Stepping Away from the Classroom

     A few weeks ago I made the difficult decision not to return to the classroom for the next school year. I wrote to the school and let them know, and just like that, I was free from my teaching obligations that I have fought tooth and nail to continue over the past three and a half years. Although I have often bemoaned my choice of careers, I was unaware of how much this decision not to teach would affect me. Because of my mixed feelings of relief and emotional heaviness, I have been unable to write about this decision until now.

A week or so ago, a friend of mine brought me a box of cards and signs that the students had made for me since my diagnosis and subsequent departure from the classroom. During the last three years, I faced many new challenges in the world of education; I taught ages and subjects that I had no prior experience with. Luckily, I learned some tricks of the trade for how to keep sixth graders engaged and on task… thank you colleagues! As I reflected on my career in teaching, I leafed through the boxes and actually studied the loot. Upon reading their notes I was impressed with the students’ ability to empathize and express concern for my health. Well, of course, this made me even sadder about my decision to step away from my role as “Ms. Timms”.

You see, leaving teaching wasn’t exactly my first choice. However, because of this third cancer diagnosis, it is, ultimately, the right one for the situation and I feel good about it. At least for a year, I need to be flexible, take care of myself, and find out what the next steps in my battle with cancer are going to be. I am optimistic that the treatment is working and that I’m still going to be around for awhile, so I have made plans up until January, but I may have to undergo surgery, or hospitalization, or who knows what else? The future is still uncertain. Keeping up with my current doctor’s schedule is like a job unto itself, so until I can predict that a little better, I really need to focus on spending my energy wisely.

I am still incredibly dizzy at times and know that I would not be able to function in my professional capacity, as I would like to. Currently it is difficult for me to walk independently for anywhere above an hour. I can’t imagine being on my feet as long as I would need to for my style of teaching to be successful. Yesterday I went into school with Jon to sign the legal documents for my departure from teaching; I only spent about three hours at school, but I was so tired I took a two-hour rest on the couch when I got home. My head is heavy and my body is lurching from side to side as I think about spending an entire day in front of a classroom full of kids. Another reason that I am pressing the pause button on my teaching career is that I hate having to burden people with suddenly finding a long-term sub to replace me, which I’ve had to do after each diagnosis. It’s not good for the kids, and it’s not good for my mental health.

So I’ve decided to relieve myself of the stress and responsibility of coercing small children to bring their pencils, homework, and notebooks to class, and stay on task, while smiling and trying not to seem frustrated. On the flip side, I’ve also detached myself from a career where students, parents, and teachers alike have freely and openly expressed their respect for me. They have also been incredibly generous with donations and fundraising, so much so that I am often left speechless. The community at my current school has made me feel like my life as a teacher has been meaningful, and therefore it is okay to take a little break. Since I don’t know if I’m going to return to the classroom in the future, I thought I should reflect upon what this job means to so many of us, and also why it’s so difficult and rewarding at the same time.

Because everyone went to school as a child, (if you didn’t, you were breaking the law…) there lies an assumption that any Tom, Dick, or Harry can teach. However, I am here to tell you that, most certainly, is not the truth. People might be able to stand in front of a class or follow a carefully constructed lesson plan. However, this does not mean that everyone can teach effectively. In my experience, often the smartest people who sailed through school have great difficulty reaching students and motivating them on a personal level.

I grew up in a teaching household, so the independent school community has always been a huge support system for me. Both of my parents taught and coached at various schools in Providence, Asheville, and Houston, and my sister and I attended those schools. This was a huge benefit of being a teacher’s child: a quality, expensive education for cheaper. The majority of our childhoods were spent at the John Cooper School in the Woodlands, Texas: a school that my parents helped build and that I probably wouldn’t recognize if I went back to visit. It be fancy! But, I had great teachers and received an excellent education. My experiences there helped to solidify the interconnectedness of being part of an educational community.

In fact, being the daughter of a teacher at my school was so much a part of my identity that I wrote my college essay about it. I remember because the admissions lady at Brown personally wrote me a postcard telling me how much she enjoyed my essay since she was also a faculty brat. I guess the experience of being a child of teachers is pretty universal. And how could it not be, when most of your middle and high school years are spent pleading with your dad NOT to chaperone the Valentines Dance or prom and basically cringing anytime Mr. Timms took the stage to give out French awards with a British accent. If you didn’t know, as some of the very few suitors brave enough to call me at home quickly learned, my dad is from England, which is very apparent the moment he opens his mouth to speak. The point of the essay, however, was not how embarrassed I was to be a faculty brat growing up; it was what I learned about myself through the experience. And what I gleaned, through all my selfish embarrassment at having my dad work at the school I grew up in, was that I’m actually exactly like him: friendly, eccentric, and stubborn to the core. Love you Dad!

I digress. My teaching career derived more from a product of necessity than as a deliberate desire. Growing up I saw how hard both my mom and dad worked. My mom quit working at the John Cooper School after a few years and began commuting to an international school in central Houston where she coached basketball. She was away a lot. Because of the length of her commute and her after school activities, she did not have time to prepare dinner, so I learned how to cook to save me and my sister from my dad’s micro waved ham steak with brown sugar sauce. Yikes! I also realized how little outward appreciation either of them received for the tough job they did every day, and I wondered why anyone became a teacher at all… Then, after four years spent studying, playing soccer, and partying, I graduated university with an expensive degree in history and Spanish and wondered what kind of job I could get with a degree like that. As I was sitting around my dorm room watching I-banking firms and government agencies hire many of the other students at my school, I had an epiphany. “I know! I can be a teacher until I figure out what I want to do with my life!” So off I embarked on my new, yet familiar career.

I started off as a high school social studies intern, teaching at a private school in Houston where each student had a laptop and brought it to school. It was definitely an eye-opening experience. Halfway through the year, this nice, obviously very smart young graduate from Georgetown, was fired and I was asked to take over his courses, so there I was, 22 years old, teaching American and European History to 17 and 18 year olds. As you might imagine, it was not a big enough age gap, as I used to look at least five years younger than I actually was. My second week of teaching, I walked into my classroom at 8 in the morning and it REEKED of marijuana. I turned around and got another teacher to verify the smell and he laughed and said in his best Southern drawl, “Yeah… you’re gonna have to do something about that…”

So back in I marched using my best Ms. Timms impersonation and surveyed the room. I found my suspects because the two students didn’t normally sit together, but today were laughing and had bottles of water on their desk. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but I took them out of the classroom anyway to question them. After boldly lying to my face, they both claimed they had no idea what I was talking about and swore they would never do anything to disrespect me like that. Well, I turned them over to the Dean of Students, and he went on a search of the car park. Turns out one of the students had a giant bag of pot in their car and two empty bottles of vodka in the backseat. I’m guessing those water bottles were not full of water…. Because of their actions, both students were expelled and sent to other schools. However, a few months later, one of the student’s parents (the fifth wealthiest Texan on the Forbes list) offered to build a new library for the school. I remember the administrator asking me if the student could come back to my class because he had specifically requested to. “Um….. no!” I thought to myself. “That would be totally inappropriate,” I eeked out to the administrator. “I would feel uncomfortable with that,” I added, as she smiled at me. I couldn’t understand why she would have even bothered to ask me, but apparently if your family has a lot of money, you can pretty much do whatever you want.

After that first crazy year in Houston I moved back to the Los Angeles area and was inexplicably hired at a prestigious private school in Palos Verdes Peninsula. This time I was the lone eighth grade social studies teacher and was hired to develop a new curriculum for the course using Grant Wiggins’s Backward Design approach to curriculum design. If you’re not in education then you probably haven’t heard of Wiggins and his philosophy, but it was very popular at the time. I didn’t have any previous experience with Grant Wiggins, curriculum, or the fancy word metacognition that was thrown around in every meeting I attended my first year there. I’m actually not even sure why they hired me in the first place since I had to buy Grant’s book in order to learn about his ideas. However, after meeting with my mentor teacher, also the department chair, every week for three years I learned a lot and my teaching improved.  My mentor will always hold a special place in my heart, because although he took his roll seriously and carefully observed me along the way, he was very supportive and his critique was intended to make me a better teacher, not to make me feel bad about myself. I credit a lot of my teaching knowledge to him. I even had both of his kids in my class and must have done an okay job, because I never received a complaint.

After three years at that school, however, I realized that if I didn’t switch careers or try something else I would be stuck being a teacher for life, something I still thought I did not want. So I stepped away from the classroom for the first time in order to go to cooking school and see if a career in catering was for me. I enjoyed cooking school and was even asked to teach the summer school program for kids. Since the school was in the middle of LA and crawling with Hollywood types, I spent a summer teaching the likes of Mel Gibson’s son how to bake challah bread, which I thought very humorous at the time since Mel had recently been arrested for drunk driving and making disparaging comments about Jews. Having a famous movie star, although bedraggled and very short, open the door to the little kitchen in Culver City and handing him his son’s baked goods was definitely something I’ll never forget.

Anyway, I enjoyed my year of cooking and catering, but decided it did NOT make a fulfilling or relaxing career. Being young and restless, I decided that I wanted to explore the world. I heard about international teaching so my husband at the time (like how I slipped that in there casually?…) and I went to a job fair in New York and ended up securing jobs in Dalian, China. We were both adventurous and up for a new experience beyond the more sedentary, married life we were beginning to establish for ourselves in California. The school in China was small and new and did not require us to have teaching certificates upon entering, so we were recruited and signed up. The caveat was that by the time the school went through its accreditation process we needed to get a teaching certificate, which we both did through six intense weeks of TTC courses that we took in London and Miami during the summers. The move to China was hard on our relationship, but this blog isn’t about that so I’ll leave that for another day. The marriage, already on rocky grounds since we were both so young, competitive, and passionate, did not last long- we were officially living in separate apartments come November. Despite the awkwardness, however, we managed to stick it out for two and a half more years, living separate (ish) lives and working together in a small community on the tip of China’s Liaoning Peninsula, about 7000 miles from friends, family, and anything else remotely comforting. I guess when you go through that, dealing with cancer really seems like a breeze because at least you can’t blame that on yourself! Although this was a tumultuous time in my life, I met Jon, a very tall kindergarten teacher much loved by students and parents alike, who has been a great comfort and in my life ever since. I also learned a lot about character, which has served me well in recent years. The good news is that my ex-husband and I survived and are still friends, and again, I learned a lot about teaching.  Professionally I got a lot of experience with curriculum design, student council, and chaperoning students during Model United Nations conferences in foreign cities.  I was also the only history teacher in the high school, so during my time there I taught at least 8 different history courses.  It was tiring but also gratifying to know that you were making a difference at the school.

After China, Jon and I decided to take the plunge and move to a different international school together. We flew from Dalian to Atlanta for four days and almost died in an airplane crash on the way there, but were lucky enough to find jobs at our current location in Santiago, Chile. I have always wanted to live in South America, and our school had an excellent reputation so we were flattered that they wanted to hire us. So we moved, and were very lucky to find a community in Chile of parents, students, and fellow teachers who have been an invaluable support throughout my battle with cancer. As I reflect over all the wonderful things the community has done on behalf of Team Eli I am often moved to tears.

More than other jobs, teaching really leaves its stamp on your identity, whether you want it to or not. It is hard to stand up in front of 70 kids each day and be inspiring, differentiate, deal with group dynamics on projects, and still get the kids and parents to like you, or at least support your decisions. It is exhausting. I am not going to miss answering a hundred questions that you just finished explaining, grading papers where it was clear that the student did not read the directions, at all or watching students be horribly mean to each other for no reason.

There are, however, many things that I am going to miss about teaching. Two weeks ago I was asked to be the guest speaker for the National Junior Honors Society at a Middle School Assembly. It was a very strange experience for me. I had not seen my students or spoken to them about my health situationnsince April  and no one really knew I was coming on campus. So I stayed back stage in the theater, seated in a chair, mainly because I was extremely dizzy and did not want to fall down, but also because I needed to focus on getting through the speech without crying. As I began, my voice wavered and I thought, “Geeze- keep it together!” About thirty seconds into the speech the auditorium went silent and I knew everyone was listening to what I was saying. It was a powerful moment for me because I have spent more than a third of my life teaching and attempting to affect change through my role as Ms. Timms. Although I didn’t mean it to, this speech kind of took on a life of its own and helped provide much needed closure on a career that I have had to step away from due to my illness. It was not a career I chose initially, but one that engulfed me completely. I am still in touch with many students who write to me about how meaningful their time was at the MUN conferences in China and Brazil and how much my classes really impacted them. I looked back at some of the cards written by students that I had to abandon after becoming ill the first time and had to wipe away some tears.

One card from a student simply stated, “Dear Ms. Timms. Why do bad things happen to good people?” and I got all choked up because after my years of studying history and analyzing the tragedies that have befallen many an underserving person, I can’t really provide an explanation for that question.

As you can see by the length of this blog post, regardless of whether my experiences teaching have been negative or positive, they have left an indelible impression upon me. I have become a better person because of all of the students that have passed through my classroom. The following is a copy of the speech I gave in case you want to read it. Apparently the staff was in tears, so I recommend having some tissues handy as well:

Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at this induction ceremony. I am particularly honored because I value the pillars that this organization stands for, such as service, scholarship, leadership, and especially, character. Being inducted into the NJHS does not only mean that you study hard and get good grades, but that you have also made important steps to becoming good human beings that other people want to work with and be around.

    As some of you know, about four years ago, something happened that really tested my character and that of my family and friends. Even though I was young and seemingly healthy, on October 1st, 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage IV, or metastatic breast cancer. Since then I’ve undergone chemotherapy, surgery, and multiple types of radiation in attempts to keep the cancer at bay. Although I have survived cancer twice now, in April it unfortunately re-metasticized in my brain, so I’ve had to step away from the classroom for a bit to take care of my health.

     During the time that cancer entered my life I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a good person. What makes someone successful, trustworthy, courageous, brave? I know all of those questions sound heavy, but unfortunately I’ve also learned in these past four years that life is short. It’s not only important to make sure that the popular kids like you, but that your time spent on this earth is meaningful. You want people to remember you as friendly, optimistic, and hopeful…not just as the kid who got straight A’s but never helped others and only thought about themselves. Being in the classroom with you guys and helping to mold your characters has been an important part of my treatment and ultimately, my survival. What I’ve learned because of my illness is that true character really shines when times get tough, and this community certainly has pulled through for me and my very tall husband, Mr. Jon. We are both extremely grateful for everything you have done for us.

I want to leave you with a quote that has been very important in helping me find meaning in my life throughout my battle with cancer. It is by an American essayist and poet named Ralph Waldo Emerson. My sister framed this for me, and I read it every morning as I get ready for the day. I hope you will find it as inspiring as I do:

     To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether it be by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition. To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

2 comments

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  1. Romina

    Cada ves que leo te admiro mas. Pocas personas pueden ser como tu y eso se agradece y nos ayuda a crecer. Gracias Eli eres una mujer muy grande

    Like

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