To Teach Or Not To Teach

Yours Truly,
I am working on a graduate degree in elementary education. It’s a year long intensive program that is a special kind of hell and I keep fantasizing about quitting, but I can’t make a decision.
I am 27. I finally decided to go to graduate school because I was sick of working really hard for very little money as an educator for non-profit organizations. I had a lot of enthusiasm and I love teaching, but I was worn out. With some credentials, I would have summers off, a regular paycheck and some health insurance. Security! Also, time to do other things that I like!
The problem is, I think I would rather be doing the other things all the time instead. The more I learn about being a public school teacher of young children, the less I feel up to the immense challenge. I am afraid that teaching will take all my energy and put out the little light inside me. I have a recurring dream where someone offers me a different job and I take it on the spot and never teach again.
So why don’t I just quit school and do whatever else I would rather be doing? Because I want to write, and I don’t know how to support myself writing. Can freelance writers pay their bills? I want to be able to do that. Security is important to me. My parents were both artists, we were always poor. They told me never to be an artist because it would be a hard life, and I have always held that advice close while I made decisions about jobs and school. Now I regret not taking more risks and trying to write professionally.
So, my main questions are: Should I quit graduate school, eat the student loan debt and write like hell? Or is writing one of those careers like being an NBA basketball player–lots of people want to do it but they should probably get a degree in PE just in case? Is it good to “follow your dreams”?
Maybe I just need some good writer role models, maybe I need to stop romanticizing being a writer, maybe I should just get through school and the first few years of teaching and everything will make sense and I can write too.
Maybe you can help!
Sincerely,
J

I’m someone who usually feels like you might as well finish something you’ve started, and then make a decision about it once all your options are fully on the table. Unless you’ve got, like, 7 years left in some crazy med school program, in which case quitting might be the better, cheaper, life-saving option. In your case though, you have a year left and then you’ll have this credential that qualifies you for significantly better gigs than the ones you’ve had up to this point, and so, even if you end up never using that credential, I feel like having the option is a good thing. Options, in this world of suffering, are something we can’t have too many of.

Just from your letter, it sounds possible that what is happening here is that you are freaking out because grad school is crazy and hard, which is a universal response to grad school and is normal. From what you’ve said, I’m not sure I see why the teaching-light has been extinguished in you. It sounds like you were teaching, you loved it, but you wanted a bit of an easier life while doing it, so you went to grad school, and now all of a sudden you’re worried that any future job you might get will actually not be as awesome as you had imagined it would be. This seems a bit abstract, to me…this seems maybe like normal grad school night-terrors about your future. Everyone in grad school goes through a period of hating the thing they went to grad school to study. It’s classic! Even now I find myself thinking things like “what even is music.” It’s an existential nightmare, grad school, and from your letter it seems possible this is all that’s happening, in which case you should ignore it and push on through. Not knowing you personally, I can’t speculate further than this! It is very possible that I am wrong, and that you truly have lost your passion for this goal–but that’s something you need to meditate on and figure out.

I’m also kind of on the fence about “following your dreams.” Yes, it’s important not to be complacent. It’s important to identify who you really are and what you’d really like to do, and then try to do that. But, it seems like this is what you already did, by going to grad school. Didn’t you have the dream to teach–this job you felt enthusiasm for, and found rewarding–and so in following that dream didn’t you go to a grad program, which is an awesome and serious thing to do in the process of dream-following? So, you’ve already done this once. How long has writing been your dream? From your letter it sounds like it just recently popped up. Is this perhaps an escapist fantasy, born of grad school being really hard and existentially brutal, and born of the uncertainty of actually learning more about the thing you went to grad school to learn more about? Of course being a public school teacher is brutally difficult, especially in this shitty country and this shitty era. And yet, people are still doing it, and loving it, and devoting themselves passionately to it. Now more than ever! Because now it really is fighting the good fight! If you were teaching for a non-profit I have to think there is already a political aspect to your feelings about teaching–you aren’t a teacher because it’s easy, or you can’t think of anything better to do, but rather because you care about it, you think it matters, you see the ways a teacher can make a difference in a child’s life and you want to be that difference, even as you face the overwhelming challenge of trying to do your job while hindered by neoliberal business ideologies that have filtered into the administration of our schools, etc. etc. Sure it’s hard. It’s heartbreaking work. But as my father says: “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” It’s an intense job. The lows are so low, because they force you to confront dark stuff about your world that you don’t have a lot of control over. But accordingly, the highs must be so high. Making a difference in a child’s life–even just one child, every once in awhile–what could be better than that? In spite of all the bullshit, I still feel that nothing makes me happier or feel more validated in my decisions than when a student has an epiphany in my class, or changes their thinking in a powerful way, or tells me my class made them enjoy reading for the first time, or whatever. My first year teaching I had a kid win a huge award for the paper he wrote in my class and I actually cried when I watched him accept it. I felt in that moment that it had all been worth it, all the uncertainty and the bullshit and the rejection and the not being able to afford the fancy pizza place. Does this resonate with you? Do you feel this? If so, then maybe you truly are meant to be a teacher. If it doesn’t resonate with you, then I do think maybe you should quit, and find something that does make you feel this way. Whatever you do, it should not feel like a grinding waste of time.

But remember, in the midst of all this struggle and uncertainty, that “following your dreams” actually also takes an ass-ton of hard work, struggle, heartache, etc. It doesn’t sound like you fully know, yet, what is actually entailed in the word “freelancing.” I think before you drop everything and follow that dream, you should do some focused research and get some questions answered, and have a reasonably followable game-plan, and have a reasonably secure way of paying your bills while you’re following your dream, because it is highly unlikely your dream is going to be financially rewarding right away. So I’m all for following dreams, but I think it needs to be done pragmatically, which then kind of defuses the Romantic idealism of the dream-following, I realize. Yes, there are these crazy stories where an 18 year old Brad Pitt just suddenly jumps in his car in Missouri or wherever the hell he was, like a month before graduating from high school, because he realized that “the world was out there, and you could go to it,” which is a fucking amazing thing to say and still one of my all-time favorite life mottos which I read in Vanity Fair in the waiting room while my old man was getting his braces taken off, and so he did that, Brad Pitt did, he hopped in his car and drove to LA and became an A-list movie star, and that is an amazing inspiring tale. And we hear that story and our takeaway is that one should always instantly follow one’s dreams without really thinking about it–that what is special about Brad Pitt is that he followed his dreams and didn’t listen to any pragmatic advice whatsoever. And in a way I do think that’s true. I do think you could never drop out of high school and drive to LA on a whim to try to become a movie star based solely on the fact that you are very handsome, if you were at all receptive to pragmatism. And there’s something very compelling about that character, that story, that rejection of the pragmatic. BUT we forget two things: One, we are not all Brad Pitt, whatever that means and all that it entails. The Brad Pitts of the world are UNBELIEVABLY RARE. There are like 10 A-list celebrities, and like 6 billion of the rest of us. Those are BAD, BAD ODDS. And two, even Brad Pitt leaves out the part of the story where he spends 10 years living in an apartment with 15 other dudes, waiting in line for hours to audition for non-speaking commercial roles or something. It’s not like he drove into Los Angeles, got out of his car, and then Ridley Scott walked by and was like “Kid, you’ve got the perfect face for this sexy cowboy I need to cast in my sure-to-be-Oscar-winning upcoming film THELMA AND LOUISE, here is a million dollars plus you get to make out with Geena Davis”

I don’t actually know Brad Pitt’s origin story after arriving in LA but I refuse to believe it did not involve at least a few years of struggle and self-doubt and living off burritos from a garbage can. My brother is in LA trying to become a screenwriter, and after 3 years he’s starting to have some success, but in the meantime he is doing things like literally stacking up bags of peat moss for $10 an hour and being so broke he has to sell his car.

On the other hand, in a completely different advice-vein, I’m also someone who believes very fervently in the significance of recurring dreams. I can think of at least three recurring dreams from various points in my life that I wish I’d listened to the messages of. Like I had one involving my then-boyfriend and drinking orange juice that turned out to be live shrimp. But I didn’t listen to this dream’s obvious message and I stayed with the dude for like 3 years and that was 3 wasted years I could have spent slutting it up in the prime of my youth. And honestly, I sincerely regret that! So I also understand the oppressive fear of the wasted year of one’s life, especially since you’re hovering in that dread Saturn Returns-y zone around 27-29 where everything falls to fucking pieces and you don’t even know who you are anymore and everything seems desperate and fraught and every decision seems horribly weighted with significance. Remember, though, it’s just a planet! It will go away! Soon you’ll be 30 and all this will be behind you. But yeah. If you’re having recurring dreams about not being a teacher, about getting offered any other job and taking it and feeling great, then I do think that’s significant. All my anxiety dreams about teaching involve being a BAD TEACHER, they don’t involve anxiety about the career of teaching itself. I do think it’s worth exploring the possibility of quitting, if these dreams feel heavy and real to you.

I have some questions that might make the right decision clearer:

What was it that you loved about your work, back when you had all those grinding yet rewarding jobs? You had a lot of enthusiasm and you loved teaching…has that changed? Are you teaching now, as part of your grad program, and does the nature of that teaching feel like it’s changed for you? And if you’re NOT teaching right now, do you think it’s possible that the weird specific hell of grad school has warped your feelings about teaching and about your future as a teacher, and that maybe that warping is like a funhouse mirror and it’s not actually how you really feel about teaching itself? I am not saying this is definitely what’s going on, but it could be. I know from experience that grad school kind of pulls apart your self-identity and your conception of your own future and you are left having to put the pieces back together again. So there is a sense in which intensely studying to do the thing you really want to do and are good at kind of tears you down. Because it’s like Socrates said–the wiser you get, the more you realize what an idiot you are. And that can be very sobering. Indeed, they literally killed Socrates just for saying that to a bunch of people, that’s how upsetting a concept it is.

But if your feelings about the work of teaching truly have changed–which is also completely possible! Our feelings change all the time. For example, I now find Channing Tatum charming–then that is fine. You don’t have to teach! You can do whatever you want. I still wonder though if sticking it out for one year and getting that credential might still be worth it. Because you never know–you might change your mind again later. You might try to strike out on your own as a freelance writer, and it might not work out, and then you might be like, damn, I wish I had gone ahead and gotten that stupid certificate that would now allow me to apply for cushy jobs!

So maybe transform your thinking and your ‘tude?

1. You have a passion you’re wanting to follow (writing): this is great. A lot of people have no passion and are boring and sad.
2. You are one year of struggle away from having a pretty legit backup plan, in the event that writing doesn’t pan out. Maybe one year of struggle is worth it, for a decent backup plan, in these troubled times?

Is this, like, the most staid and mom-like advice on earth? I feel bad because I feel like you probably wanted me to say “throw caution to the wind! Move to Brooklyn and start freelancing up a storm!” but I think I have gotten too old to believe that dream is as easy as that, or even as desirable as it may seem. I know people who freelance for a living and it took them like 10 years of epic hard work to get to the point where they could even pay their bills doing it. I just don’t think you can decide to start freelancing and then it is like a job where the regular money starts coming in right away. I think you have to spend a lot of time making contacts, building your reputation as a reliable writer, figuring out your strengths and how to market them, etc. And this is great, and could be 100% worth it, but you should just realize that you’ll be trading one kind of struggle for another.

Here is my concrete actual advice:
– Meditate on it. Get a tarot reading. Go to a yoga retreat. Go out into nature alone with a notebook and make some pro/con lists. Truly try to vividly imagine your two choices, how they would play out, how you would feel in each scenario. Try to find a place of calmness where you can envision yourself teaching at an actual job with vacations and benefits; and then envision yourself not teaching at all, but hustling to construct a freelancing gig for yourself. Which one makes you feel happier? Which one, when imagined fully and truly, makes you feel like you’d be on the path to the truer version of yourself?

If it’s teaching, then stay the course. You can do it. A year is nothing!

If it’s freelancing, then you need to devote the same amount of energy and hard work and focus you’ve been using in grad school to figuring out what freelancing even entails. So:

– RESEARCH THAT. How to freelance? Which writers do you admire and how did they build up their careers? Make concrete to-do lists. Make concrete lists of the kinds of publications you think your style would be a good fit for. Find out what those publications’ submissions policies are. And WRITE WRITE WRITE. Build up a portfolio of all kinds of different writing. And submit it all over the place! And propose stories to publications if you have a cool “in.” Like, is your cousin Banksy? Propose an insider profile on him to the New Yorker! Do you know someone who sailed around the world on a homemade boat? Can your Dad’s business associate get you an interview with Mark Zuckerberg? Also, what topics are Hot Sellers right now, in the mainstream media? Off the top of my head, I’d say if you can put together a story about insanely wealthy privileged white women deciding to be housewives and now they’re happier than ever, then you are in for a great career at the New York Times. Okay that was just me making a rude joke, but seriously, get a feel for publications and what kinds of stories they want, and get a feel for yourself and what kinds of stories you’re good at writing! Now, I am not a freelance writer, so I can’t give you concrete advice in this regard. I frankly don’t really get how it works–do you just submit stuff cold, or do you propose stuff first, or what? This is the kind of thing you need to find out and put on your list!

HOWEVER, I do know that this would be something you could not half-ass. So if this is the choice that feels right to you after you meditate seriously and sincerely upon it, get ready to work hard and have a laser-like focus on your goals. Be prepared to write and write and write and write and have it all be rejected. I just read a thing by a successful fiction writer where he says he still to this day gets 200 rejections a year. But he keeps on plugging. I think that if you really truly do want to drop teaching and become a freelance writer, it will make you feel a lot more grounded if you fully embrace doing a ton of research into that career, so you’ll know what steps you need to take, and you’ll know what’s awaiting you, and what a reasonable timeline is before you might become financially solvent. Right now it seems like it’s a hazy fantasy that you don’t actually know much about the realization of, and that makes it harder for you to decide.

I don’t think I answered your question. But maybe through trying to look at it from different angles, and from somebody else’s perspective, you can come to some new insights. This is why tarot cards are great–they trick your unconscious into revealing itself. If something I’ve said really resonates with you, then grab that thing and think about it! If something I’ve said feels totally off and wrong, then grab THAT thing too. The only real problem you have is that you don’t know what you really want to do, and once you figure THAT out, the rest will be easier.

and p.s. you can always write while doing something else. Last summer I wrote a 200 page novel for no reason. I never even showed it to anyone! I am a full-time professor who is also supposed to be writing books about J.S. Bach or something. If I have time to do something stupid like write a plague apocalypse novel, then you will too, as a teacher. If after meditating you realize writing is not necessarily your True All-Consuming Life Passion but more just like your way of envisioning something drastically different for yourself as a means of escaping the drudgery of grad school, then just know that if you enjoy writing you absolutely will have time to do it. Do you know how long summer vacation is, when you’re a teacher? It is LONG AS HELL. It goes on and on. It rules. It makes up for ALL the intense stress and 60 hour work weeks of the school year. You are down at the river on Wednesday afternoon while all your friends are at their dumb offices! You are ruling life! If you want to write, you will have the time to do so.

Did this even help at all???? Feel free to ask follow-ups, and also anyone who wants to weigh in in the comments, I’m sure we would both really appreciate that!!!

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One Response to To Teach Or Not To Teach

  1. dalas v says:

    The lede was so heavily buried here. A SECRET, 200 PAGE NOVEL????

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