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Next Monday, August 21, will mark the start of my tenth year in the classroom–a milestone which seems to invite some longer-term reflection. As I think back on my career so far, there have been so many people who have helped to make me into the educator (and indeed the man) that I have become, and it seems appropriate to commemorate Year Ten by paying homage to them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to write one post each month this school year (August through May) in which I reflect on the influence of some of my many teachers and mentors. Though I doubt that I could ever repay the collective debt of gratitude that I owe to these women and men, my hope is that my words will give them some small measure of pride as they themselves reflect on the lives they’ve led and the impact they’ve made.

This effort is not entirely selfless, however. In reflecting on why and how these individuals shaped my life, I’ll also strive to identify a few through-lines that will propel me forward into the next ten years.

 

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In my last post, I asked “Is there such a thing as too curious?” and at the end, I reflected on an old post in which I decided, “You can’t do it all.” I’m not quite sure why this sort of thing has been on my mind so much lately, but it has. Perhaps it’s a miniature “quarterlife crisis” of sorts (though, at my age, it would probably more like a “thirdlife crisis”). As I get older, I guess I feel the need to narrow my focus somewhat. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy lots of things, but I feel as though if I want to actually accomplish something, I can’t be skittering around constantly. Luckily, I do feel as though I’m gaining clarity on the pursuits and pastimes that matter most to me. Along these same lines, I’ve been thinking recently about letting go of dreams. I’m not talking about giving up on one’s dreams—that is different, I think—but rather, outgrowing them.

Case in point: When I was sixteen years old, I knew that I wanted to be a high school baseball coach. More precisely, I wanted to be a high school baseball head coach. (To be honest, that dream is what initially drew me into education.) I devoured articles on drills and strategies, printing them out and saving them in a notebook, which I still have to this day. I read books and watched videos, and I have an entire bookshelf devoted to coaching, which my wife finds unfathomable.

Even before I began my career, I made coaching a priority. While in graduate school, I e-mailed the coach of a local American Legion team, told him that I wanted to be a high school coach, and asked if I could help out. He said sure. (I’ve learned over the years that people will let you do almost anything if you offer to do it for free!) When I left with my Master’s degree and found a job teaching at an all-girls’ school, I made it clear that while I was happy to coach a fall or winter sport, I would be going elsewhere to coach baseball in the spring. Luckily they were supportive (though they did try briefly to recruit me to softball). During my time there, I volunteered at two different schools.

After five years of being pulled in different directions, I felt it was time to find a single school where I could both teach and coach, so I moved on to a coed boarding school. Though not the only factor, coaching was a major factor in that career move. When I took that job, I thought there might be a possibility of a head coaching opportunity developing in the next couple of years, and that was appealing. I also coached basketball there, initially as a JV assistant, and when the opportunity to become the JV head coach developed, I jumped at it. I was so hungry for the opportunity to lead a team, to try out my ideas, that I was thrilled to do it even in a sport where I didn’t know half as much. Some of my ideas worked well, and some didn’t, but I was much better the second time around. Had I stayed and coached the team for a third year, I am confident that we would be even stronger.

For lots of reasons, though, it was time to move on from that job after three years, and that brings us to the present. Ironically enough, shortly after I announced that I was leaving, the head baseball coach announced that he, too, was leaving, so the opportunity I anticipated when I moved there did indeed come to pass—just a few weeks too late. Meanwhile, the athletic director at my current school called me to talk about where I could be of the most help to the program, and I was a little surprised—maybe even a little miffed, if I’m being honest—to learn that I would be coaching middle school. I understood his rationale, and I’ve made my peace with it, but I find it almost comical that I’ll finally have my opportunity to be a head baseball coach, and half of the stuff I’ve learned over the years is probably too advanced for the age group I’ll be coaching.

There’s still a part of me who wonders if I could be a good head coach at the varsity level. I enjoy the competition and camaraderie, and I would appreciate the challenge. And yet, I find that I don’t have the drive that I once did. If the opportunity presented itself tomorrow, I would probably take it and be excited about it (at least for a few years), but it’s no longer my dream. I realized not long ago that I don’t plan for that day in the way that I once did.

As I’ve learned, again, you can’t do it all, and there are now other things in life that I want more. I want to be a good teacher, and I find that consumes a lot (maybe too much) of my time as it is. I’m frequently busy planning and grading during the week, and so I want to spend more time with my wife on the weekends. Baseball, especially at the higher levels of competition, can be an all-encompassing lifestyle for the months of the season (and in Florida, I’m learning, the season is nearly year-round). There was a time when the idea of spending my weekend at the ballpark would have thrilled me–not anymore.

I still love the game, and I think I’ll probably stay involved with it in some way for a long time… but I think maybe I outgrew my dream. Who knows where I’d be had I gotten a head coaching job at age 25, as I once hoped? I would probably be consumed by the sport and loving every minute of it. But that’s not how it played out, and I’m OK with that.

I sometimes tell my students that if they’re the exact same people 20 or 40 years after graduation, they will have failed at life. Maybe I’m practicing what I preach.

I was doing better with my resolution to write more this year… and then life caught up with me. The last few months have been a whirlwind of job searching, soul searching, house hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in. Now, as the dust begins to settle, I find myself wanting to get back to writing (and teaching).

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been in the midst of a career move, leaving the small boarding school in rural eastern Virginia where I spent the past three years in favor of a considerably larger day school in Tampa, Florida. My wife and I decided last winter that it was time for a change, but I don’t think either of us could have predicted the way things shook out. (Florida, for instance, was not even on our radar when I started my job search. Life is funny sometimes.)

The school we left behind was a lovely little community in many respects. We made some good friends, folks we’ll probably stay in touch with for a long time, but the career opportunities for my wife were sparse, and while she did manage to find meaningful work, few of her colleagues were in the same age bracket/life stage. Owing to the “triple threat” nature of boarding schools, I was usually busy, even on the weekends, and she felt particularly isolated.

Finally, last year I had been offered an administrative role at the school. I was initially very excited about the opportunity, but as the year progressed, I found myself missing the classroom. I taught one section of a class which met 2-3 times per week, and there were plenty of times when that was the highlight of the day. It got me out of my office, interacting with kids, thinking and talking about ideas, and I came to realize that this is the part of the job I love the most. I also felt like I had a lot more work to do to hone my craft as a teacher, and I wasn’t able to do it in that setting or especially in that role. I may very well return to school leadership someday—there are challenges in that realm which intrigue me—but at this point in my career, I don’t feel the need. (That said, I did learn a lot this past year, which I expect will serve me well if/when I do rejoin the administrative ranks. Perhaps that will become a future post.) Along with a few other factors which I won’t get into here, these things set the stage for a move, so I set out in search of a new teaching position.

My experience of the job market was very different this time around than last, when I talked to what felt like 50 different schools and went on (I think) eight campus interviews. This time, the search was more focused from the very beginning. I was invited for a campus interview here in Tampa, and my wife and I spent a weekend here prior to that (neither of us had ever been here before). We really liked what we saw. Tampa felt like the right size—not huge, but with plenty to do. There were different areas of the city, each with their own unique feel. We got some great restaurant recommendations, visited a local brewery, and went for a run along the Hillsborough River, where we saw dolphins breaching the surface. (Of course, it helped that the weather was fantastic. Only a couple of days before, I had been wearing fleece long underwear on the baseball field in Virginia, while in Tampa I wore shorts and a t-shirt.)

In terms of the school itself, I was impressed. There seemed to be a strong intellectual culture among the faculty, along with significant support for professional development. Students appeared bright and engaged, and the history department’s approach meshed well with my own. As we left Tampa, I was excited about the possibilities and hoped I would get an offer. About a week later, it did.

At that point, everything “got real,” and the decision was much harder than I expected it would be. Even with its downsides, the setting in Virginia was beautiful—right on the Rappahannock River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Crossing the river on the nearby bridge, especially at sunset, could be truly breathtaking. The leadership at my school had been good to me, rewarding me with new responsibilities each year, and it seemed as if I was on an upward career trajectory. And perhaps most importantly, we were close to our families—about 90 minutes away. Even though we didn’t see them nearly as often as we would have liked (boarding school life…), knowingly putting 12 hours of driving distance between us suddenly became tough to justify. After much soul-searching, it was my wife who clarified things for me. She had initially been skeptical when I told her I was thinking of applying for the job in Tampa, but she warmed to the idea, and after listening to me hem and haw for a few days, she finally said, “Matt, this is a good opportunity. You should take it.”

The saga of our house-hunting adventure could easily fill many more paragraphs, but in the end, we bought a small house in a neighborhood that we love. We’re within walking distance of a great park along the river. After several years of having to drive 45 minutes to a good restaurant, we’re now within walking distance of several. And I didn’t realize it before I took the job, but Tampa Bay actually has a phenomenal craft beer scene, with several breweries a stone’s throw from us. We have a sunny backyard where we hope to finally be able to do some gardening, and I’ve made it to my new school in 7 minutes, though I think I may try biking to work when the weather cooperates. All in all, we’re excited about our new situation, and after several weeks of settling in (and countless trips to Home Depot), I’m finally in a place where I can enjoy what’s left of summer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (another future post?) and am beginning to plan for the coming school year. While I can’t honestly say I’m not quite ready to give up the summer schedule, I am starting to feel the itch to get back into the classroom. It’s a good feeling.

Although we’re told that the fourth Thursday in November is the day to be grateful, I always find that I’m more reflective at the New Year. As I near the end of a long holiday break, I’ve had time to decompress and relax, more so than I usually do at Thanksgiving, which typically sneaks up on me in a rush and when exam season is just around the corner, always on the brain.

So, with that said, I’ve been thinking lately about 2015. It hasn’t been a perfect year, to be sure, and I could (if I wanted) list all of the things that didn’t go my way or left me disappointed. But I don’t want. On balance, it’s been a pretty great year, and I have much to be grateful for: my health and the (relative) health of my friends and family, a wife with whom I can share the highs and lows and for whom my love grows every day, a job that leaves me feeling challenged,  No, all things considered, it’s been a pretty great year.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights from 2015:

In March, I helped chaperone a 15-day service learning trip to India. As a bonus, because Emily was doing weekend duty on campus last year, she was eligible to travel as a “faculty participant” at cost. It was an incredible and humbling adventure for both of us—something neither of us will ever forget.

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In June, Emily and I bought a “new” (gently used) car: a 2012 Subaru Outback with low mileage. This was the first car either of us had bought on our own, so we’re pretty proud of her. I did have about a week of buyer’s remorse as I feared that we bought more car than we really needed—and we did—but we got a good deal. I drove Emily crazy with all the research, but in the end, she agrees, we got the right one.

Later that month, I headed north in the new whip to the Boston area, where I spent the summer on the campus of Wellesley College working as an administrator for the same summer program where I cut my teeth in education as a college student. It was a crazy, exhausting two months, but it gave me a ton of great experience for my new role (see below). I saw a lot of myself (my old self) in the staff: energetic and idealistic. Hard not to be inspired in an environment like that!

It was tough being apart for Emily for two months (though she did come up to spend the Fourth of July in Boston—an experience I highly recommend for anyone who has the chance), but being on my own in a new environment did have an upside: it allowed me to reset some of my habits (especially around eating and exercising) and build some healthy new ones. I spent the summer eating well and running, and in the end, I lost about 30 pounds. (Actually, at one point, it was closer for 40 pounds, but after the holidays…)

I got a promotion as well, and in August, I returned from Boston to start in my first administrative position. It was a whirlwind few weeks, especially since my boss was out of the country for the start of school, but I eventually got my feet under me. I’m still learning a lot (and making mistakes), but I’m trying to practice what I preach and keep a growth mindset.

Finally, after an incredibly busy 11-month run (India over Spring Break, Boston for the summer), Emily and I finally got some much-needed R&R during the first part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Having loved our trip to East Africa in the summer of 2014, we decided to check out another part of the African continent. On the recommendation of a friend and colleagued who has lived and worked there, we spent several days in Senegal—mostly reading and relaxing in a hammock and sleeping in a treehouse built into a baobab tree and eating amazing French food. We didn’t do a lot of sight-seeing on this trip, but it was a glorious experience nevertheless. To top it off, we were able to take advantage of a direct flight from DC to Dakar to make it home in time to spend Thanksgiving with our families.

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So, all in all: 30 pounds, two continents, two new jobs, and one new car. A pretty great year overall.

Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time looking forward as well as back—thinking about what the next few years might hold for myself and for Emily. My new role has brought about some fresh thinking in terms of the issues I want to work on, and the New Year gives us reason to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for and all that we hope for in the years ahead.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that going forward, but I’ll end with my resolutions for 2016. For now, I have two: to be a better (i.e., more communicative) son/brother/friend, and to make more time to write (whether here or elsewhere).