Pacific Coast Highway, Fall 2021. Photographer: Katie O'Keefe MacMorran
In June of 2021 I vaguely remember leaving my last school assigned function and walking to my car in the staff parking lot for the very last time. I remember the water tower across the campus, the heat rising off the asphalt, and the exchange of 'goodbyes' to my coworkers with me.
I've made a habit of taking mental pictures anytime I know I'm experiencing a place of importance to me -- April of 2009 was the moment I opened my acceptance letter to my dream college just before crossing the street to my house. 2012 it was walking out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after performing with a music group, The Cavaliers. 2016 was watching my then fiancé, now wife, walk down the aisle at our wedding. -- I catalog a lot of key moments just like anyone but I also remember really obscure moments too - the mundane or rather boring moments.
Flash forward 7 months since that hot, blistery, Texas day. I've had a good amount of time to reflect since then. Mind you, most of my life has revolved around the standard school year calendar. So, it has been quite a jump into the deep end after leaving that schedule I've known for 25+ years into a schedule that is truly on my time.
Time to myself.
In those first couple of months after quitting, I went bananas. My focus had shifted towards all the things I tried to make time for when I was teaching - reading, traveling, golfing, art museums, watching documentary films. When I look at the short list, it seems like those are all things that anyone should be able to make time for in their life. But anyone who teaches knows, that short list gets even shorter, and can turn into escapism rather quickly. Even having a pet felt impossible, let alone the idea of having kids if I wanted to continue working as a teacher. Yes, there are those who find that balance and if they're lucky and have a support system at home and at their school, they make it work.
This brings me to one of those mental pictures I always take. You know how sometimes you say things out loud and they feel like fluff or maybe they're just words? I implore you to pay attention to those words -- especially in those types of moments. Those words very well could be the real part of you that is suffocating and ready for a change. For me, it was surprisingly in 2014, which was between my undergraduate work and start of graduate school. At that time I graduated during the fall of 2013 and had an awkward time going into a workforce that revolved around, you guessed it, the school calendar year. So, I applied to be a sub everywhere and ironically enough, I missed my first subbing position because a vacancy had opened up middle of the year at a high school campus - if you're thinking RED FLAG -- yes, you are correct. Long story short, it was not the best situation to walk into and for the sake of this post, I'll skip to the moment where I said out loud something that should have been taken more seriously.
During that semester, I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep teaching and I applied for graduate school at the time. I was accepted into grad school and decided it was time for me to let my students and coworkers know of my intentions. It was in that moment I told my students, "I simply cannot allow myself to be your teacher if I cannot give 100% to you every day. It would be a disservice to you and you deserve better." Again, at that time, it felt like the right thing to say, but as a 22 year old that just graduated college, how the hell am I supposed to even believe in what I said? I was 22 years old.
Now, the age of which we start our careers as educators is a topic of discussion for another day but I digress.
The second thing that stood out to me during that time was that only a couple of years later, a former coworker passed away, literally because they dismissed health issues and kept working through their illness to keep the program going. That hit me really hard. Here you had someone that worked themselves to death and that scared the hell out of me. I understand that people put their heart and soul into their work but there is a distinct line and nothing -- nothing is worth more than your personal health and well being, especially a job.
I missed my opportunities to win a couple of jobs performing with some professional ensembles between 2015-2016. That set me on the course of returning to Texas and using my education degree at the time. When I landed a job and my first full year of teaching, I was cautiously optimistic about it. I had learned in my time at grad school that I'm very introverted and there are many introverts that teach and love it -- but as I learned rather quickly teaching in my first year, it absolutely drained me every day. Okay, so what does being an introvert have to do with anything? Well, keep in mind the mental challenges I was facing day in and day out with a grueling schedule in front of dozens of students of all ages:
That first year was difficult in ways beyond imaginable. Most of it outside of the classroom. Three months into my position I got married, two weeks after our honeymoon a deer jumped out in front of our car and totaled it, my wife moved to a new area and was seeking employment for a few months, and a laundry list of other things creeped up. Life hit us really hard. After that first year, I gave it another chance thinking that it was a fluke between home life and work life. So, I went with it, taught a second, and then a third year; all equally challenging years -- mind you, 2017 was when Hurricane Harvey hit South Texas - side note, my grandmother lost her house in that storm.
Finally, it was during my third year when I noticed something wasn't right. Older colleagues would often point out that 'the first year is the hardest, it only gets easier after that' .
Nothing was getting easier.
In step COVID-19.
The spring of 2018 I was researching ways to make some extra money on the side. After all, having two college degrees required some risk and some money was needed for expenses. For fun I started a Podcast during that time which is still on Apple Podcasts/SoundCloud and will still be a nice project to continue. But the topic of the show was not necessarily sustainable or a way to make extra money. It was also during this time that someone I knew in passing quit their teaching job (featured Forbes article on them here), started a blog and began work on a side hustle that would later change my life.
I didn't think much at the time about the blog they were working on but I noticed that my Facebook feed kept getting hit with advertisements on their blog and side hustle. I couldn't get away! Something strange was happening and that's when I finally started clicking on the advertisements and just couldn't believe what I was reading. A real side hustle that I could actually make some money with? Not to mention while I have 60+ work weeks?
Well, suffice to say, I was sold.
After taking the course and setting up a business in the summer, school was about to start back up, so things were relatively quiet but I kept engaged. Learning, scratching the itch, and figuring out what I could do with this new skillset.
By spring of 2019 I finally had some success after making a vulnerable post about all the things I had learned and working on my inner circle of friends and family. Naturally, it seemed like it fell on deaf ears but there were a couple of key people that saw my post for what it meant and the potential it had for their company and organization.
Fall of 2019 was a blur. I felt like a shell of a person. I enjoyed the students I worked with but the institutions were and still are outdated and ill-equipped.
Alas, spring of 2020 arrived. Three different things happened during this time which were fascinating. Another school had a job opening and I thought I might try a change of scenery and find out if that would make me feel any better about teaching. After accepting, I then had to move on to the second thing; telling my students over a Zoom meet that I would be moving on -- that was strange in so many ways. Lastly, and probably the most surprising thing that came out of summer 2020 --clients for my side hustle.
Message in a bottle.
Commencement speeches are often numbing, full of the same platitudes and feel good phrases. However, there has been one in particular that I always find myself coming back to. The speech is written by author Neil Gaiman. Not only is the speech stimulating and such great storytelling, I can't help but turn the volume up on Neil's smooth, gentle, buttery voice. The kind of voice that you want to read you a bed time story when you're a grown ass adult.
In his speech, Gaiman talks about his early years of finding work and how he would create great art despite all of life's obstacles that got thrown in the way. His anecdote told the story of how his writings and pieces were sent out to anyone and everyone, like a message in a bottle sent out to sea. Sometimes they return, sometimes they don't, and sometimes the message you receive is life changing.
Summer of 2020 left a lot of people scrambling for how to move into a digital space for work. Leadership was no longer execs and CEOs peering over someone's shoulder with heavy oversight, but now it was captivating your employees through a screen. And through all of this, I was getting messages back from bottles I sent out a year earlier about what I could help them with.
I really did feel like I was making a difference.
It was at this time that I hustled and saw how much my skillset was really worth. My wife was working in healthcare while I was working in education during a global pandemic. We were both beyond burnout.
People don't make a change until the pain point is big enough.
My wife and I both saw the writing on the wall. It was time to get out and get out quick. We were exhausted. We didn't have time for each other. We were constantly washing ourselves, wearing PPE, and doing everything we could to prevent ourselves from getting COVID. We were lucky.
We had to survive. And we did. We made it through to 2021 and it was very clear that we both needed a change. The pain point was big enough and our health and safety was worth more than any job.
There were a lot of reasons for leaving my teaching career behind -- which I will dive into on my next post.