Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

Trials and Errors

I just finished reading Run the World by Becky Wade, a former collegiate runner who in her first marathon, beat out the rest of the women in a touch over 2 hrs and 38 mins, launching her professional career.

What’s her secret? How’d she do it?

Concocting a plan to travel the world, Becky visited star-producing countries that shatter speed and endurance records to run with their elite, averaging 75-mile weeks and learning their dietary and cultural practices.

That’s the elevator pitch.

How’d she really do it? She worked for it. Earned it. Struggled. Fought for it. Deprived herself. Sacrificed. She tried herself. Found out of what she was capable.

I teach middle schoolers, and there’s a divide yawning between my kids who succeed and those who fail: their willingness to jump. This week, I assigned a certain number of lessons students had to pass in order to net the full credit, and the ones who did were the ones who failed and tried again and failed and learned from their mistakes and passed. The ones who earned none of the credit were students who failed the first lesson or two and stopped.

Thing is, I am those students who failed, and I’m not just talking academics here. I’m talking about any moment where one can risk or not, whether it’s sports, social situations, or even dealing with spirituality. Spending much of my life afraid of change, I took few risks, which stunted my growth and limited my options. At 25, I weighed about 165 soaking wet and worked a full-time job to which I commuted from my parent’s house. I couldn’t afford to move out, because I had yet to save up for a car.

At any instant where growth can occur, there has to be momentum, forward progress. To learn to swim, one has to let go of the ladder. To be a parent, one has to bear responsibility; producing a child is not enough. To succeed, one has to fail, and one can’t fail if they don’t jump, letting go of whatever makes them feel safe, propelling themselves into a space where guts move independent of the rest of the body, and landing well or falling. We don’t leap forward because we’re afraid to fall.

Within a year, I bought a car and moved out on my own, taking a flying leap.

I read Becky Wade’s book because I’m a runner; I’ve fallen too many times to count. I’ve sustained injuries and frozen extremities. The reason I keep running is because it propels me forward; I get to explore my physical and mental limits. I learn what works in various situations because I risk running with ever-changing variables, whether that’s weather, distance, surface, time of day, location, or even physical condition. Because every run changes, I have to change with it, causing growth. Change causes growth.

It’s January 6th, and I have yet to make any resolutions. Well, time to change that. Because I want to continue developing mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially; I resolve to embrace change. Expect to see more frequent blog entries; look for announcements about my memoir and the novel I’m writing; anticipate my teaching a new class; and prepare yourself for such minor adventures as new friendships, improvements to the house, and a trip or two.

If there’s something you know you need to do, but you’ve been afraid to do it, do it. Risk failing/falling, and if you do, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, assess your injuries, and try again.

Career Change

Do you remember your last great achievement? If you deposed a tyrant or saved someone’s life, thank you for changing history. If you solved a work problem or rocked that new dinner recipe, celebrate.

What happens when the glow of success fades? My brain switches off that light with the question, “What now?” I pursued my dream of becoming an author, earning an MFA in creative writing last year, and asked myself what’s next ever since.

Most people respond with holy fear when I tell them I teach middle school: “Oh, that’s wonderful! I could never do that. Do you like it?” Their dread fascination makes me feel like Van Helsing or Hellboy. As if to deal with little monsters, I have to be a bit of one myself, but I enjoy meeting the challenge and seeing my students grow.

Knowing many of my fellow MFAers became college professors made me think that’s what I needed to do, and seeing my professors writing and teaching had me assuming my new degree cleared the way for a new career, but in the last 365 days, not one English department head knocked down my door. In return for submitting a handful of essays, I received a handful of rejections.

I prayed hard about my career, believing God would open a door to a job somewhere other than Centerburg Middle School before the 2014/2015 year began. My phone rang, but the man who called didn’t represent Simon & Schuster. My principal told me a colleague took a job down south and wondered how I felt about switching from science to English/social studies.

Unexpected? Yes. A deal-breaker? Not at all. Here lay an opportunity to teach English, my favorite subject, as recommended by the superintendent who started the same year I did. I spent a lot of time in his office a decade ago, trying to figure out how best to serve gifted students in two buildings, and there’s not many people who know the educator me like he does.

“Yes, boss. If that’s what you want me to teach, that’s what I’ll teach, boss,” I responded to the principal. Pleased I took the new position, he laughed at my assumed deference, and by conversation’s end, I hung up feeling perched at the edge of a cliff dive.

My wife supported my decision as it kept my day job, and in the past weeks, my sister helped me move into my new classroom while our mother looked after my kids.

This career change was the new future I desired dressed in clothes I didn’t expect. Since saying yes to this, I said no to teaching an adjunct English class at my alma mater (not enough money at the wrong time) and no to writing math curriculum for McGraw-Hill (12-15 month position working in my least favorite subject). I dream still of becoming an author, and teaching 8th grade English seems the best way to get there.

Do what you love; love what you do.

Not only will I work hard at school, preparing and presenting new lessons, I’ll work hard at home, submitting essays and writing every day, for little victories stack up to great achievements.