It's that time of year again - school is out for the summer! Writing about this is something that I think has been a long time coming for me, and I'm hoping it is therapeutic. I quit teaching around this time in 2013, but I don't feel like any time has gone by. The memories of me turning in my bandhall keys and ID badge to the front office before heading out to the parking lot, climbing into the Jeep and driving away without looking back haven't faded at all. The Jeep was completely empty save for a couple of books, my two clarinets, and a conducting baton. I had brought no personal classroom decorations with me at the beginning of that school year - to be honest, I wasn't sure if I would make it the entire year, either through my own choice or the school administration's. I had seen other teachers take that walk in the three previous years I taught there - I wanted to travel light if I was to be next.
How could I have started out as a young band director in 2009 and been reduced to this in only four years? It was a mixture of many things, some of which I was acutely aware of when I left, and some that have come to mind in the years since. It is something that I think about every day, and I have never been able to leave it behind. It was supposed to have been a promising lifetime career, one that I spent years preparing for and eagerly anticipated. That's why it was so hard to finally be able to separate myself from it and let it go. I wanted it to work out. I really, really did. It was supposed to work out. I tried everything I could, up until the point where my body just said "no more," and I ended up spending the last couple months of my final year in and out of a cardiologist's office with stress-related heart problems at the age of 25.
I see some of my problems as having been just that - 25 years old and already a four-year teacher. Perhaps I had just not had enough life experience yet to be able to teach successfully. Receiving a bachelor of music degree with a teaching certificate is a 5-year process, making most new teachers at least 23, but when I entered college, I was only 17 years old. I was a product of the early 90's solution of moving an exceptional "gifted and talented" student up a grade level, since the programs were not yet in place for accelerated learners, at least not where I went to school. After 1st grade, I completed the first semester of 2nd grade as expected but was bumped to the 3rd grade for the remainder of the year. After that, I proceeded with the next grade levels normally, but it made me a year younger than all of my classmates from that point on. By the time I graduated high school, I also had enough college credits to enter the University of Houston's school of music as a sophomore, meaning that I graduated with my degree a few months after turning 21. I don't think I had an issue with a lack of maturity, but perhaps with experience itself. I hadn't lived long enough yet to develop the tools that would help me to be a successful teacher. Would two years really have made a difference? Who knows.
But that was mostly a reason that came to me in hindsight. There were so many other things that were going on while I was there in the trenches that made a stronger and stronger impression on me that the situation just wasn't right. I became wary before my first school year had even started when my planned summer band camp was canceled by the administration the week before it was to begin. Later in the summer I received roll sheets for my classes and realized that the "band" was divided up into several separate class periods, all with random instrumentation and with as little as 12 students in some of them. These were kids who had only a couple years of playing at best - they needed to hear an entire band around them if they were to succeed. Not three flutes, a saxophone, and the entire 8th grade percussion. It was now vital that these students got every chance at a full-group rehearsal that they could if they were to be contenders at the yearly UIL band competition - Texas' version of a standardized test for the school music world, but full rehearsals would now have to take place outside of the school day, along with sports, tutorials, and parents who didn't have the means to let their kids miss the bus home. Band class was supposed to be curricular, not extra curricular, and trying to explain this to the administrators was fruitless and ended up with me being told more than once that I may be let go. When I pressed for a reason why, I was told it was due to "budget concerns," although these "concerns" seem to have always appeared and disappeared around my desire for the fair treatment of my program. At one point I was pulled out of class and told that I may not stay employed until the end of the school year, and that I should think about what my options are, before being dismissed back to my bandhall to finish the class period. The students could see the visible change in my face and were asking me if everything was okay. Of course it wasn't, but what could I really tell them?
Students in the school came to class with home-made pipe bombs that they learned to build on Youtube, I was threatened with physical assault once during one of my shifts in the in-school suspension room, and I came out to my DeLorean on the last day of school in my 3rd year of teaching to find it covered in Sharpie marker. Too bad Stainless is stainless, kids. None of the students involved in these instances were my own, and I would like to believe I had made a positive impact on mine to keep them questioning peer pressure and to develop a love for music even after I left. It got really hard for me when the Sandy Hook massacre occurred during what would become my last year of teaching and James and I had a talk about what may happen if something like that was to ever take place at my school. Where I taught was a very quiet town, but so were places like Newtown before their worlds were never the same again. "I want you to know that if something like that happens, I just want you to come home safe. But I know that you are going to do what you need to do to protect those kids, because that's just who you are," James told me one morning as I was leaving for work. We hugged very tightly before I headed off. These are the issues that teachers have to deal with, even ones who have not been directly affected by tragedies such as Sandy Hook. The possibility, sadly, is always out there. So please keep that in mind the next time you hear someone bash them for "only working half the year," because they may be the only thing standing between your child and a school shooter.
While all of this was going on year after year, I spent my free time reading music and education books, studying recordings of band music, and trying to invent ways to make my broken band program work. I constantly received poor ratings at the band contests, with judges writing down gems such as "It sounds like this ensemble has never played in the same room together." They hadn't. And "This director really could use some assistance. Basic ensemble skills are not present." They weren't. I agreed with them wholeheartedly, but until someone higher up was willing to make the change, things weren't going to be able to get much better. Was everything the fault of the higher-ups? Could another director step into one of my classes and hear things that I wasn't able to? Oh, I'm sure of it. I was still a new and developing teacher myself, but it felt impossible to hone my musical skills on a band that didn't exist. The only respite I received while teaching was the occasional DeLorean event that James and I would attend. It would allow me to leave the education world behind and be able to talk about a shared hobby with other owners and enthusiasts. It was incredible, and each event always ended with me wanting to preserve that feeling for as long as possible. The environment was just so starkly different than the one I spent most of my time in - it really was a wake-up call to how far I had been beaten down. I started so many emails to Stephen asking him if there would perhaps be a place for me at DMC Houston if I was to quit teaching, but I never finished or sent any of them. I really had nothing to offer other than a familiarity with the car, and James was concerned about both of us having our eggs in the same basket if something were to ever happen to the business.
Nevertheless, these DeLorean events were the catalyst that fueled my leap from education to the automotive industry. That leap is a story in and of itself, but it is a change that I am glad I made. Looking back at it three years later, I am able to see the dark cloud I was under, and I am sorry to anyone who had to hear my constant complaints about work and how much I was spinning my wheels. To anyone who is considering leaving the field of education, or taking any leap from one career path to another, I know how hard it is, and I know how obligated teachers feel to stay there and take care of those kids. You just have to realize that sometimes you do have to take care of yourself as well. I am normally a positive person and have a strong desire to do the best that I can, every day. Being in an environment where I could not achieve that was very jarring and before I knew it, I was chin deep in a rut that only a visit to the cardiologist could jolt (figuratively, not literally) me out of.
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Hi, I'm Sarah and I'm a car nut, bird lover, and musician. I have recently transitioned from music teacher to automotive service manager, and there have been lots of cool stories and crazy characters along the way!