As I begin my last semester as an educator, I’ve been reflecting on how and why I got into this profession. I’ve written before about my writing career, the stops and starts along the way, and these two careers are intertwined like a tree and vine. In 1989, I suffered a devastating injury, one that derailed all of my previous dreams and aspirations. Through the recovery and grieving process from that incident, I discovered a passion and aptitude for writing, so when I began college, I did so with the intention of becoming a novelist. In 1995, the year I graduated from Memphis with my bachelor’s, I also published my first short story. About six months after that publication, an agent contacted me. He had read my piece, thought I had tremendous potential (his words on the phone), and wanted to know if I had a novel. I shipped off the first three chapters of my rough draft, believing my big break had arrived.
He hated the book, and rightfully so. Looking back, I now understand that it was dreadful. At the time, even though his harsh rejection stung, I didn’t let it derail me. Instead, I rolled up my sleeves and studied my craft with more intensity and fervor than before. Within the next year, I published another short story and two poems (though I in no way consider myself a poet), and during that period from 1995 to 1997, my skills as a writer burgeoned more than any other period of my life. However, from those four publications, I earned exactly zero dollars, and I knew I had to find some way to earn a living. With that in mind, I chose to return to graduate school for an MFA in creative writing, believing that even if I couldn’t get my writing career off the ground, I would always have the terminal degree to fall back on.
My only real regret in life is going to graduate school. Without a doubt, that was the worst decision of my life. Perhaps my experience could have been different in another environment, but I entered it on a huge creative upswing, having multiple publications and incredible optimism. Within two months, all of the positive momentum was crushed from the pettiness of workshops and stifling negativity from my peers and faculty. To this day, I refuse to endure another moment of a writers’ group because of those experiences. Within six months of entering graduate school, my productivity went from at least one solid story a month to virtually nothing, and by the time I finished my first year, I had given up on writing completely. Because of the negative experience and also due to personal circumstances, I switched from the MFA program to just the MA degree to finish faster and get away from that environment.
That was when I made the decision to teach. Though my creative desires had been squelched, my love for language had not, and I figured that if I weren’t talented enough to create my own books, I could at least share my knowledge and passion with others. In the English Department at the University of Memphis, we had an excellent instructor training program, and during my year in that program, I developed the foundation that has served me throughout my teaching career. Part of what frustrates me about the current rush to replace traditional teaching practices with technology is that I know firsthand how many years of study, practice, refinement, and field trial has been poured into traditional education models, yet administrators are convinced that the new way, developed mostly by educational companies with an eye on profits, is superior before it has even been implemented. I find this rush to overly rely on technology in the classroom short-sighted and potentially dangerous, but that’s another topic for another day.
As I made the transition mentally from writer to instructor, fortunately, teaching came quite naturally to me, and for the first few years, I woke up each morning excited to go to work. I loved pushing my students to improve, to pay more attention to their thoughts, to develop an eye for details. I loved lecturing, sharing my ideas, and demonstrating techniques. I gave each class everything I had every meeting, and I was highly effective as an educator. I say this not to brag on myself as much as a warning to others. People like me who are effective and passionate about our profession are being burned out, used up, and sometimes pushed out in this corporate takeover of the system. That fact scares me for our future.
As I sit here, reflecting on my time in the classroom and pondering what my future may hold, I’m both grateful for the opportunity to have impacted my students’ lives but also resentful of the changes that have stripped the passion for this profession from me. It will take some time to clear this bad taste from my mouth, but I am excited to press forward into whatever the future holds. While I would not change my decision to teach because of all the positive experiences, I recognize that the time has come for me to leave behind this profession before I become a bitter shell. That’s all for now.