Beginnings: Accountability and the Life of a Educator

By KARY SCHUMPERT

I guess that I am smack dab in the middle of my career. It is also smack dab in the middle of the school year, and yet I ponder beginnings. Sometimes we think of beginnings as the first day of school, or when we see the sweet little kindergarteners marching down the hall. In the midst of our lives and a busy week of classes, it can be difficult to ponder beginnings. Sometimes, we feel like we are so far down a path that there is no way except the trail that we have muddled through, so far off the road and the vision that we had, it seems impossible to go any other way except our lost, circling meander. Metaphors abound.

Teaching is a tough business and I don’t mean the salaries and the politics. I think that for those of us who are called to teaching, it is as much about inspiration and vision that we try to provide and model for our students as it is for the actual content and subject matter that we delve into daily. In the midst of the drudgery, grading the millionth paper or during hall duty, or in my case the highly repetitive nature of teaching certain programs as an environmental educator, often a limited repertoire due to the popularity of certain programs or due to the specific goals prompted by a funder.

In the middle of a humdrum Wednesday, catching up on administrative tasks in the office, I began thinking of beginnings. That night, after work, I went for a run and thought about beginnings. Sometimes, we dream of beginnings as an escape. Surely something new will mean an end to what seems to hold us back: our limitations, self-imposed or otherwise. Two years ago, I was in a slump, and yet, I couldn’t see it. I was in a job I loved, but somehow was missing the wonder that had captured my heart even just a year or two before. In the middle of the week, in the middle of the school year, at the end of a long teaching day, I tiptoed into my boss’s office and asked if we could close the door. She looked, frowned, nodded, and rolled her chair over in a catlike move that belied her years of hiking and years.

“I think I need a change,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I’m tired of just thinking about it.”

“What kind of a change?” she asked.

“I think I need to move and try something new and start following some dreams,” I whispered. It was the first time those words had been spoken by me, out loud. I felt embarrassed by their whimsy and their lack of vision.

“Okay, what can we do?” my boss asked, ever the pragmatist.

“Well, I am thinking of moving back to New Mexico and going to school,” I said.

“Do you want to think about it?” she returned the ball to my court, my responsibility.

“No, I am ready. I am giving my notice. I will stay until the end of the school year, but I won’t return in the fall. I wanted to give you as much time as I could, plus I need the accountability to follow up on what I just said,” I giggled nervously.

“Well, if you decide you want to stay, know that you can, because we will miss you.” We hugged and I snuck out of her office, like a teenager leaving the principal’s office after high-spirited shenanigans that resulted in a scolding, but no detention.

That evening, I drove home with a light heart and took the longer scenic route to think about the accountability part of the dream.

Two years later, I am now in the midst of the accountability. I left my job after 11 years, as an environmental educator in northern Colorado, and moved to Albuquerque later at the end of the summer and beginning of the school year. In late August, I applied for a surprise opening as an environmental educator job in Albuquerque and traveled twice for interviews. Both times, I stayed with a friend and we chatted about mid-life changes and new beginnings. Maybe it was due to a lack of confidence, or just a bit of the shock of surprise that I was actually doing what I said I would do, I got the job and moved to Albuquerque in late September to begin the job in mid-October. Some of the surprise, though, had to do with the fact that full-time environmental education jobs are hard to come by and especially difficult to come find in my home state of New Mexico. I had always dreamed of returning to New Mexico, as soon as I left to attend college in the Midwest, but somehow thought it would be impossible for an environmental educator.

Now, I am in another job I love and feel blessedly in the middle of the hustle and bustle of school-based environmental education. I lament getting to know the students and teachers, but I love what I get to do and being back in the state I love. You can still be in the middle of bliss, though, and yearn for the happy “grass is greener” escape of beginnings. I live in a state mostly covered by desert and water is at a premium, so I joke that mine is more of where the “tumbleweeds are browner” syndrome.

The thing about beginnings is they are happy and full of sunshine and puffy clouds, but they often don’t have the reality of intimacy and the humdrum of the daily. Sometimes we romanticize the beginnings and forget the awkwardness of not knowing what we are doing and not knowing our colleagues and understanding our students. I think the happy medium is being in the midst of something and finding ways to make it new: discovering new ways to present familiar material, dusting off new-old teaching methods, constantly reading for new ideas, endlessly looking for new sources of inspiration.

Happily, I am getting to find new beginnings in the midst of my now-familiar career as an environmental educator. I applied for and was recently accepted into a graduate program where I will finally earn my teaching licensure. Before I begin that program, though, I have a few prerequisites to take care of, whether taking an undergraduate class or perhaps testing out of one. What a great opportunity to think about standardized testing while I prepare for my own! What a wonderful chance to revisit social studies and history topics that I have only approached as a history buff! What a scary and invigorating prospect to approach my teaching from a formal perspective, rather than the non-formal perspective that has been my professional domain! What a fun and frightening (yes!) option to go back to school in the middle of my life, to begin a new adventure! What a weird and wonderful time to ponder public school teaching when it seems most under-fire and most under scrutiny? What a cool and calculating time to see how my tried and true teaching methods translate to the classroom?

For those who aren’t contemplating returning to school or a bit of a career change, how do we make beginnings? Beginnings can occur on a Wednesday. The beginning can start in the middle of third period with a student who always challenges us and we can welcome with a renewed understanding, knowing they just need some missing attention and a little bit of love.

Really, isn’t that what we’re all looking for, some missing attention and a little bit of love?

I signed up for an online prerequisite class and set a date for a test for another prereq. I just checked out a book from the library on the inquiry method in teaching. We can start small and find our way. We can begin, again.

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator, a writer, and a student in Albuquerque. She finds her greatest sense of place and inspiration in New Mexico. Kary loves composting with worms, running, hiking, swimming, writing, teaching, and learning, among many things. Kary is a contributing editor to The Community Works Journal and her writing has also appeared in Green Teacher, Elephant Journal, New Leaf Meditation Project, and The Upper Room. She keeps a personal blog at runningintolife.wordpress.com.

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