Ah, the work place. Is there a better environment in which to stir up all of your deepest triggers and fears and childhood wounds and place them on the table to finally have a reckoning? It has been for me.
I teach at an independent K-8 school in Los Angeles. It’s sort of a progressive and crunchy, highly stressful, sometimes energizing, mostly draining place. For me, anyway. I’m introverted and require lots of quiet and alone time in order to recharge and feel my best. I stop breathing right and I can’t think after too much stimulation and external distraction. And of course the nature of a school is going to be rather externally stimulating.
I started teaching at the school five years ago as an assistant while I finished my masters and completed requirements for my preliminary teaching credential. I was then hired on as a full time English teacher in sixth grade three years ago. What a journey it has been.
My first year looked a lot like this: It has to be perfect.
I thought constantly about what people were thinking of me. What if I screw up? What if I get in trouble? What if the parents hate me? What if I get fired? What if I teach the lesson wrong? What if I don’t know the answer? I held my breath too much and grew more exhausted each day. I was often in tears. I felt completely overwhelmed and under supported. I didn’t feel all that appreciated either.
I also felt rather joyous at times. I connected deeply with my students and quite naturally. I developed mostly positive and nurturing relationships with them. We played and laughed and had fun. I created some rather cool and interesting curriculum. We studied The Giver and Maniac Magee. We read poems and played preposition bingo. The parents were thrilled. The kids were engaged.
There were also a few students who I didn’t connect with. Who were tough and aloof and spoiled. Their parents were worse. There was my boss who I still to this day have never felt ]comfortable around or connected to. There was this feeling that I was drowning and flailing and had no one to support me and tell me that it was going to be okay. I felt competitive with my colleagues and worried about being the best. I wanted to be the most popular teacher. I wanted to be well-liked. I wanted to look good while doing it. You know, thin and pretty and in the right clothes. I was only a year sober. I was green in every area of my life.
I thought I had to do it perfect and I thought I had to do it right. I thought if I made a mistake it meant that I was a complete failure. I thought if I had a disagreement with a colleague or a conflict with a parent, then I was a disgrace. I thought if the students were bored or tired it was because I was a boring and exhausting teacher.
Clearly, none of this was teaching’s fault, though it is a quite a challenging career. Like most things in life, what we see is our choice and stems from our perception. I wasn’t a victim. But I was definitely overwhelmed, and I was so brand new to the career and still brand new to recovery and healing, that I had no other tools than perfectionism and fear. I look back now with compassion, for I worked so hard and was so hard on myself, and no one was mad at me.
And it got better.