My work as a high school teacher is uncomfortable (and I intend for that to read positively, but I’ll get to that). This past year working at a high school in Portland, Oregon as an emerging young teacher has been a crucial lesson for me in patience and perseverance, as cliche as that may sound, especially considering that I was teaching a class that I hadn’t anticipated taking on when I set out to complete my Master of Arts in Teaching degree: College and Career Exploration. My main goal then, for both my students and myself, in tackling this semester-long course was to pose the challenge of starting to answer questions like “who are we?” and “what are our values or goals moving forward?” I didn’t, and still don’t, have answers to these questions and I knew my students wouldn’t either – nor should they. But that’s beside the point; the object wasn’t to answer the questions but, as is frequently the case in education, explore the process of getting to the answers.
I begin every one of my classes with a video for students to watch, then write a short individual reflection before discussing together as a class. The videos typically last 10 minutes or less and the total discussion time no more than 15. I have been trying to expose them to the voices of different people, the experiences of those who don’t sound or look like them. I’m trying to make them uncomfortable or at least help them get rid of the bubble of security that so many of them have been reluctant to leave. Recently, I had them watch a video titled “The Power of Vulnerability.” It was 20 minutes long and touched on so many different topics and trains of thought that initially, I wanted to break it down into chunks to make it easier to digest and encourage deeper reflection on those ideas individually. There was one line in particular that struck me, the sentiment of which came up again in a counseling session not long after I had taught the class. I’ve already written plenty about my creative congestion and even the frustration I’ve felt regarding my current career trajectory. It’s been difficult to stay positive in environments that don’t necessarily welcome newcomers and are stifled by stagnancy. More recently, especially when taking on this new course I set point out all the silver linings with the sentiment that I, and others, should be hopeful in fighting off complacency and aforementioned stagnancy; sometimes things just take time and discipline.
I digress… back to the TED Talk I shared with the class. Brené Brown shared this:
“Lean into the discomfort of the work. ”
— Brené Brown
At times, despite discipline and constant work, comfort and success still seem too distant and difficult to continue. And when I say “work” I’m talking about day-to-day actions and dedication to my role as a student, as a teacher, as a coach, as a writer, as a significant other, as a sister, as a daughter, et cetera. It becomes difficult to “lean in.” And this is where another piece of advice, well more of a statement was shared by my counselor mid-session, comes in. In the same words, more or less, he said the following:
“There is always going to be a struggle when working to maintain virtue in your life. That virtue could be many things, but it’s always going to be harder to maintain or create order when it’s easier to allow chaos since that is the natural state. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it to work to maintain your values and virtue. It will just be hard.”
I believe that in most moments I find more comfort in the chaos and the “natural state” because it is what I grew up in, it’s what I learned to prosper in, it’s what I’ve grown to love about myself. While I am no stranger to hard work, nor am I adverse to it, I find that as the years have gone on, my emotional state has become wrought with structured and functioning anxiety. By this, I mean that on a daily basis I am constantly and methodically evaluating and re-evaluating and then reflecting on the consequences of every action and interaction, and then pushing myself into a state of severe self-doubt and regret. This happens without much conscious effort on my part, and typically does not debilitate me. I think my counselor called it catastrophizing. I sit in my counselors office once a month now and talk about these interactions with other humans that I start to pick apart – having grown frustrated at the lack of compassion or drive in workplaces, the seeming dysfunction of the communities I am in, the emotional and mental energy it requires for me to stay dedicated to my work, and even the lack of work. Because that’s where I’m at now: no work, little direction. And I know I’m not the only one, especially in my age group. Coming out of higher education with debt, and motivation that is constantly assailed by negativity and barriers (which, in all honesty, I do not face very many of due to my privilege), it’s difficult to feel confident in the work we do on a day-to-day basis when we don’t see the success or feel the fulfillment coming from it.
As a sort of band-aid, I’ve begun to look at teach-abroad websites, the costs of visas, imagining simple work in simple places somewhere else. But in doing so I imagine what my counselor would say about these trains of thought. In those conversations, I imagine I would start by saying something like, “it’s something different because I can’t find anything here.” However, even writing that I know I’m not trying hard enough and staying here, persevering, is indeed more in line with my values; it is more in line with the process of organizing the natural state instead of allowing myself to fall into chaos.
Not long after teaching the class where I showed the Brown video, I placed myself on the floor of my favorite bookstore, in a section I never visit, and just sat there trying to ground myself amongst material possessions that I find calming. I was trying to rationalize why I was there, what the plan was, what I was feeling, why I was feeling what I was feeling. It’s a mechanism for me to find some calm within the anxiety, a practice that I am sure is similar to those that others find to mindfully address the emotions they encounter. I thought about all my options: the costs of visas, the simple places, and simple people, and then I got myself up off the floor and walked out of the store without any books and returned to my “usual” tasks. My counselor’s response to my proposition of the simple places and simple work would inevitably be, “does this align with your values?” It would not; leaving for simple places was not aligned with any of my values. Instead, my choice to get up and walk out of the store without any books and return to my work was. I shared this bookstore experience with my students. I shared this bookstore experience with my counselor. I explored, with myself, the idea of choosing this discomfort of working even when it hurts, even when it’s frustrating, even when I feel no support from the work communities I am in because I do not want to endanger my values. I asked my students what they do when they feel uncomfortable. They wrote me their responses in notebooks for me to read and respond to.
I think it’s easy to get lost. I know I am constantly comparing my place with those around me instead of focusing on the positives of my work and successes, whether major or minor. The
silver-lining? I still appear to be operating within the boundaries of my own values and beliefs even in those tough moments. So while I may still look at the costs of visas and pictures of small places with smaller roads, I know I won’t be leaving. And I guess that’s my point in all of this, my trinket to share with the people around me and the young teachers I know I will be encountering in the future as I settle into this role. Don’t leave and continue to lean into the discomfort if only to preserve your values, whatever they may be. I believe my counselor is correct in his statement that maintaining virtue is going to be hard and, to add on, anything worth doing is going to take a little struggle and a little pain (that’s my former athlete side talking, I think). Growth means discomfort. Growth means reevaluating values. Growth means finding ways to organize the chaos, and maybe that means listening to those around you (like TED Talks, your counselor or the kids you teach).
I won’t give up on organizing this chaos. I will continue the hard work with half-empty notebooks, application after application, resisting some of those Fridays where I don’t get out of bed until 6:35 p.m., and my hair stays wrapped up in old towels that to me always smell like mildew. And that’s not meant to be another metaphor, it’s just a fact. Everything smells like mildew to me. Okay, maybe it is sort of a metaphor. This is where I force myself to stop, to refocus on the work ahead of me instead of simply getting lost in the caverns of my mind and all that I wish I was doing or writing. It all happens while I lean into the discomfort of this work, stating and restating my values just so I don’t get lost.
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