I was the first in my family to go to college. I worked two jobs and along with a student loan, paid my way through college. It took five years to get my undergraduate degree. I floundered a bit, not really knowing what path to choose, and honestly, felt a little bit like a fish out of water. But I did it. In December of 2000, I walked across the stage in a black cap and gown, and became a college graduate.
I did well in high school, but only because I wanted to. I had parents that expected good grades and good behavior at school, but it was more of a “do what I say, not as I do” scenario. As the only child of parents who most often worked 6 days a week, I flew a solo mission all through my K-12 experience. When I graduated from college, it was also because I wanted to. I paid my way, paid my own bills, and worked more hours in any given day than anyone should.
Applying to and attending college was a bit of a blur, honestly. It probably took about a year and a half until I really felt like I knew what I was doing. By that point, I had found a major, seen an academic adviser, and set my sights on graduating as some point or another. Having been involved in the arts most of my life, thanks to the opportunities afforded by school-based programs,I entered college thinking that maybe I'd stay on that path and explore theater. Then it hit me--like a freight train--when I eventually graduated from college, I was going to need a career.
At 20-years-old, I spiraled into an existential crisis. How could I be the first to go to college and graduate with no career plans? I came from a family that struggled financially, how could I go into student debt and not have a stable job as a result? This is when I decided the arts had to be a passion and a hobby, but that was it. With the naivety of youth at my back, I decided what I was going to be when I grew up: a lawyer. I would study English as an undergraduate and then go to law school because being a lawyer was a good career, and I would make money. Good, it was settled. I would have a career as a lawyer.
But then, something magical happened. I started taking upper-level English classes, and loved them. I took a semester long class just on J.D. Salinger, and we didn't justy read The Catcher in the Rye. I loved the discussion, the inquiry, the philosophy, the way literature was metaphoric, symbolic, inspiring, and real. Insert existential crisis #2. I loved English, and law school wasn’t literature. Insert change of major---Secondary Education, concentration on comprehensive English. I would have a career as a teacher.
Twelve days before my 25th birthday, I graduated with a college degree. I January of 2001, I started my career as an English teacher. Blinded by the possibilities of living life as a career woman, I felt like I have really made it. I had broken the cycle of hourly wages and no job advancement. The sky was the limit and the ladder was propped up right in front of me.
What I know now, that I did not know then, was that beating the odds, both personally and financially, to attend college and secure that career, was only the equivalent to taking one step on a ladder whose top rung was out of sight. I was proud to have earned a degree, and I was proud to be a teacher, but $25,000 a year was not going to set me up for life.
I have sacrificed blood, sweat, tears, and most importantly, time away from my family, to be the type of teacher that makes an impact on the lives of kids. From day one, I was all in. Yes, I’ll teach early bird. Yes, I’ll advise the after school drama club. Yes, whatever it is, yes. I paid no mind to the physical exhaustion that came with teaching. I paid no mind to the overwhelming reality of having 150+ kids looking to me to educate them. I was a teacher and I was proud. The view from my ladder was great.
Fast forward to today. Today, where I have taught for 18 years, been a department chair, served on a variety of school and district committees. Today, where I gave graduated from the Teacher Leadership Initiative, the Teacher Leader Academy, graduate school, and a public policy cohort. Today, where I have institutionalized programs at the school level, served a year as a U.S. Department of Education Fellow, and currently serve as the Teacher Leader in Residence at the Nevada Department of Education. With all of this shaping not only my career goals, but my personal philosophy of education, I feel like I have taken only about two or three steps on that proverbial ladder. I’m still proud to be an educator, but I am at the same time a bit dismayed that graduating from college, not once, but twice, and giving my heart and soul to public education has only allowed me to remain on the bottom of the ladder, sometimes even boosting others up and over me.
Instead feeling like I’ve been dealt a bad hand, I am at the point in my life and in my career where I am focused on being proactive. Not to say I never spent any time being reactive--I felt at one point like I had made bad life choices. Chose the wrong major, picked the wrong career. But, looking back on those decisions, they were the right ones, the right ones at the time. Taking one class at a time, often on a rotating schedule, my husband and I both went back to school. By the time I graduated with my master’s we had two children. It was challenging, but it was the right choice at the time. We furthered our education, both earned salary advancement, and I was able to feel the inner pride of having graduated yet again.
About four years ago, I started thinking that it was time to try something new. Maybe work at a college or university, maybe try my hand in non-profit work, maybe become an educational advocate. What I quickly learned was that fifteen years of classroom experience and two degrees, didn’t translate to many as experience enough to do anything more than teach in the K-12 classroom. Challenge accepted.
Bound and determined to gain a rung or two or five on that ladder, I started researching and applying for opportunities to expand my skill set, grow my resume, and hopefully, just hopefully, shoot me up the ladder a bit. I’m happy to report that these opportunities do exist. I hustled and applied and got rejected and applied some more until I found the people and places that transformed me.
Ironically, though, despite experience in D.C., a portfolio of successful projects, and hours of learning and doing, I’m still working on finding the next step on the career ladder. I’m facing the harrowing reality that I might have to go back to school again. I am currently relentlessly trying to convince a graduate school, any graduate school for that matter, that I would make an outstanding addition to their program, with one exception… I need a scholarship. Not a small or medium one, a full ride. I’m at that juncture in my life where putting my 15-year-old through college in 3 years has to take precedence over mom getting her 3rd degree.
So, here’s another first in a long line---Will I be the first in my family to earn a second master’s or a Ph.D? We’ll see.