Misstep, or past employment fails

When I left school, I was shockingly underprepared for the world of work.  I had done some work study and some temp jobs while in college, and I thought all jobs would be like that: show up on time and reliably, do a bit of good work but also mess around on the internet, and everyone would be cool.  I also thought it would be really easy to get a job, since I had fallen into one job after another from the moment I started working.  To top it all off, I had no idea what kind of jobs were out there.  I had a degree in English and French and couldn’t think of a single thing to do with it other than write or maybe teach, a possibility I was considering at the time, but didn’t have the money for.  It was a long road to get to teaching, the career I have today.  Even then, I had to start my career from scratch when I got to the UK.  So here is a brief catalogue of my missteps on that road:

Interview disasters

Nobody told me about interviews, and what to do, and how to behave.  I thought it was actually kind of fun–sit down, talk about myself, be honest, and they would hire me.  I candidly told more than one potential employer that in 5 years I saw myself as a novelist.  I also neglected to read up on companies before interviewing with them and didn’t take notes.  When I didn’t get second interviews I was utterly baffled.  Thinking back now, I shake my head at myself.  Sometimes I start to go into an embarrassment spiral, but I talk myself out of this one: really, how was I to know?  I spent four years at college sharpening my mind, not honing my business acumen.  I could write 20 page papers in French, but I had to be taught how.  Similarly, interviewing is a skill which must be taught, and nobody had taught me.  I was lucky that when I interviewed for teaching posts, my candid answers were exactly what principals wanted to hear.

Job fails

My first full time job out of college was when I was living in North Carolina.  It was for an education non-profit (as close as I could get to teaching without a master’s) and the people were noble minded and lovely.  And I totally took advantage of them by spending most of my day on the internet and doing a bit of work.  My boss had to give me a real dressing down, but she was so nice about it I didn’t really take in the lesson.  In retrospect, she probably should have fired me, she was just too nice.

My next job was when I was back in New York, and my friend got me the job.  I continued in my entitled ways, and they were a lot less understanding.  Although to be fair, I wasn’t nearly as bad because I had barely gotten my foot in the door before they fired me.  And I burst into tears, both in front of my boss and the HR lady, and then later on the subway.  I had never been fired before–I was 22 and was used to getting praise for my work.  But high flyer in the English and French departments of a small liberal arts college doesn’t translate to anything in NYC offices.  I have to say though, standing over me while I packed up my stuff and escorting me out of the building was a little much.  I mean, they were basically firing me because I was acting like a stupid kid.  What did they think I was possibly capable of carrying away?  It would have been humane to at least give me a minute to pack up my stuff and gather the shreds of my dignity.  The random people on the subway were much nicer.  As I sobbed uncontrollably, two people dropped a note in my lap, which read ‘Don’t cry.  Everything will be ok.  From two people who love you.’

I then embarked on a year of temping, which went great, but of course people expect very little of temps so I was a superstar.  They did interview me to go permanent at one place, but  weren’t keen when I told them I wanted to be a writer.  My next permanent job was for a linen company, and honestly one of my bigger missteps was not holding out for positions which were better suited to me.  Seriously–let this be a cautionary tale because there are so many mistakes.

The linen company had some really cool people working at it and I did get to talk to Connie Chung on the phone once, but my boss was awful, and we basically spent 9 months in passive aggressive warfare.  She clearly thought I was being an entitled kid but didn’t give me any real direction about what to do better or what her expectations were.  God forbid I sharpen her grammar when she gave me a handwritten letter to type up.  Eventually she fired me too.  In the end, I was so frustrated I didn’t cry.  I saw it as a mercy killing, especially because I had already applied to become a NYC Teaching Fellow.

Finally, success. Ish.

The Teaching Fellows accepted me, and I started on a proper career, one I loved from the very first day.  I made missteps aplenty my first year of teaching.  I didn’t quite know how to teach the level of the kids, so I wound up teaching kids in Harlem like they were college students.  I didn’t know how to put together a unit or assess their skills.  But I loved literature, and I loved them from the first time I met them.  I would not say I was universally beloved, and I still wouldn’t say that of my students, but I bonded with enough kids that I thought this job far exceeded anything I had done before.  So I learned how to assess them, and tailor my lessons to their needs.  I came home and cried because I couldn’t express the full range of my anger at school, and then the next day walked on air because the kid I had kind of wanted to kill had actually learned something.

Eventually I left teaching in the inner city to teach at Townsend Harris, my alma mater and a specialised high school for the humanities in NYC (read: only smart kids go there).  And I thought as I signed out the copies of The Odyssey and Things Fall Apart that my classmates had used, that that was it.  I had reached the last step in my career, and I would work at good ol’ THHS until I retired.  I was barely in my 30’s, so that felt a bit weird, but I was also very happy.  No more missteps.  I knew THHS as a student, which helped me know it better as a teacher.  I had confidence because I had security.

Until I didn’t, because I moved to the UK.

Beginning a career I’d been doing for 10 years

I didn’t think it would be very hard to switch from teaching in the US to teaching in the UK.  After all, I had worked in a really tough school and a really good school in NYC.  I had seen it all.  But that wasn’t quite true.  I was used to dealing with underprivileged kids who felt that the system was doing them wrong and privileged kids who bought wholeheartedly into the system.  I had never dealt with the kids in the middle.  I hadn’t ever had students who were apathetic.  And most importantly, I had never taught students younger than 14.  I quickly found you can’t treat those kids as adults.

My first UK job was a maternity cover/ general cover job.  I had less prep periods than I should have had because I was constantly on call to cover classes.  Nobody told me about the differences in systems, or what was expected.  I had a coworker, who I felt was always trying to catch me out on grammar.  She’d say things like ‘Oh…I can’t remember all the modal auxiliaries.  I can think of can, may, might, could, would, will… What are the others?’  But in the US, no one uses the term modal auxiliary. At least, no one that I knew of, and after majoring in English and French and taking two other language classes besides, I knew a fair bit of grammar.  Meanwhile I interviewed for a permanent job and there was an A level component.  I barely understood the difference between A level and GCSE, and mining through and understanding what exactly AQA meant by genderlect in their English Language spec was a bit beyond me, particularly because in America, English is English, and there’s no distinction between language and literature.  I still cringe a bit when I think of my interview lesson reviewing genderlect.  I definitely took more of a lit crit approach than I should have done, and didn’t mention any of the theorists I am now so familiar with.  Basically that grammar quiz teacher was sitting in the classroom internally rolling her eyes and me and thinking I didn’t know anything about my subject–humiliating, because I know that isn’t true.

If you’re going to move forward, you’re going to make missteps

Now I’m working at a 6th form college, which is another job I’ve come to love, especially since it consists of teaching only 16-18 year olds and teaching mostly English Language, which is essentially linguistics focused on English.  I want to be as confident as I was at THHS, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible again.  I’m not foolhardy enough to be that confident.  Moreover, switching systems continues to have its issues.  I’ve wrapped my head around the differences, but not everyone believes that.  I have students who fret that I’m not preparing them for their (all important) exams because I haven’t spelled out how *every single lesson* could be used to answer a question.  Meanwhile, Ofsted inspected us last year, and the inspector didn’t like that they had an ‘inexperienced’ teacher doing GCSE–even though that was my 10th year teaching.  It took me ages to figure out what administrators wanted in an observed lesson.  So while the learning curve is, as ever, extremely steep, I know there are still going to be moments where I go wrong, or where people think I’m going wrong.  Not quite the same thing, but with the same effects.  The key is taking it in stride–a lot easier said than done.




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Source: Misstep

Shy violet

After months of waiting, I finally got my visa last week.  I tore open the envelope and exulted at my biometric card which allows me to use the NHS and allows me to work, two very, very important things.

Then I realized I had to get a job.

I have not been unemployed in a long time–eight years, to be exact.  Ever since I became a teacher, I’ve had a job. Sure I’ve moved schools, but I’ve never been excessed (I’ll consider myself lucky there), and the moves were all my choice.  Before you think I’m bragging, I now find myself in the positions of probably millions of other people on the planet–I have no job, and I need one.  And I am very daunted by the prospect.

In the days when I was job hunting, before I started teaching, I hated it.  My resume was bs, my cover letters were bs, and being a rather enthusiastic but genuine person, employers saw right through it.  Which meant I’d get a handful of interviews and no job offers, not unless I had a temp job and went permanent.  Plus, there are all these rules about interviews and the corporate world that no one told me about.  I’d go into interviews and answers questions with candor.  (I can hear the facepalms as people read that sentence).  One of my biggest fears is rejection, and I was constantly being rejected, and really it was my own fault.

But now things are different.  I can go into teaching interviews and use my honesty because I honestly care about the job.  Everything about it.  There’s no need to bs.  There’s no need to pad my resume, because I’ve simply done a lot in eight years of teaching.  If you ask me where I want to be in five years, I say teaching.  I know the game, and I’ve got a solid background, working at tough schools and good schools (which are also tough, but for completely different reasons).  I know I’m a solid candidate.

And yet, I’m still terrified.

Part of it is that I’m not so confident here. I don’t know the game like I did in NYC.  Applying to teach, and even teaching in NYC schools was easy, because I was a product of them.  The good school I taught at was my alma mater, so I knew all the buzzwords to use, I knew the philosophy of the school.  Even going in my first day was easy, because I knew where all the rooms were, who was in charge of what, even a good percentage of the faculty.  I revel in the familiar.

But then I think I can’t revel in it that much because I take some leaps.  I went to a college where I didn’t know another soul.  I studied abroad.  I moved to England.  All of those are pretty huge leaps into the unfamiliar.

But I think it comes from being a naturally very shy person.  People are always surprised when I tell them this, because I come off as perhaps a bit too sociable.  They don’t know that’s because I’m overcompensating.  Most of the time, I’m totally terrified to ask people for anything.  I dart around shops avoiding the staff.  Yesterday I asked whether I could have a hot chocolate instead of a coffee on a Cafe Rouge order and it was something I had to psych myself up to do.  I’ve been on several vacations alone, and I never talk to anyone.  I have this one friend who is beautifully bold and can chat up anyone, asking ridiculous questions, teasing within minutes.  Meanwhile I hang back, afraid to say anything lest it be the wrong thing, lest the person look at me and say “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”  Which is pretty much my biggest fear.  It’s what kept me in my little group in high school–I found a group of friends and clung to them like a limpet.  Now I’m facebook friends with a lot of my former classmates, and I talked to a couple of people at my reunion in June, and they were really cool.  It seems silly not to have talked to them more.  But I was afraid, especially when they seemed so cool.

So this job hunt now requires me to put myself out there.  My sister-in-law, also a teacher, suggesting finding schools in the area I want to teach and calling them up to ask the name of the agency they use for supply teaching (or substitute teaching in America).  This is very sound advice indeed, as mid year there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs.  But the idea of cold calling schools fills me with terror.  I know I have to do it, and my husband correctly said that when I have a job a year from now, I will shake my head at my silliness now.  But that doesn’t stop me from being silly.  Again, it’s that fear that they will say “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Yet I can face down a class of 30 teenagers and not be nervous at all, and teenagers are possibly the most judgmental people on the planet.  How can I do that and not have a simple conversation with an adult without quaking in my boots?  Let’s think:

  • In a classroom I’m confident of my position.  I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and I know how to do it.  I know I’m the one with the information, and therefore with the power.
  • Also, nobody will ask me what I think I’m doing, because they would be stupid.  It’s obvious–I’m teaching.  My role is clear.  I’m not being weird, this is what everyone expects me to do.
  • Ergo, because I’m confident in myself and what I’m doing, I don’t care what they think.  I want my students to like me, definitely.  That is very important to me.  But I don’t *need* them to.  Which I think makes them like me, or at least put up with my anti-Twilight rants without openly rebelling.

Huh…the power thing is interesting, as a lot of human interaction comes down to power plays, I think.  So clearly, I don’t like being back footed or unsure of where I stand.

The answer seems simple: be confident even when it comes to asking around for a job.  Seems like a good idea, but infusing yourself with confidence when you don’t have any is a tall order.  I was single for a loooooong time because I didn’t have any confidence to talk to guys.  So how do I have confidence when I come from a place with no power?  Suggestions are welcome.