Motherhood Saved My Career

The other day, I spoke to a group of (mostly) pre-service teachers about how I have felt empowered in my voice as a teacher. It was an awesome experience and I got so much joy from my time with them!

As part of the Q&A period, I was asked how long it took before I felt truly confident as a teacher. Well, I can't say that I feel confident every day, even now, but after a little thought, I answered, "Six years."

Why six?

Because in October of my sixth year, I became a mom.

The previous year, my fifth as a teacher, I almost quit. Of course, I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and I was determined not to become a statistic - but it was not easy. My students that year were HARD. It was my fifth group of freshmen, but I swore these were the most immature, out of control students I’d ever met.

I was mad all the time. I remember sitting on the couch at night yelling at a stack of papers that were full of errors, plagiarism, and what I saw as dumb, lazy mistakes. It got so bad that, near the end of the year, as kids get even more rowdy, I actually told a child to get out of my room because I didn’t want to have to look at his face any more.

I KNOW.

What kept me there was that a position opened up in my school teaching all Government to seniors. I couldn’t wait to start anew.

While I thought my “escape” from 9th grade would be what saved my career, it turned out to actually be the birth of my daughter.

After she was born, I stopped spending so much time at school and diverted my emotional energy to her, rather than my students. I didn't stop caring about them, not even close. Rather, I stopped getting so angry when they weren't who I wanted them to be. And when I went home each day, I left school at school.

I also learned a few things about kids...

Turns out, kids are still in the process of learning. I saw this first hand with my girl every day.

When she cried, I didn’t get angry, because she was a baby, and that’s what babies do. Instead, I taught her to trust me by coming to her when she needed support.

When she bit or hit, I didn’t get angry, because she was a toddler, and that’s what toddlers do. Instead, I taught her how to name her emotions and cope with her feelings.

When she threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t give her ice cream for breakfast, I didn’t get angry, because she was a child, and that’s what children do. Instead, I taught her about loving and caring for her body and modeled healthy eating choices for her.

I loved her more than I knew was possible, and came to understand that my students were also someone’s whole world - and that they were also still children who were learning how to be grown people. Even my high school kids.

Especially my high school kids.

If I could go back to my first year teacher self, I would be sure to tell her:

Be patient and generous. They may look grown, but they are still children learning how to be people. If they don't know how to do/speak/behave the way you expect, don't get angry. Teach them how. Adjust your expectations.

Kindness, compassion, and empathy will keep you sane and grounded.

And most importantly, even though they are not quite grown, consider them so, and speak to them like you would another adult. It matters.

They matter.

Some Thoughts on the TOY Title

I shared the following with each of the four finalists for National Teacher of the Year as they traveled to Washington, DC to participate in their final interviews. Because it sheds some light on my experiences over the past few months, I wanted to share it here, as well.

You're on your way to DC!! I can only imagine how you must be feeling right now, and won't even try to offer advice. Instead, I want to share with you the emotions I've journeyed through over the past couple of months.

When I first learned that I was not selected to be a finalist, I was simultaneously crushed and relieved. My first two months as Virginia's TOY had left my shoulders in knots (I had one that alternated weekly from the left side to the right for a good 6 weeks) and completely convinced that the committee had made a mistake. As much as I felt honored and proud of my title, I also struggled with the gremlins in my head (and sometimes down the hall at school) that told me I didn't deserve it. So, when I found out that I was not chosen to move on, at first I felt that the gremlins were right. Obviously I didn't deserve it, because I didn't get it.

Then, this turned to disappointment that my message would never be heard. If I didn't become the NTOY, I wouldn't be taken seriously. I felt like I had let myself, my state, and my students down.

However, the knots in my shoulders went away and the headaches became less frequent. This physical relief mirrored the emotional relief I was feeling at not having to "prove myself" anymore, at knowing that I would not bear the weight of representing the entire nation.

THEN. California. I met YOU, and the 54 other TOYs, and realized that we are all amazing, that we ALL belong in this class, this year. I realized it isn't about which one of us is a better educator than any of the others. Rather, it's about who is holding the microphone, and on which stage.

I guess I just want to say that, whatever gremlins you've got niggling in your ears right now, they're wrong.

You are amazing.

No matter the outcome of your trip to DC, that fact remains.

Only one person will be chosen to hold the microphone on the national stage this year. If it is you, I know you will hold it well, and I will be proud to call you my friend and fellow TOY.

And if it is not you... That is not a reflection of your worth. It just means that a different person will have the microphone. And still, I will be proud to call you my friend and fellow TOY.

All my love, Michelle