Monday, June 21, 2010

An Early Midlife Crisis

I only just turned twenty-seven and seem to be already experiencing a midlife crisis of sorts.  (Okay - so maybe it's not really a midlife crisis, but it's definitely a tough place to be).  The catalyst of this crisis is the prospect of having to make a HUGE decision about where I take my life in the next three to five years.

On the one hand I have a job offer from what seems like an amazing school to work at in New York City.  I've had the opportunity to spend an entire day observing the school and the teachers, talking to the administration, and tutoring the students.  There are only two administrators, and they both seem to really get education.  They're not former TFAers turned teacher managers or overly ambitious new school reform types.  They've both put years into the classroom and believe the school setup they've come up with is a decent, work-in-progress way to meet the needs of some students in an extremely challenging situation in the South Bronx.

A quick note for those unfamiliar with NYC public schools:  For quite a while now, NYC has been dismantling its comprehensive high schools in favor of small schools.  Additionally, each school has been given a relatively large degree of autonomy in the way it sets up its schedule, the way it hires teachers, and the way it works with students.  The schools are essentially told, "Do what you will with your structure, teachers, and courses; it's the test scores we're going to hold you accountable for." And then each school is given a grade (A, B, C, D, or F) based on how it meets certain criteria.  At least this is what I understand about NYC so far.  I'm certainly not an expert, and if anyone reading from NYC wants to correct or clarify for me, that'd be great.

So the job offer in NYC is extremely exciting.  I've been promised I would only be teaching one prep (something almost unheard of in the other schools I've worked at - not so much the teaching of one prep, but being promised that I'd have one prep this early in the summer).  I would teach four classes a day (an hour each), and I would have the rest of the day to grade and plan with colleagues.  The school is small (11 staff members this year and 20 staff members this coming year) and is housed in an older comprehensive high school with four other schools (I believe).  Although I wouldn't have my own classroom (downside, especially for effective classroom management), I would be given multiple opportunities to take leadership positions when it comes to curriculum development, work with instructional strategies, and data tracking.  I was also promised that I would be supported in my efforts to achieve National Board Certification and provided financial assistance to earn credits toward ESL certification, including an online course from Harvard that's already been paid for.  Additionally, the administrators made a big deal about opportunities for future leadership and advancement within the school network (the school is affiliated with a broader network of schools).  Most importantly, the two administrators were very open and honest about their budget, how they intend to allocate their funds, what their hiring/management philosophy is, and acted very much like real people (not the edudrones you run into in DCPS).


I have an interview for the position I held in Seattle before I came to DCPS tomorrow evening.  The position in Seattle is in a traditional comprehensive high school, which is largely impeded from making significant and meaningful changes to school structure, teacher quality, and instructional practice by the cumbersome nature of the WEA (the NEA's affiliate in Washington state) and the fear of traditional LEAs to make meaningful change in education for fear of public backlash (in this country, we like to punish superintendents for trying new things, not reward them).  As a result, I would return to an environment where about half of the teachers are motivated to grow and do great things in the classroom and the other half couldn't care less because their teaching job is a 9-5 deal that provides them with a decent salary and nice benefits.

On the pro side, in Seattle I could probably get some financial assistance for earning my National Boards, and I would definitely receive the support of a significant number of staff who'd already gone through the process. In addition, Washington State provides teachers in schools that have more than 50% of their students on free-and-reduced lunch with a $10k stipend per year for holding National Boards Certification, which I think is excellent because it's a real move toward promoting excellence in the profession.  Additionally, I think I could bring a lot of great things to my former school.  My time in DCPS made me a much better teacher than when I left Seattle.  Despite working with abusive and incompetent administrators, I was exposed to ideas and practices that fundamentally altered the way I thought about increasing academic rigor in the classroom, effective curriculum development, instruction, and assessment - especially in the social studies content area.  For example, when I taught in Seattle, I would never have dreamed that I could ask the typical sophomore world history student to read portions of Adam Smith's, The Wealth of Nations, and get anything out of it.  In DC, I learned to do that effectively with students who (I think) were collectively on a lower reading level than the students I taught in Seattle. As a result, were I to the take the job in Seattle, I would aspire to share many of the things I learned in DC and take on a significant leadership role in helping to hold students to much higher academic expectations.  I think the teachers at that school want to do that, they just aren't sure how or trust that it's possible (or at least that's how I felt when I was there).

Of course, deciding where I want to go depends on more than just my professional aspirations.  The Pacific Northwest is an absolutely gorgeous place to live and make a life for oneself.  But New York City has all the opportunities in the world (and I have a pretty sweet apartment lined up for myself in Manhattan just south of Central Park).  But I'm tired of inner-city politics and bullshit, and I love to run outside and visit the mountains and play soccer on an open field.  But, like every other ambitious young person in the US, I've always wanted to live in NYC, and I'm not sure if I can really pass up an opportunity to live in Manhattan.

But there are deeper issues at play here.  I've been having a massive internal battle over how important the concept of 'home' and 'community' are to me and how important 'adventure' and 'sucking the marrow out of life' are to me for a few years now.  I'm not sure how entirely contradictory they have to be, but taken to their extremes, they certainly lead to different lifestyles.  A move to NYC represents a continuation on my path of adventure and the fulfillment of my ongoing wanderlust.  A move to Seattle would represent a move in the opposite direction, toward creating a home and seriously involving myself in a community (as I've seen Seattle as a possible place for the longterm for a little while now).

The other question is whether I'm really emotionally ready to start all over in NYC again.  I don't like that this is a realistic concern (largely because it makes me worry that a move to Seattle might really just be a move to safety), but starting your life over again in a whole new place without knowing anybody takes a huge toll (I've done it twice in the past three years).  It requires that you create a whole new social group, adopt a whole new set of routines, and find a whole new way to take ownership in the areas of your life that are most important (e.g. job, community, local politics).

Anyway, I've been agonizing over this decision nonstop for about a week now, and I'm sick of it.  I'd almost like to just flip a coin and get it over with.  Maybe, if I'm lucky, Seattle won't offer me the job, and then I'll know exactly what to do.  Leaning NYC right now, but twenty-four hours ago I was leaning Seattle.  Looking forward to getting this decision over with.


  1. Take NYC.. you are only 27!. Secondly, the school structure in Washington is NOT going to change anytime soon.You can always go back or ask to go back next year.
    You can still learn in NYC>>>

    Question.. how are you dealing with the certification issues for both Washington and NYC? I know reciprocity exist but I thought NYC has additional qualification on the book..

  2. Unsolicited advice from a recent blog fan, a nonteacher, and, full disclosure, a former New Yorker who loves visiting:
    Take NYC. You can run in Central Park.
    It is fairly easy to get to know people. My kid, about your age (HGSE degree but not a teacher), did it last year but knew some people. Your likely hazard in this regard is social overload.

    The Seattle position sounds safe(r) and you have literally been there. NYC opportunity represents a professional frontier in many ways.

    Seattle's great, too, of course, and you can still settle there later.

    (You mentioned a few weeks ago about possibly returning to DCPS. You are wise to forget that, for obvious reasons.)

    Best of luck in your decision.

  3. How lucky to have two fabulous oportunities.

    Are you prepared for another fiasco? NY could be that. It certainly sounds too good to be true. But do you really regret DC? I don't think so -- you got out in time enough to have learned and not be scarred from the experience.

    NY has mountains near by too - and lots of other things.

  4. Anon at 829: Which Washington are you referring to? I never got officially certified in DC because I hadn't taken the social studies pedagogy test (rack up some more bills to be "highly qualified") and I never did. I was supposed to by April, but since I quit, I just never bothered.

    My current certificate is from Washington state, since I taught there before I moved to DC. As far as I understand (based on what the recruiter in NYC has told me), were I to take the job in NYC, I would get a temporary permit until I could take all the NY state tests to be certified up there. Can't wait to poor more of MY money into that bs.

    Anon at 949: Thanks for the comment. I tend to agree.

    Anon at 1050: I do not regret the DC decision at all. I've learned a ton here and will absolutely be better for it. Sadly, though, DCPS is not a place for teaching professionals; it's a place for reformers, like-minded administrators, and TFAers to make a name for themselves and build their resumes.

  5. MORE UNSOLICITED ADVICE: You're so young...take the most exciting choice!

  6. Uh, am I missing something? I'm a professional teacher, which is to say I've been doing it for a living and as my life's work for almost as many years as you've been alive. Yes, DCPS can be a toxic environment but part of the trick of staying in the system is finding a school where you fit in, where you're valued and appreciated as a professional and a person. Had I not found that, I'd be long gone to one of the better-run neighboring districts or to another field altogether. I've always wanted to work and live in NYC, where my parents are from, which they thought of as capital of the world.

  7. We need more quality teachers in SPS with a broad perspective. Come back to the Emerald city, raise your voice, and counter some of the interesting opinions we see here: http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/

    Best of luck to you!

    -A Non-Resume Building TFA Alum

  8. Anon at 851: My apologies. I didn't mean to imply that there are no professional teachers in DCPS, just that the current wave of reform (or at least what I witnessed at my school, which seems to playing at out at a lot of other schools as well) is not interested in hiring and developing professional teachers.

  9. I am in the same boat. I too moved to DC to teach after many years teaching in another major city. After one more year in DC I am going to NY as well. Its all part of my world tour in teaching. When I am finished moving about I feel there will be a school and community that will appreciate what I have to offer. My advice for you is to do the same...Go with the flow because you can always go home.

  10. Oh, to be 27 again and living in NYC. Take NYC. Seattle will always be there for you to return to but NYC is an experience that will last you a lifetime.

  11. Have you considered a compromise? You are at the perfect age to extend your own educational opportunities. By reading this blog I get the sense of you as a person who would enjoy graduate school. You'd probably be in your glory studying English, journalism, sociology or ? at NYU or Columbia. This could lead to a college teaching career, which seems like a better fit to me.

    I probably shouldn't give advice but if I were you, I'd stay away from high-poverty schools because it's teacher-bashing time at those places. An independent school in Manhattan might be nice.

    If it's too late to apply, you could enroll in extension classes while you apply for a fellowship. Good luck in whatever you choose!

  12. Sounds like a tough decision. But no matter which choice you make it will be the right one for you.

  13. Whatever you decide, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your contribution to the DC education scene by sharing your experiences as well as thoughtful analysis! You will be missed! As a former NYC dweller (high school and after college) who loves to hike and play soccer, the Adirondacks are beautiful (and Montreal is not too too far away!) and there are some amazing soccer leagues! I found the pace of life to be a bit too aggressive for my liking in terms of long term habitation! Perfect for the short term though (3-5 years) at a time for me!

  14. Thanks for the comments everyone. I decided to take the job in New York. More on that to come...