Each September, as my many of my teacher friends start a new school year, I can’t help but to spend a few minutes reflecting on my 25 years in education. This is the fifth year I’ve started the fall at home instead of in the classroom, and although I do occasionally miss certain aspects of school, quitting was the best thing I could have done for my sanity, overall health and happiness.
I’m sure my story is familiar to many, whether they’re teachers or not. I’m not the only one who got burned out by their job, or grew disillusioned by the way their profession developed. But as I’m in my annual “teaching career reflection session”, I thought it might be fitting to share a piece I wrote 4 years ago as I prepared to walk out of my room for the last time. In it, I liken my relationship to teaching (my room) to that of a married couple.
I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. The day I say goodbye to my room. We’ve been together for 25 years. Even longer if you count the time we spent together before we made things official.
We were together while my kids grew from toddlers to adults. We were together through four Presidents. We were together the day the planes crashed into the towers, and the day after the Philadelphia Eagles finally won the Super Bowl.
We were together through sickness and in health, for richer and poorer; like a married couple. And like some married couples, I could see our divorce brewing years before it happened. I feel like we’ve spent a lifetime together, but also like leaving brings total rebirth.
We met in the fall of 1990 when I was a senior at Millersville University, studying music education. I was assigned to do my student teaching in a school district about 16 miles northeast of there, in what would later become my room. Back then it had a full wall of windows, and another wall covered oddly in pink felt. I thought it looked great!
Though trained to be a band director, I was really falling in love with teaching general music. Thanks to a great co-operating teacher and a welcoming faculty, I managed to do a pretty good job. I was sad to leave when the semester ended, but I had no choice. I was just a student teacher; what other professions might call an intern.
I moved on to other rooms in other districts, but still was wishing to be back where I started. It took several years, but in 1996 we were reunited and I was given the job of general music teacher, in the same school and room where I student taught a few years before!
Over the next decade and a half my room and I were almost inseparable. We worked long hours together, started lots of new projects, and created a laboratory for musical and creative thinking. We raised literally thousands of kids, including the few dozen that went on to become successful professional musicians.
It was very satisfying. But it was also pretty intense. Too intense. I realized that I needed to strike a better balance between my room and the rest of my life. I wanted to try, but our schedules and working conditions changed despite my protests, threatening to erode all we had accomplished together while dampening the development of our current kids. We would need to work harder to achieve the same results.
So we continued, business as usual, until I got sick from the over-effort. While my room was being remodeled and upgraded as part of a school-wide construction project, I was being quickly torn down by an exhausted depression, with no plan for a rebuild. Burnout is real.
Our relationship had to change, and it did. I started pulling back, spending more time away. I began to not always be fully present when we were together. I sometimes lacked energy. I constantly feared revisiting the intensity that had burned me in the past.
We went on together though, still raising kids and doing our thing. Our relationship remained very good, but the spark that made it special hadn’t returned. It wasn’t going to.
As we got older, our interests diverged. We developed differing opinions on how to manage our programs. We had major, philosophical disagreements about how to raise our kids. I began to lose respect for that which I once loved.
Besides our feelings towards each other, the daily demands of our relationship were unrelenting. Our kids still needed the things that kids need, but we argued over whether or not we were giving them those things. I didn’t think we were. We were fully engaged on separate paths, and neither one of us was willing or able to change.
As we labored on, I began to resent the time we had to spend together and started looking for something else. Something that would provide the spark that once defined my room and I.
I grew constantly more restless and less engaged. Pretty sure our relationship was over, I needed to get away and clear my head. So, in June 2017, I moved out. We were separated for nearly nine months, about as long as a full school year. That sabbatical was good for both of us and cemented in my mind what I needed to do. Get a divorce.
I know now why people say divorce is tricky. It can take a while. Both sides need certain things in order to get out of the relationship. There are financial issues to address. There’s a lot of stuff to sort through, divide up and pack.
Our divorce becomes final only a few days from now and looking back on those 25 years, I’m not nearly as nostalgic or sentimental as I would typically be. I think that’s a good sign. Old, broken relationships can be too difficult to mend. Sometimes it’s best just to appreciate them for what they were, and move on.
This piece first appeared on my personal blog, Five O’Clock Shadow. Follow me there for more stories (and occasional new posts), and also here at Wise & Shine. For my activities as a professional musician, visit www.toddfulginiti.com