Monday, July 24, 2017

From Tears to Laughter

Two weeks ago yesterday, I fell into some serious doubts about my career change. The prior week, I'd had my third rejection, and I'd taken this last one very hard. It was supposed to be my best shot at getting a teaching contract because I was interviewing for a position at the high school where I taught freshman English last semester. It had been weeks since the interview; both the principal and the assistant principal who'd interviewed me had resigned, and the new administration wanted to be involved in all hiring decisions.

After introducing myself to the new assistant principal, I'd been anxiously awaiting a call. One evening, as I sat hugging my knees in the bathtub, I whispered to God, "You know, if you could give me this job... Well, of course you could... Anyway, you know it's the desire of my heart to work there. I love the kids. I love the teachers. I love the building. I know you delight in giving me the desires of my heart, and I really, really want to work there."

I rested my forehead against my knees and sighed deeply. "Even so, not my will, but yours, Lord. I trust you to put me exactly where you want me."

The next day, I received a curt email from the new principal in response to my inquiry about a new position I'd just learned of from a former colleague. "We don't have any open ELA (English/Language Arts) positions," she said.

"Hmm," I thought. Surely there were at least two positions, but maybe they had already chosen the applicants. In any case, they had no interest in me. The crushing disappointment I'd experienced so many times last summer weighed me down again, but this time it felt more personal. I'd poured my heart into my students last semester, and I'd revealed that same heart during my interview. But apparently they were looking for something else.

I cried off and on for a couple of days. I'd been struggling with some other insecurities, and I felt like one big ball of self pity. When I asked for prayer, my cousin Jenny sent me an encouraging song (Shoulders, by For King and Country). One of the lines really spoke to me, so I added another sticky note to my kitchen collection.

Through it all, I kept talking to God. I told Him how disappointed I was, and I admitted that I sometimes wondered whether I'd heard Him right in the first place. If I'd blown my "best shot," could I expect to find a job somewhere else? Or was I going to be an Uber driver and a substitute teacher for the foreseeable future?

God answered me in an odd way, as He often does. He reminded me of a Bible story, one of Jesus's parables:
Jesus replied:  A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 
But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ 
Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.'
Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:16-21)
As I pondered this story, it took on a different meaning for me. Somehow, I felt that I was like the banquet. I have so much to offer as a teacher, but some administrators aren't interested in the strengths and passions that I bring to the table, so to speak. Their tastes are different. They have a different agenda, and there's nothing wrong with that. Those schools are simply not the right place for me.

I felt a deep assurance that God would lead me to a school where I would be not only wanted, but greatly appreciated. The administrators there would be like the second group of guests who were invited to the banquet. Although the story doesn't describe their reactions, I can only imagine the joy of those poor, crippled, blind, and lame guests when they arrived at the sumptuous feast.

A few days later, I received an interview call for a junior high school in the district where I grew up. The principal told me I'd need to present a sample lesson during the interview, and he promised to email me more information.

Back at home that evening, I looked up the school. I had no idea whether there would be blind and lame students there, but clearly there would be some poor ones; 94% of the population is classified as economically disadvantaged. The demographics reminded me a lot of the inner-city middle school where I'd worked 20 years ago. But that historic building had been grand and beautiful, while this one was just plain old... and drab.

This was the first time I'd had to teach a lesson during an interview, and I was very nervous about planning it. All weekend long it was hanging over my head, but I didn't make much progress because I kept dithering about what text to use and which formative assessment strategies to employ. That mildly uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach reminded me of so many other Sundays when I'd agonized over my lesson plans for the week.

All of a sudden, I had serious doubts about this career choice. I'm not talking about the usual cold feet when I think, "I can't do this." No, I was thinking, "I don't want to do this." What I wanted was to go back to my cushy job with its cushy work-at-home schedule and larger paycheck. Most of all, I wanted to go back to a job where I knew I could be successful with a minimum of effort.

That afternoon, I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. I reached out to several loved ones, and they prayed for me. My sister Amy called and prayed with me over the phone. I don't remember what she said, but she was a big encouragement. So was Allyson, who wrapped me in a tight hug and told me I was going to be a huge blessing to my students. She also helped me make the anchor charts I planned to use for my lesson in the morning. I smiled as I thought of how much fun it would be to team up with her on future lessons, and on decorating my classroom.

By the time I'd put the finishing touches on my lesson, it was after midnight, but I still dropped to my knees in my prayer closet. I shoved aside the dirty laundry and laid my forehead on the carpet. "God," I prayed, as tears rolled down my cheeks, "I know you called me to this. You made me a teacher. If you can use me, I'm yours. I'll go anywhere you want me to go. I'm yours, Beloved."

I slept beautifully and woke up feeling totally at peace as I got myself ready for the interview. But as I drove there, along not one but two highways that are notorious for heavy morning traffic, I decided that this was not a drive that I could make every day. At 10 in the morning, it only took me 36 minutes to get there, but at rush hour it would surely take an hour.

My prayer from the night before echoed in my mind: "anywhere you want me to go."

Well, maybe I could work here. But only if I absolutely fell in love with the school.

I immediately connected with the two interviewers, the principal and an assistant principal. When I asked about their background with English, they both said they'd been language arts teachers.

"Darn," I said. "I was hoping for a more realistic audience for my sample lesson."

"Oh, we can play the roles," the assistant principal assured me. Indeed, when I asked for a thumbs-up/ thumbs-down vote regarding their feelings about poetry, he enthusiastically held two thumbs down.

So I started my lesson with laughter and was soon thoroughly enjoying myself, which I nearly always do when I teach.

They both appreciated the poem I'd chosen, a moving, personal portrayal of the border crisis that I'd encountered recently at a writing teachers' conference at the University of Houston. I wish I had time to tell you about that. I'll just say that it was four days packed with great instruction, and it was all free, even the accommodations in a dorm room.

After my eight minutes were up, the interview questions commenced. Mr. B, the assistant principal, opened with a doozy: "Please rank the following: rigor, relevance, and relationships."

I took a deep breath. Based on previous interviews, I suspected that rigor might be the "correct" answer, but I had to tell the truth.

"These kids have probably had a lot of negative experiences with school already," I began. "Most of them won't care about a thing that I say until I've shown them that I care about them, I want them in my class, and I believe in them. So I have to say relationships come first."

The principal, Mr. L, nodded. "What's next?"

I cringed visibly. Could I really put rigor last? Yes, I could. "Many of these kids think that school is completely irrelevant in their lives. So, although rigor is certainly important, it's even more important to find ways to connect what we're learning with what they're interested in. Otherwise, it won't matter how rigorous my lesson is because they won't be engaged."

The second question was more of a disclaimer. Mr. L said, "We are the poorest junior high in the city. Our teachers work harder than anyone else in the district, and they get little recognition because our students don't perform well on standardized tests. But we do everything we can to support our teachers and make them feel valued, because we know they are very dedicated. So... why would you want to work here?"

"This is where my heart is," I replied. "I worked in a similar school before, and I always expected to end up in another school like this one." I didn't mention the fact that I'd hoped to get some experience in an easier school, first.

The next question was easy, and I didn't hesitate to tell the whole truth.

"How do you motivate yourself after a really hard day?" Mr. L asked.

"If the weather permits, I go across the street and walk in a beautiful park," I said. "I tell Jesus all about my troubles, and often I cry. And then I ask Him to remind me why I want to do this job. And He does. I have this gratitude journal that I try to write in every day. Inside, I find pages of wonderful things, big and little, about my students. I write about things as small as, 'Javier smiled at me today when he came into class.' And I write about major victories, too.

"Anyway, after talking it over with Jesus and reviewing my journal, I go to bed feeling ready to do it all again the next day."

"I really like that answer," Mr. L replied.

When he asked about my classroom management, I handed over two copies of my discipline plan from last semester. "Notice the instructions on the conference slips," I said. "I invite the student to think about what he might do differently, and what I might do differently. After we've both had time to think about the issue, we can have a productive conversation. I try to approach my students in humility rather than with blame. I often find that a conference like that takes our relationship to a new level, and then the dynamics in class change."

Mr. B told me that their campus uses restorative discipline, an approach that values restored relationships over punishment.

"Oh!" I exclaimed. I excitedly scribbled the title of the program for later research: Capturing Kids' Hearts.

Mr. L and Mr. B exchanged a look.

Although there were several more questions left on the list, Mr. L set the page aside. "Have you had other interviews yet? Do you have any offers?"

I looked at my hands, twisted together in my lap under the table. "I've had three interviews, but no offers," I said softly.

"Your answer about relationships, relevance, and rigor was spot on," Mr. L said. "And your approach to discipline fits perfectly with our vision. We've been conducting interviews for a couple of weeks now, and we hadn't been able to find the right person up until now. We love your heart, which is exactly what you need to reach kids like these. We think you're going to be a phenomenal teacher, and we'd like to offer you a position."

He told me I could choose between a Reading position and a Writing one. He also asked if I'd be open to having a co-teacher, someone new to the profession. He said he thought I'd be a great mentor.

I felt incredibly humbled. I told him I thought co-teaching would be both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity. "It's my desire to be a mentor," I said, "but I also feel that I still need mentoring myself."

"Of course," he said. "You're a lifelong learner, aren't you?"

I grinned. "Yeah."

He assured me that I would be working with some tenured colleagues with much to teach me.

I pressed my lips together as I pondered the offer. I felt a strong tug in my heart, but what about that drive? Could I face all that traffic every single day?

"Could I have 24 hours to pray and think?" I asked. I explained that the distance was my only concern.

Mr. L agreed graciously. He told me to text or call with any questions, and I promised to give him my answer in the morning. Mr. B walked me to the front door, raving the whole time about what a great principal Mr. L is.

I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, waiting for my heart to stop pounding. I thought of the banquet story, and I realized that what God had promised me had come to pass. Here were two administrators who saw great value in what I had to offer, who wanted me because of my heart. The cynical part of me thought that they were just flattering me because they didn't have many other options, but I felt in my heart that it wasn't true. Certainly, there was no line of experienced teachers waiting at the front door, but that didn't detract from my being a great fit.

I sent a text to my prayer team and then called my sister Amy to tell her the whole story. Both Amy and my cousin Jenny suggested that God might be offering me a chance to spend a couple of hours with Him each day during my commute. The same idea had occurred to me; I could pray, sing worship music, and listen to the Bible on CD while I drove. Last semester, I'd desperately needed more time with the Lord, but it was so hard to squeeze it in. This way, I'd have idle time built into my schedule, time to get filled back up again so that I'd have something to offer these kids.

I guess I knew from the start that I'd accept the Reading position. When I woke up the next day, I felt both peace and excitement about it. Needless to say, Mr. L was delighted, and that felt good.

Since then, I've talked on the phone with my new team lead, Ms. M, and exchanged text messages. We have similar philosophies and goals, and I really like her. I know I will learn a lot from her, and I feel she'll be a great support to me. Perhaps I can be an encouragement to her as well.

It turns out that Ms. M is the daughter of some old family friends whom I went to church with growing up, and who go to church with Amy and our parents now. How does God do these things?? When I texted Ms. M about this, she voiced my thoughts exactly: "This just keeps getting better and better."

I believe that it will get better still, as God's plans for us unfold. I can't wait to tell you all about it.


K. Reins said...

That was a Super Fantastic Post, and I enjoyed reading every single word. So, if you can get me to stay focused & excitecd about reading, then I know you will be a blessing to each & every one of your students...

Much Love to You,
My Childhood Friend !

Sarah said...

Thank you, Kristin!! Love to you, too.

Anonymous said...

I am so thankful to read this tonight! I hope you have a wonderful school year. Thank you Lord for Your favor on Sarah.

Sarah said...

Thank you, "Anonymous." Yes, I am thankful for God's favor!

Amy Dunlap said...

Well written! Isn't God good! .if you hadn't had the closed doors, you might have not been in the spiritual place to accept the job or recognize this was job handpicked for you.

Sarah said...

Amen, Amy!!


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