I’m having an identity crisis…I think…? I mean, not really, but maybe. Yeah, I guess I am. I feel like I’m being pulled in two different directions on multiple levels–is that an identity crisis? Regardless, I’m having trouble figuring out where I’m supposed to be, what my path is, what I should be doing. In my home, in my job, in motherhood–EVERYWHERE.
This feeling first occurred to me when I moved to Ohio in July 2016. My husband and I had lived in northern Virginia for twelve years and wanted a quieter life for our one-year-old son. The hustle and bustle of the DC area started to be too much for my husband, who had to commute one and a half hours to work (one way!) every day. I got lucky and my teaching job was only 10-15 minutes away, depending on traffic, so traffic never got on my nerves unless we tried to get somewhere during rush hour. I loved Virginia, or at least I thought I did, and when we moved, Ohio was hard to get used to–new home, new job, new lifestyle, new grocery store…new everything.
I’m “older and wiser” now, and in a position where I can be reflective with my life and take a deep look into what I really want and need, as well as figure out what’s best for my family. That being said, looking back, one of the hardest transitions for me after this move was my new job.
I had been an English teacher for twelve years in Virginia. It doesn’t seem like a long time when you say it out loud, but it felt like a really long time by the time we got to Ohio. I think one of the biggest issues I had with coming to Ohio in the beginning was the fact that the English teacher part of my identity, my personality, a part that I had been forming for over twelve years and was known for, was not coming with me. There were no English teaching positions open when I applied, so I had no choice but to do something different. Luckily, I earned my gifted endorsement in 2010 (which was supposed to be my end of career, fade out plan!), so when the possibility of teaching middle school gifted came open, I decided to jump on it and get my foot in the door that way.
At first, I was excited about the possibility of teaching a new subject, if that’s what you’d even call it. Gifted is a beast unto itself and has gray areas everywhere, which is both inspiring and detrimental, depending on how you look at it. The opportunity to teach something different, to get some new and different perspectives, came hard and fast, and quite frankly, knocked the wind out of my sails. I was thrilled and ready for the challenge, but scared at the exact same time. I THRIVE on interactions with my colleagues during the day, and I’d be the only gifted teacher in the building and on the metaphorical island! What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if the kids are smarter than I am? What if all they want to work on is MATH?? I’m not a math teacher! I’m an English teacher, faking it as a gifted teacher! Bless. What am I going to do here with these kids? My supervisor kept telling me to play to my strengths, but how can I be the best gifted teacher when my strengths consist of writing literary analysis papers and making sure the periods and commas are in the right places in an MLA formatted works cited page?
That first year was rough. I called my gifted colleague Emily literally every day. She was my lifesaver. The biggest issue I had was with the lack of lesson planning structure. I was coming from the world of Advanced Placement classes where every moment in the class was accounted for because if you lost time, students were missing out on opportunities to be successful in their reading and writing strategies that would be assessed on the exam in May. In Cog. Ed., there were no exams. No requirements, except teach students how to create, innovate, communicate, collaborate, problem solve, think critically, research, and be aware of themselves in a positive manner. Right. Ok, that should be easy…<Insert eye roll>. For someone who is used to and craves structure, this situation was a complete and utter nightmare. Thank God Emily had a handle on what she wanted things to look like and because she and I hit it off right away and share a similar teaching philosophy and background, we were able to work together to get some semblance of a structure to work with our classes, and still be able to provide the necessary freedoms the gifted students need.
While I struggled with this issue, I noticed that maybe this was what the gifted job was supposed to be teaching me–how to be flexible, how to let go of structure and really cater to what students need in the classroom. Sure, having a plan for daily learning is necessary, but being able to say, “No. We’re not going to do that today because these kiddos need something different.” is key. How many times had I wished to have extra time in my AP classes to stop the lesson, and really focus on the needs of my students, both academically and personally, as they navigate through high school? Being able to let go of that structure for my Cog. Ed. classes allowed me to really see the possibilities available for these students. We have focused on design learning, researching without restrictions, and learning about ourselves and how we work with others. Being able to do this kind of learning allowed for me to be able to take a step back and facilitate the learning instead of being in charge of it–letting the students choose how they wanted to learn instead of me telling them how they were going to learn.
After two years of teaching gifted students in a gifted setting, I have come to realize that I do love the freedom, and that there are colleagues who want to collaborate with me. I’m really very lucky–I get to push students to create, collaborate, communicate, and innovate in ways that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to try during their time in middle school. I don’t have to grade excessively. I rarely speak with parents–really only to send out our agenda for the week and answer the occasional question about the math class hierarchy or summer gifted camps. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have failed numerous times. So many I stopped counting. I would start a project with students and not finish it, I got in over my head on quite a few assignments and couldn’t follow through meaningfully so I just stopped with the project, and there were many days where students did more creativity challenges that necessary. These were lessons I needed to learn in my teaching life and struggle with in order to be better for my students. And for that, I am so grateful.
But I keep coming back to the same few questions: Am I happy doing this job? Am I making an impact? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my teaching life?
Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t think I’ll ever really know the answers to these questions for sure. And I don’t think anyone ever knows, especially in education. I’m just over halfway through year three of teaching gifted students and I have a tremendous amount of learning left to do (which I’m REALLY excited about!), and that means that this particular boat ride can’t be over yet. I love the challenges that my gifted students present to me daily. I love their questions and organic curiosity. I love the freedom to do what my students want to do without restriction. I love that my principal, supervisor, and colleagues trust that I’m doing my job and come to me with questions and/or help. And I love that I’m still able to use my English teaching expertise to help my students be successful in my class and their other classes, as well as expand my own learning by listening to my students and their thoughts and wonders. And who’s to say that I can’t take these learning experiences back with me to the AP English classroom one day…?
So, maybe I’m not having an identity crisis. Maybe it’s more of an identity shift or identity revision.
Since starting this piece, I have done more soul searching and have had many conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, and have decided that my heart is still in the English/Language Arts world. A position opened up at my school to teach both 7th and 8th grade language arts, so I jumped on it and will be entering this role this coming fall. I don’t think a day will go by where I don’t use my learning experiences I gained in the gifted classroom with my language arts learners–if anything, it will help guide my instruction to better serve gifted students in reading and writing.
I’m really looking forward to this new opportunity in my career and who knows, maybe one day I’ll return to gifted, because who’s to say that gifted isn’t where my heart and soul are ALSO?