Ruminations on Becoming an Unwitting Algebra Teacher: Chapter One

This post is the first in a series by Edjacent Designer Laura Solomon. Laura is embarking on a self-authoring journey as a first-time classroom teacher. Although this is her first time leading a traditional classroom, Laura has extensive experience and training as a “nonteacher teacher” and has a clear sense of identity and purpose. Edjacent follows her journey with curiosity and enthusiasm, as she puts the ideas of self-authorship to the test in a school setting as a first-year teacher in the pre-Post-COVID era of American schooling, a journey few readers of this blog can truly say they’ve embarked upon! We wish her luck and look forward to following her story!

Why do we feel the need to define ourselves by our roles in society? What if we straddle so many that we can’t find one? The sorting and putting into boxes is an exhausting process that I have found is exacerbated by job searching and meeting new people. When you already know people, they know you. You don’t have to explain or prove. Over the past year and a half during the pandemic, my family has moved and I have been searching for work where I can be personally challenged and fairly compensated. Where does a person with a strong analytical background and a master’s in education go to help make the world a better place? Trying to find the right fit and constantly being rejected has brutalized my self-confidence.

I am typically a pretty secure person; I’m okay with the choices I have made – no regrets. But the arduous process of recrafting my narrative for each potential opportunity leaves me questioning every choice. Why did I quit working full-time? Why did I pursue a master’s degree? What was the point of all of that volunteer work? I can rationalize why. I quit working because we moved to a new place and I couldn’t bear to leave my baby with anyone else. I remained a stay-at-home mom because I wanted to be with my children all day when they were young: to provide for them, to nurture them, to be with them. I am a planner. I earned a master’s degree because I thought it would make me more marketable. But also because I enjoyed it and value personal growth. But what next?

This journey led me to ruminate about the intermingling of accomplishment, personal choice, and self-worth. What are the implications of being told that “you can be ANYTHING, you can do ANYTHING” and then choosing a different life? The choice is personal, yet it can bring on feelings of being “less than.” Constant thoughts of “I CAN do anything, but I don’t, I didn’t. Wait, I chose that. It was a choice.” This is a common refrain among my peers – college-educated women who chose to prioritize their families over careers. Psychologist Barry Schwartz explains the inherent regret of rejecting of opportunities in his book, The Paradox of Choice. The principle is that too much choice is a source of anxiety, or in modern vernacular, “FOMO” (fear of missing out). Ultimately, we must learn to untangle our journey from external judgment.

In the workplace and in school, a person’s worth is often judged by their accomplishments. In employment, the level of accomplishment is in the title, the difficulty of the work, and the credentials required for the position. In school, it is measured in grades, scores, and awards. Choosing to learn rather than doing the work to get good grades can have repercussions on a student’s report card. At what point is it okay for a student to say, “I understand this, I don’t need to do busy work anymore.” Advocates for this type of teaching are called “innovative” and “progressive.” In reality, this thinking was the foundation of education hundreds of years ago.

The concept of free public schools forced us to adopt the one-size-fits-all model that echoed Henry Ford’s assembly line. We are well past that, but we still perpetuate an education system that rates and ranks people as if they are widgets. Students are leaving the system unable to self-evaluate or feel a sense of pride in learning and accomplishment without a nod from their teacher or administrator in the form of grades or awards. The college crisis has its roots in this thinking as well. The logic starts with a lack of understanding of what a student’s next options are. Clearly, accomplished students want to continue on a path that validates their worth. Job hunters don’t know how else to rank and sort people, so they use postsecondary degrees as the scorecard. Job hunting is anchored in proving yourself on your résumé. Then, in work, it becomes about proving yourself to the boss.

We are collectively losing our work ethic to “do a good job” because we don’t know what that looks like anymore. In today’s world, you don’t go to work and make a horseshoe, then give it to someone and look at their face when they use what you have made. You are a small cog in a great wheel, and the sense of accomplishment is so far removed that we have contrived a fake system to buoy people’s self-worth. The rat race no longer applies to the commuting world, but to everyone chasing someone else’s validation of their work. Perhaps one way to break this cycle starts with the youngest of our citizens. Teaching them that they can self-evaluate, that hard work is important in its own right, that doing what you enjoy is okay, that living a life below the standards of the day is acceptable. But what about choice? We have to also teach the value of autonomy of choice. Yes, you can work for external validation; there is no judgement in that. You also have to be okay when you choose to reject a version of success if it’s not working for you, and redefine success in a way that makes you confident in your own journey and narrative.

So in the tangled web that we often weave for ourselves, I reflected on my journey. Applying ideological thinking to oneself is often a powerful form of self-reflection. I have used the “5 Whys” method of problem solving in many consulting projects over the years and love it. So I applied that to my own life:

  1. Why did I go back to school to get a master’s in education? Because I wanted to shift my consulting experience to the education world.
  2. Why did I do nonprofit strategic consulting? Because it fit my skill-set – I enjoy problem solving and helping people.
  3. Why did I become a strategy consultant in the first place? Because it was an esteemed, well-paying job and it seemed dynamic and challenging.
  4. Why did I go to engineering school? Because I was good at math and that is what I was told people who were good at math did.
  5. Why was I good at math? I don’t really know, but I enjoyed it, was motivated to do well in it, and I liked my math classes.

I realized that my wanting to break into the education world was prohibited by my lack of instructional time. And that I really enjoyed my math classes in school. Welcome to the “AHA” moment that prompted me to pursue teaching math. Why didn’t I do it earlier? I am not sure, but partly because I believed other people’s narratives that teaching is neither hard nor truly respected. Also, the starting pay is terrible for a 43-year-old woman with a bachelor’s in engineering and a master’s degree in education. And I really like controlling my day and don’t deal well with bureaucracy. We will see how I manage feeling trapped in a classroom and held to others’ mandates and expectations. I have worked to adjust my personal schedule so I can continue to exercise daily. That is a very important release and critical for me to have a “good day.” Also, I will be getting home early enough so that our family evenings will not be impacted.

Join me as I continue to ruminate on life, education, and personal narratives through the lens of a nonteacher teacher.

1 thought on “Ruminations on Becoming an Unwitting Algebra Teacher: Chapter One”

  1. hmmmmm… my 3, 4, 5 are identical to yours. And, 20 years in to my working life, I, too, am acknowledging that I must learn to untangle my journey from external judgment.

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