Stepping out of the classroom

by Cathy Ferguson

When I went into teaching I had a five year plan. It was an idea I stole from a supervisor and it seemed sensible. I was a young teacher who had a rapid rise in a very small pond. I emphasise the small pond because it wasn’t like I was rising within the department in some kind of astronomical way, simply that I was promoted fast in spite of the flaws in my practice. As I approached the five year mark I was so exhausted that I couldn’t possibly think about doing anything else. I was burnt out and exhausted and I knew I had so much to learn. But soon after hiring two people to do the roles I had been doing and returning to “just teaching” I realised very quickly that I needed something else.

Part of the realisation that change was imperative, was due to many of my other circumstances remaining the same over time also. I had been single for all of my career. I had not had a child. Because of my desire to travel with a partner, I had put all of my bucket list locations on hold for “one day”. The only thing that had changed a lot was the roles I was doing within the school, but even the school remained the same. You’re getting a theme right? There was too much same-same and not enough different.

While I loved my work, I do not believe in equating work with identity. I had tried that early in my career and decided that it was not my style at all. So while I had learned a lot and made many wonderful connections with different people, I hadn’t really done any big picture work for me. All the “one day” things kept getting postponed and every birthday I would look around my house and things were the same. During my career, I had moved houses once, but that was the only major visible change.

It wasn’t enough for me so I began to look around. I considered retraining, but ultimately, I am an educator. I love working with people and helping them to have discoveries about their world. To make connections and links with literature and their own lives, and, ultimately to understand themselves better. I looked at moving to a different part of Melbourne where I live but decided that would actually just lead to greater travel time and expense. Everyone kept telling me just to move schools. My friends, my family, everyone. No one was hearing me when I said I loved my context but needed a massive change. Not a tweak, a clean sweep. A different school would not be the answer; it was not enough.

So I took to ethicaljobs.com. I developed a search and found nothing that really grabbed me. I found a series of volunteer roles, but I could not afford to work for free. I found some really great roles, but perhaps perversely, I was not prepared to take a sizeable pay cut to be able to change my career. Melbourne is an expensive place to live after all.

So I felt stuck again. I began to look at university courses. Again. I looked at online courses, I looked at courses which required me to move states, I looked at all kinds of fabulous degrees which I knew would likely bore me this side of the first assignment. There were lots of things which I would be happy to investigate for a week, but which I was not interested in devoting my life to.

I went back to the drawing board. What did I love about my work and what did I want to do more of? My mantra became “I want to work with people who want to be worked with.” This was helpful. I whittled down some interest areas: refugees, women, students from different backgrounds who wanted to learn.

The next step was, “Where do I find these people?”. I re-visited ethical jobs in spite of waning faith that there would be a job for me out there. I came across the Australian volunteers stuff again. I checked out the websites and realized that these roles included “allowances” for living and accommodation. THIS is how people go overseas! I applied for a few over the next few weeks and waited.

Sure enough, I received a call for a role in Myanmar. It was a tricky role in a politically charged area of violence prevention and sexual health. Not my comfort zone. Sure, I could do it, but it was not something I felt super cozy about. Then I was offered the role, after a rigorous interview. I accepted with a caveat. I needed some time to think. This was agreed upon and I pondered. I pondered hard. I wanted to say yes. I wanted so badly to just get on a plane and run. But it wasn’t right. It felt off. I had this uneasy feeling in my guts that had nothing to do with gluten and I knew I had to turn it down. So I did.

Then eventually I took a new role in my school. I learned so much and for awhile I was challenged. Then, I was stuck. It was too big for me, not enough role clarity and not enough authority to create clarity. So I bumbled along. I helped people with different projects and supported people who were overworked. I chipped in. But four months in and I was down. Really down. My confidence had been squished and I began to think that my lack of direction was a lack of knowledge. This was partly true, but it was not the entire picture. So I went from helpless to pissed off and started looking at more volunteer positions.

Then I found THE ONE. At least I hope it is. Because I’m here in Myanmar right now.

So far it’s only been a week of orientation. But I’m enjoying the country and the culture. Also, the food is great. But seriously, as educators, we are able to deal with all kinds of problems: difficult clients (students and parents), environmental catastrophes (I’ve definitely taught without power or water), technological disasters (no photocopier, no internet) and some vicious party politics (teachers are people too). What I mean to say by all of this is that we are equipped for so much.

Just because you are in a classroom teaching role now, doesn’t mean that’s forever. I had a five year plan for teaching, mainly as an accountability measure. It meant that when I crossed over that line I really had to justify why I was still there. Where had that plan to move overseas gone? Where had my love of study gone? Sure, if I no longer wanted to pursue those things, then that would have been fine. But my dream of working and living overseas has endured the test of time. No more birthdays where everything remains the same. My next birthday I’ll be in Myanmar. Different job, different location, different social circle. I take with me my love of English language, all food, and talking. I have my beautiful Australia-based friends who are only a call away. Even if the role is not the joy that I’m hoping, I can stop wondering. I can stop looking around my living room on my birthday after everyone has left and thinking “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?” Because I’ve done it. I have taken the risk I dreamt about. I trusted myself and made a big change. From zero to one hundred. And I feel peaceful. I felt peaceful when I didn’t have change for the parking meter at the interview. I was peaceful when the parking meter just prior to my interview was jammed. I was peaceful when I was being interviewed. I felt peace when I was offered the job and when I accepted it. Before, afterwards, now. I believe that I have made the right call. That doesn’t mean I won’t be sobbing into my phone weeks or months from now because I miss home. It doesn’t mean I won’t get sick of noodles and rice at most meals. But in spite of those types of hurdles, I have a calm sense of assurance about the choices that I have made.

Perhaps if you’re feeling stale or fed up, look at a change that you can make. Take the power back. Don’t feel stuck. Decide the scale of the change you need and the nature of it. It might be work, but it may be a relationship or location. It might be a mindset that needs to be overhauled. Do it. Trust your instincts, follow the peace. Shake things up and enjoy the ride. I wish you good luck and good weather on your quest. Happy hunting.