On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

Teaching never felt like a good fit for me. Despite this, I played the part. I maintained a professional decorum in the company of students and colleagues. I kept quiet about my discomfort. While I never would have admitted to students how out of place I felt, I was similarly reticent to share my actual sentiments with other teachers. I had a canned explanation ready in case anyone asked me why I taught. I realized that speaking honestly about much of anything would have confused other teachers. They couldn’t have known that part of my discomfort was knowing  just how different I was from them.

Looking back, I should have noticed the early signs that I wasn’t right for teaching. They were there before I entered the field; even before I started before college. I hated high school. I was disinterested and disengaged. Somehow, I was able to disregard my work but still earn adequate grades. All that kept me out of trouble was my ability to avoid getting caught. I skipped school frequently. I regularly shoplifted and vandalized. This continued for my first few semesters of college. The stealing and destruction increased in magnitude. Had I been caught doing some of what I did, I would have lost my chance to teach. My general dislike for school and propensity for crime were definite signs.

In high school, I had no interest in going to college. I went because I never devised a better plan. My attitude about college was completely negative. To my teenage mind, college seemed like something between a scam and a mirage. People didn’t go because they wanted to learn. They went because they wanted to get particular kinds of jobs. They only wanted the jobs so they could earn sufficient amounts of money. They wanted the money because they wanted to have stuff. I figured if I didn’t care about having stuff, I could skip the other steps. This made sense to me, but no one around me seemed to get my reasoning. As enrollment deadlines approached, I had no concrete second option. I conceded and enrolled, largely because I got a grant and scholarship.

I spent nearly two years fighting the urge to drop out of college. I remained undeclared until the university forced me to select a major. Education hadn’t occurred to me until a friend’s father suggested it. He figured I should pursue special education based on my part-time work in human services. Without anything better in mind, I reluctantly enrolled.

My attitude about my first few education classes couldn’t have been more cynical. I really didn’t want to be in those classes. Although I knew even then that my attitude was affecting my judgment, I couldn’t help but think some of the course content was nonsensical. Much of the theory discussed in the courses was trumped up common sense. The professors presented it with conviction and the students around me eagerly bought into it. I already felt alone.

Listening to discussions between my classmates further highlighted my distance from them. Directly engaging them made me feel like a foreigner. I sought some kind of commonality, but the truth was I simply wasn’t like these people. Not that they were all the same; they weren’t. However, I wasn’t like any of them. My values were different. My tastes were different. I felt like I was acting when I spoke with them. I knew my actual opinions would bother them, so I kept my mouth shut during conversations about sensitive topics. My colleagues had positive attitudes that seemed delusional to me. Long before I started teaching, I had trouble relating to their optimism.

Student teaching should have been enough to tell me I didn’t belong. What I found in the classroom was profound. I didn’t like teaching. I considered dropping out during my final semester. This meant more than my discomfort around other teacher candidates, but their enthusiasm salted my wounds. At a seminar for student teachers, I recall sitting and contemplating leaving the program when I heard a young woman seated near me express how much she loved what she did every day. I couldn’t relate.

Perhaps foolishly, I carried on and finished. After graduation, I looked for jobs in other fields. When I couldn’t find one, I came to teaching. I wasn’t excited to start. I hoped I could fulfill my obligations without screwing up or quitting out of frustration. I ended up quitting a pair of jobs and living off my savings for a year before settling on a teaching job I didn’t hate.

At each school, my colleagues were nothing like me. The differences were fundamental. Most of them had kids or wanted to have kids. I looked forward to the day I could get permanent birth control (I’ve since had that done). I couldn’t relate to their interest in breeding. While sitting in a staff lounge one afternoon, I mentioned my general dislike for small children (I taught in high schools). An aid in the room condemned me, saying I had no business in education with that attitude. She may have been right.

The differences went beyond interest in childrearing. Every teacher in every school owned cars. I didn’t. I was considered weird for riding a bike and using public transportation. Most teachers either had or were working towards having homes. Home ownership seemed like complete misery to me. My colleagues talked about television shows they liked. I had never seen most of these because I didn’t have a television. They talked enthusiastically about local sports teams. I couldn’t have possibly cared less. Many of them drank and liked to get together for happy hour outings. I had no interest in drinking and felt really uncomfortable at such gatherings. Most ate meat. I hadn’t since middle school. At each school, I was the lone teacher who refused to use a mobile phone, who didn’t use social media (I begrudgingly use Twitter now), and who didn’t even have a credit history. I suppose I could have talked with them about our differences, but when I tried that, I just felt even more distant.

I stood out because of what I didn’t do, but also because of what I did do or had done. I had a repulsively foul mouth. I could turn this off as needed, but I know I made some coworkers cringe at the moments I left it on. I tended to snicker at the tasteless and blatantly offensive jokes students told. Outside of work, I had hobbies and history that were unlike those of my colleagues. My interest in cycling and triathlon was something others admired. My interest in firearms wasn’t as well received. I enjoyed gory films and didn’t like admitting what I liked about them to others. I was secretly tattooed (well, I still am) and didn’t want colleagues to see some of the more objectionable images on my body. I had a former life traveling the country playing in filth-spewing punk rock bands. I had spent weeks sleeping in cars and vans and had realistically considered becoming a squatter. I didn’t bother sharing stories about my experiences because I figured no one would believe them.

The differences extended to beliefs. Almost all of my colleagues were religious. I couldn’t even begin to relate to that. I never discussed faith with anyone, because no one would have wanted to hear what I had to say about religion. Most teachers around me were democrats. Although I never identified with a party, I felt most aligned with pure libertarianism (strange for a public teacher, I know). I was part of the union’s building committee in one school, but I had trouble backing the union. I resented being told who to vote for. I didn’t need the salary increases the union demanded. I was satisfied and grew tired of listening to others complain about conditions. My opinions about organized labor in America differed greatly from those of my colleagues. Such differences in beliefs were deeper than diet or television preferences.

Maybe the deepest difference was in how my colleagues viewed their roles. Many referred to the students they taught as “their kids.” They talked about loving their students like their own. Now, I worked hard for the students I taught. I felt an obligation to them, to their parents, and to taxpayers. Along the way, I cultivated strong relationships with students. These were reciprocal and meaningful. I involved myself in their pursuits through discussions, but also through going to see their sporting events, musical performances, and art shows. Unfortunately, I went to several funerals. I was invested in these kids. However, there was a dark line between their lives and mine. They were not my children. Beyond providing them with an opportunity for a fair education, I had no responsibility to them. I chose to involve myself with them in a mentoring role out of human interest, but I was no surrogate parent. Hearing others talk about taking on more involved roles didn’t seem appropriate to me.

From the outside the field, I meet teachers online who continue to reinforce how out of sync I am with the majority of teachers. I see teachers describe themselves on social media as (I’ll paraphrase) passionate life-long learners dedicated to children and thinking outside the box. I see email signatures that include insufferable motivational quotes. There is my cynicism again. I guess I really never belonged in their ranks.

I’ve never felt comfortable in any room full of people. That’s just me. No group of teachers ever did anything to make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, each faculty I met was welcoming and supportive. That didn’t mean I ever felt at ease. Retreating from the field has allowed me to breath easier. I don’t have to pretend to be anything while sitting at my desk at home.

On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

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