This is an entry to the “2017 year-end essay writing contest” that my friend, Jerson, started. Also a teacher like me, he spent his 2017, In Transit. In much the same way, so have I. The title to this essay is deliberately vague. I thought it best describes the transitions in place and thought that this whirlwind year has taken me. So, let’s begin.
It was in May 2017 when I tendered a resignation that closed a chapter of my life as a classroom teacher. My leaving the classroom arose from a painful experience of a school community failing to do what is right. Despite the efforts of a few faculty, no meaningful consequence for grave student misconduct was served. (I have heard that some students have become emboldened further to commit other infractions against their peers, their teachers, their school, and even the wider community outside the school. To me this only underscores the scope of our failure. Had we taken action as adults ought to have in that situation then perhaps bad behavior would not continue to happen. To have been an adult in that situation would have been to understand that hard lessons are part of young people’s journey to responsible citizenship.)
Although it was only one challenge among many others that I had faced regularly as a teacher, it was the only event in my three fraughtful and joyful years of teaching that found me sobbing in the bath, hurt and spent. I felt useless and ineffective. Nothing that I had done in the last three years had helped my students choose what was right. They did not respect me enough to honor my trust. I couldn’t help but take it personally. Even after I distanced myself from my emotional response and resolved to shape the experience into a learning opportunity for my students and for myself, the adults around me who were more seasoned and senior were either indifferent or did not rise above their learned helplessness. That to me was tragic — how our school just caved. It was not an isolated event but a symptom of a far broader and insidious problem of messed up incentives in the public school system. We measure enrollment figures, drop out rates, cohort survival ratios, achievement test scores, etc. but do not look at what behavior is encouraged in our teachers and our school administration to make these numbers look good on paper.
I thought about what I could do from my vantage as the lowest ranked foot soldier of the public school system. Was it within my sphere of influence to realistically do something about it? Perhaps, only as far as my classroom was concerned, and even then I was constrained by many other factors — how parents brought up their children, the prevalent teaching philosophy of the faculty, and the directives of the local and national leadership, to name just a few. In order to have an impact beyond the classroom, I have to aim for the authority and influence of a high position because the system that runs our public schools is still largely operating along a culture of obeisance. This means I would have to spend some fifteen to twenty or more years of my life working on this project, learn along the way to kiss ass, and pick my battles (which is to say, to look the other way and keep my head down some if not most of the time).
Knowing this led me to confront myself. I know that my dream for education is a life’s work. This is a long haul endeavor which requires years of commitment. Yet thinking about the fifteen to twenty years minimum that I would have to dedicate to this project while my peers continued to improve their professional credentials and their financial capacity, I realized I just don’t have enough foolishness left in me anymore to continue on this trajectory. The mission to serve the people (my UP baggage) just isn’t compelling anymore, seeing as so many of my fellow iskas and iskos themselves never did bat an eyelash when they aimed to secure cushy positions in the private sector or overseas. This is perfectly within their rights to do, of course. But still, I couldn’t help but feel resentful when well-meaning friends left messages of encouragement on my Facebook while I saw their glamorous lives documented on social media. As you can see, I became bitter and jaded. Yet as people have told me time and time again, I was not a tree. I was not beholden to anybody and didn’t owe anyone anything. In much the same way, the universe didn’t owe me anything either, even if I was being makabansa or makatao. If I wanted to be happy and fulfilled, it was up to me to make it so. So I left.
Having said all that, I will always treasure the excitement I felt when I prepared lessons for my kids about Economics, World History, and Afro-Asian Literature. Until now I cherish the moments of inspiration when in the middle of a discussion something clicks in my head or when a student shares an insight and we all come to understand a concept more deeply and fully. (This is what eureka is like for a teacher.) I remember fondly the awe I felt each time I saw in a student the shimmering possibility of just who they could be. Blinded by their insecurities and adolescent worries, they could not see what I saw: an inchoate greatness. I worked so hard because of that potential. This is the great part of teaching that I miss. But I don’t know if I will find my way back to it someday.
For now, everything is more or less up in the air and I spent the latter part of 2017 focusing on landing on my feet and starting over. I am slowly re-igniting the other parts of myself relegated to limbo when my teaching life had taken front and center, and left little room for anything else.
For some parts of this year, I felt great anxiety that I was back to the drawing board again while other people my age went about settling down into careers or starting families and having children. While I know clearly that I do not want this cookie-cutter life script for myself, it begs the question what do I choose for myself instead? I do not have ready answers only that 2018 will take me even deeper into the new paths that I trod this 2017.