Saturday, July 20, 2013

Meant to be

This post has almost nothing to do with weight loss, healthy eating or exercise. This post is about my teaching career, my opinions on the education system and why this week was one of the more challenging weeks of my life.

I graduated from Elon University in May, 2004. I double majored in Music Education and Music Performance, and I had known since high school that I wanted to teach band. College was great. Student teaching was great. I applied to schools in North Carolina and New Jersey, and had three potential jobs lined up for the following school year. At the time, I didn't realize how lucky I was to receive more than one job offer. The market hadn't really fallen, and it seemed that almost everyone got a job right away. So, I turned down the position of Admissions Counselor at Elon (I had been a tour guide, loved it and could/can brag about my school to anyone), and I accepted the job of band director at a middle school. Six classes a day, two per grade level, classes divided by instrument (brass & percussion, woodwinds). Cady had helped me pick out my first suit. Even though it was July in NC, I wore a black suit (skirt), lavender blouse, stockings, black heels and pearls. It's what I was taught to do. Plus, I feel powerful in pearls. :)

The interview went really well. The principal offered me the job on the spot, and I'm pretty sure my cooperating teacher from student teaching had something to do with that, as this was a school in his county. I saw the band room, and corny as it sounds, it looked magical to me. I think magic can happen in all classrooms, but the band room is where I'll lead comfortably . The tiers, the ugly grey carpet, the old wooden lockers. Oh, just gorgeous. I could do good things in this room.

I was so naive and stupid. I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't know the program was a complete mess. I didn't know the director who had retired two years ago left it in shambles bc he didn't like the principal. (He did.) I didn't know how much the teacher who was in between us for one year struggled. (We talked on the phone and he said he drank a lot during that year.) I didn't know what "rough" kids were like. I thought all students listened in class. I was so, so very innocent.

I can quite confidently say that I had the worst first year of teaching in the history of teaching in the history of the world. Every class had at least 40 kids in it, and one class had 36 boys and 4 girls. Nothing was left for me in terms of lists, programs, anything. Jody, the orchestra teacher was my mentor. She was and is amazing. Without her, I wouldn't have made it through my first year, or any year. I simply didn't understand that in order to teach, you had to be a disciplinarian first.

I read a "Cup of Comfort for Teachers" the summer after that first year, and I couldn't wait to start year 2. I was coming back, guns blazing. I wrote a 10 page handbook, made all the kids AND their parents sign it, agreeing to my class rules. I was going to be a bitch. A smiling bitch, but a bitch.

Guess what? It worked. The program was cleaning up, and the kids that started with me in sixth grade were outplaying the older kids above them. Jody still helped me EVERY SINGLE DAY. I loved it. I liked going to work everyday, my concerts were improving, kids were happy, parents were happy, administrators were happy, and I knew I was in the right place. Middle schoolers are SO weird, and I laughed a lot. There was one big problem with this school though: it was five hours away from Mac. He offered to move down to NC, but I didn't want that. I loved my school, but I missed the opportunities bigger cities can offer, like diversity. Some of the kids called me "damn Yankee." And it's true, I missed the North. (I also didn't realize that some people still think the Civil War is happening.) Don't get me wrong; I loved the South. The sweet tea, barbeque, hush puppies, ranch on everything, strangers who smile and wave hello, the slower pace of life. I just missed it up here.

So, after four years of teaching in NC, up to MD I moved. Taught band and general music in a Catholic school for one year, and the kids and the teachers were amazing. A great community, but I'm a product of the public school system. There was one really big thing that was happening in some private schools that I didn't agree with, and I knew I had to leave. (Band directors are not paid by the schools, therefor the salary is not part of students' tuition. If students wanted to be in band, they had to pay an extra $700 per year, to be in the program. That was in addition to the cost of the instrument. Also, I was instructed to turn away kids whose parents were not current on their payments. I couldn't do that. I don't believe people should have to pay to be in band.) Again, loved the kids and loved the teachers. But I thought I could find a version of my old middle school from NC in MD.

I resigned from the Catholic school and applied all over. Turns out, the job market had changed. With five years of experience, I did not get hired anywhere. I was shocked. So, I subbed for a year in a county. I mostly subbed for music teachers, and I even subbed for Mac's old high school band director. Being a substitute teacher is VERY HUMBLING. Look, I don't regret it, but I don't want to do it again. That summer, Mac and I got married, and I sent out applications all over again. This time, someone bit.

I interviewed with the heads of the music department in PG County, and man, were these women something. The interview was extremely professional, I had to audition for them, and sing and teach a lesson of their choice on the spot. (Flute is my instrument, not voice, but I am certified to teach elementary music as well as band.) I couldn't believe when they called me to offer me a job teaching elementary/general music. Full time, but between two schools. Monday, Wed, Fri, one school. Tues, Thurs, every other Fri, another. A FULL TIME JOB?! WITH BENEFITS? EVERYDAY? IN MY FIELD? NO MORE SUBSTITUTING?! I'LL TAKE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

To be honest, some people would never apply to this county. The county gets kind of a bad reputation, but it's not all true. I didn't know any better, and really, there are good and bad schools everywhere. And did I mention that I didn't want to sub again? Did I mention how grateful I was to receive a full time teaching position in my field? And besides, kids are kids. I don't care where they're from, they can all be great.

Those women I interviewed with occasionally observed me for the next couple of years. Two highly acclaimed former music teachers, I'm confident there are no better people in a central education office anywhere. They respond to emails and phone calls, they offer constructive criticism, and they're happy. They've taught some of my classes, and I couldn't soak up enough of their techniques. I don't think people understand how RARE it is to have a supervisor who has actually been in your shoes. Think about it... how many people in central offices even remember the classroom? These women do, and they're like legends in the county.

I like my kids, I like my schools, I like my job. But I miss teaching band. I miss teaching middle school. I miss the innocence of sixth grade middle school kids, the quirkiness of awkward seventh graders, and the egos of eighth graders, who are 13, but know everything. I miss kids with braces and gangly limbs. I miss kids who are just starting to learn who they are.

So, I put some feelers out into other counties, because, in my county, I can't transfer to instrumental music until I'm tenured. (One more year.) I figured, what's the harm? Well, I guess the job market is back a little bit, because I got an interview at a middle school in Silver Spring. I went this past Tuesday. It seemed meant to be.

The signs were all there. Middle school band. Diverse school. Interview in July, just like my very first interview. Black suit, black heels, stockings, an ivory blouse, hair pulled back, and my pearls. (I had lost one pearl stud FOUR years ago, cried, and found it the MORNING OF MY INTERVIEW.) "It's a Great Day to be Alive" by Travis Tritt came on the radio, one of my favorite songs. Now we have two big signs: the pearls and the song. I got there early, reviewed my questions, and stepped out of my car into the sweltering heat that is Washington DC in the summer. It was 9:00 and the heat index was probably 1,000 degrees. I buttoned my jacket, straightened my skirt, applied lip gloss one last time, grabbed my beige Vera professional bag and walked on the sidewalk into the school. I was looking sharp. Mac had even approved my outfit, and he's a tough critic when it comes to professional attire.

Now for the third sign. (Hello, I'm Megan. I don't always walk well in heels.) On the sidewalk, I looked at the windows with the blinds closed. I was observing the school when something terrible happened. My heel caught in a crack on the sidewalk and I lost my balance. I couldn't regain it and I FELL DOWN ON MY KNEE, HANDS, AND LANDED ON MY BUM IN THE GRASS! $#@%!!!!!!!!!! Now, I'm in the grass, I'm confused and I said a bad word on school property. Good thing I'm headed for the principal's office. Get up you idiot before people wonder what your deal is. Checked the stockings, and they were ok. No bleeding anywhere. Dusted dead grass off of my suit, and found no stains. I cannot believe that this happened to me. I cannot believe that I finally get an interview for a middle school band position, and I effing fall down on the side walk outside of the school. This is so absurd, that maybe it's a sign. Like, maybe this is a school I could really be myself in. My clumsy, awkward, silly self.

Now, I'm sweating. Like, omg sweating, because I'm flustered. I finally make my way in, and the secretary tells me to have a seat. I keep checking for grass and I try to play it cool like I didn't just FALL DOWN GO BOOM. I wait patiently, and staff members make short, polite conversation with me, telling me how much I would love it here. I get called in.

Honestly, I think I nailed it. The principal already had my resume, and the staffing coordinator seemed pleased. They loved my band handbook and seemed to believe me when I said I could discipline middle schoolers. The interview went really well, and I left, almost forgetting about my tumble. What an awesome day so far. Now, on to baby-sitting for the rest of the day. And no more falling, dear God, no more falling. I made eye contact with the side walk on my way out, as if to say "Bite me."

Two hours later, I got an offer for the job. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it! It worked! My fall was the third sign! (I am still so ridiculous.) They liked me! How awesome it is to feel wanted?! They believed in me! I could lead a middle school band again! I'd be with an awesome age group, and we'd make bad, then ok, then good music! An hour later, I got a call for an interview at another middle school in Bethesda. OMG! I AM ON FIRE!!! I GET TO WEAR MY PEARLS AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ok, now comes the part where my week gets challenging. I got the job offer, but I had not submitted my resignation to PG County. Most people would think, who cares? There's still at least a month until school starts, and that's more than the two weeks most companies require. Just resign. Not. So. Fast.

The grand state of Maryland has very specific rules. Non-tenured teachers must resign by May 1st. Tenured teachers must resign by July 15th. My interview was on July 16th. If you resign after these dates, you are released "with prejudice," your teaching license is suspended for 365 days, and no other county in the state is permitted to hire you. I was trapped. I was honest in my interview and told them that I hadn't resigned, because, well, I didn't want to gamble. I can't NOT teach. My interviewers said it would probably be fine. I was hopeful. I was scared. A year of middle school band, feeding into high schools that I know and subbed at. High schools that Mac, his brother and his cousins went to. I'd be sending the kids off to good programs.

I played phone tag with HR in my county. I pleaded, and explained that it wasn't about leaving the county. I wanted to teach middle school band, and I would have had to wait one more year to teach it in the county. I have a good teaching record. One of my principals called and advocated for me. On Wednesday, I got the phone call I was hoping not to get, that said I could resign, but that it would be with prejudice. I sighed, told the woman "thank you, but if that's the case then I will not be resigning" and I emailed my principals and supervisors, praying that I hadn't burned any bridges with my current bosses. It's not about them, or their schools, or their county. It's about the content. I WANT TO TEACH MIDDLE SCHOOL BAND. My principals all understand this, and I think my supervisors do too. Then, I called the principal who interviewed me. She was pretty disappointed, but not mad at me. She knows it's the state rule/law.

I finished baby-sitting, and I was lucky to have the kids to keep my mind from racing. I drove home in silence, walked in the front door and looked at Mac. I had texted him earlier and he was in shock. I burst into tears and sobbed. I couldn't believe that I was being held back. I know, I didn't follow the rules and resign in May, but aren't there exceptions? Why am I being punished? My principals are even ok with me leaving! I cried for a while. Mac told me to look in the fridge, where he had a note that said "Love you" on top of a tuna sub and crab rangoon. I sobbed harder. He brought me food to make me feel better, and now we have deliciously bad food in the house! Booooooooooooohooooooooooooooo!

Mac doesn't understand. Neither does my sister. Or my parents. Or some of my teacher friends. Or me. I don't understand. I mean, I do, but I'm mad and sad. So, it was good to get my crying out. That was a really important release for me. Then, I took a Xanax later in the week to slow my mind down and get some decent sleep. Hey, there are worse things I could have taken.

Here's where I am now: I have a full time job in my current elementary schools, teaching general music, which is in my field, and I have benefits. I like it. I love some days. I love kids. I'm so very grateful to have a job. This is one mother of a learning lesson and it was a very big pill to swallow. Do I wish I had resigned on May 1st, like the law states? No, because that would have been too big of a gamble for me to take. I couldn't risk NOT having a job. Plus, the job I was offered wasn't even open at that point. Do I wish I could be released without prejudice? Of course. Do I think it's all meant to be? Yes.

Here are my bottom lines: I got an interview, which is great for experience. I got a job offer, which is great for my confidence. It means someone was willing to trust me, and that perhaps, my resume is good. I got to dress in business formal attire, which I think is the way you're supposed to dress for an interview. (I have also had several debates on this topic, and if you want, feel free to debate me. I must warn you though, it's hard to argue with someone who is both Irish AND right. ;) ) I still have a job, and I still like my job. That last sentence, that's the most important one. I am so very blessed to be teaching, that I believe this was/is all meant to be.

p.s. A few short views on the education system:

1. I don't believe in tenure. If you are bad at your job, you should be fired. I had tenure in NC, and it didn't change the way I taught. It shouldn't. Teach well, and you have nothing to worry about.

2. Some days are tough. It's ok. Everyone has tough days and kids are unpredictable.

3. Be proud of what you do.

4. Be an appropriate example for children. Dress and act professionally.

5. I wish video cameras were in every classroom, because unfortunately, some teachers need to go. Certain stories have hit the news with teachers verbally abusing children, and that is 100% unacceptable.

6. Expect more out of kids than society does.

7. Be happy. Enjoy your job; you've got one of the best jobs in the world.

8. If you're not happy, please leave.

9. Encourage children.

10. Enjoy their innocence. It's awesome.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Well, I'm back from vacation, and vacation is always a good thing. Of all the things I can do, I vacation really well. And I tan really well. (With sunscreen.) I read, I eat, I drink, and I sweat from sitting on the beach. Now, I'll stop bragging.

Of all the things I don't do well, balancing my eating habits is at the top. So is regularly exercising. I reflect well, but I often reflect too late. So, I told Mac about an idea I had, because, let's face it: I need to keep trying things or do something.

I took three index cards and wrote "Why" on the front of them with a black Sharpie. Nice and bold. On the back of each card, I wrote suggestions or questions, like "Clean" or "Turn off the tv" or "Is this an emotional decision?". I really feel like I need to ask myself "Why" in the moments that I want food, or want to just slouch on the couch. I understand there are times for that, but not everyday. So, I told Mac I'm going to tape them in a couple key locations in our apartment. The #1 location is the mantle. I'll see that one the most, bc it's in the main room. The other two will be placed in the kitchen. I realize this may sound stupid, but I'm hoping if I can just reflect for a little bit and force myself to answer the tough questions, maybe I'll change, just a little bit.

One of the most important questions on the back of the cards is more personal than the others. "Is this what you promised on your anniversary?" Last night, Mac and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary, and while at dinner, we continued a little tradition we have. We discuss our favorite parts about the past year, and share our goals, as individuals and a couple for the next year. The goals can be big or small; it doesn't matter. So far, we've accomplished most of our goals each year. Our goals might seem small to other people (like when we got four matching kitchen chairs one year to replace the 3 random non-matching yellow ones), but they're important to us. Little by little, we're adding more grown up things to our apartment which we're hoping to place in a house soon.

So last night, as we were discussing our goals for this coming year, we each shared that we want to become healthier for ourselves and for the other person. We've said this before, but not on an anniversary. (Maybe that makes it more serious? Fingers crossed.) If we want to live long, happy and healthy lives, we should be more proactive than we are right now. If we want to look better for the other person, we should be more proactive. If we want to be happier as individuals, we should be more proactive.

So hopefully, with the help of three index cards, I'm going to be like that ridiculous toddler who asks "Why?" repeatedly.

p.s. I realize this may sound like the dumbest thing in the world. What chach needs to put index cards in their home to remind them of good behavior? This chach, apparently.