go….
It was tempting. But it also felt inadequate. I’m somewhat ashamed to say there’s a nasty corner of my brain that views teaching as settling. And I’m not alone. Unsurprisingly, respect for educators in the U.S. ranks low, and while I can’t blame “society” entirely, I do think our go-go-go culture seeps into us. It makes teaching seem like a less-than-stellar career. And if all of that weren’t enough, I somehow felt under-qualified as well. I didn’t have an English degree or a Ph.D. in literature.
What business did I have teaching people less than a decade younger than me?
I politely declined, but I kept helping the soccer team and enjoying that comfortable environment. And I kept thinking everyone there seemed happier than me. That idea nagged at me, and eventually I reversed course. I started preparing myself to teach English.
I read the books recommended by professors in the field and commonly taught in high school English. I revisited Fitzgerald and Austen and rifled though Hemingway. I read Steinbeck for the first time and mixed in more modern work from Ishiguro and Atwood. I was reading about a book a week.
I took courses in general education. This wasn’t necessary for qualification, but these courses are readily available through online bachelor’s in psychology programs, and to me represented the best shot at teaching education without going for a master’s degree. There’s a lot to learn by studying education through the lens of psychology, and these flexible, part-time courses made me feel like I was better qualified.
Just in case that wasn’t enough, I even took a “Masterclass” in writing from the odd but brilliant Malcolm Gladwell. This may sound like a lot on top of the reading and studying, but the truth is that you can blow through these online tutorials quickly. I’m still working out whether or not Gladwell helped me (or through me, my students), but I’m hoping to squeeze in more courses soon.
And yes, I just mentioned my students. In case you hadn’t figured it out, I went back to the head of the English department and took a job teaching high school sophomores at my old high school. It was something I never imagined doing, but I’d warmed up to the idea, I’d prepared myself, and I’d taken the leap. And on day one, I felt like my old self—not in the sense that I was back in high school, but in the sense that I wanted to work and to keep improving and achieving.
Now, my timing wasn’t great. A piece of advice: Don’t start teaching on the cusp of a pandemic. But even under the strange circumstances of the past year-plus, I’ve become comfortable in the position. I love my kids, I love the school, and I’m passionate about the material.
I’m struck by a line that was highlighted in another piece here, on the hope of rescue. It reads, “Everything I desired had always been right there inside of me, but why was I afraid to see it?” I now realize that part of me always prized doing something I loved, rather than something that felt “good enough.”
I went back to my comfort zone to do something I love. And I want others to know it’s okay.
Ralana Jamea is a freelance writer with a passion for education. She hopes her articles inspire those who want to help children to set out and become educators, whether as a teacher or private tutor. Children are the future and they need our guidance. In her free time she loves to hike and play chess.