Thursday, March 9, 2023

What Was I Thinking?!

 I was bored. I needed a purpose other than being a mother of three kids and the wife of a successful engineer. My last child was finally out of the house. After 24 years of staying at home and tending to my family's every need, I was done. Cooking, cleaning, driving, trips to the doctor, vomit cleanup, potty training, visits with principals, therapists, psychiatrists, IOPs, PHPs, and visits from the police (just to name a few). I was deep in parenthood and was ready for a breath of air. But just enjoying peaceful days at home wasn't enough for me. 

I had already published my debut novel and had earned my Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing before my youngest flew the nest, but I wanted more. I wanted to share my love of writing and the world of English with others. How could I not when I had so much passion? So I did a crazy thing. I got my credentials from the state and began applying for teaching jobs. To say I was naive to what lay ahead would be only part of the analysis. It wouldn't be long before I would get a fresh view or a strong dose of the state of our kids as well as what it's like to have a boss who could possibly be a narcissist. 

I entered my new job with anxious anticipation (and when I say anxious, I was nearly jumping out of my skin). The idea of going back to teach was a far different feeling than actually getting in front of the students and teaching. It had been 24 years since I had been in my own classroom. When I left, I was still recording grades in a paper grade book and using a calculator to figure out percentages. We didn't have email to contact parents (or for parents to contact us) or phones with text capabilities. And we most definitely didn't have portable computers and school platforms for teacher-created content and homework assignments. In those 24 years, computers became not only smaller, smarter, and faster, they became (for many schools) a part of the student learning process. Over the years, the use of heavy textbooks has, in many classes, been replaced with e-books. Students turn their homework in online. Handwriting has gone out the window. There was a sharp learning curve, and I had much to catch up on. I should also add that I was hired only two weeks before school started. I believe this is called "baptism by fire" or "dang, you're screwed." 

My boss gave me more information than I could process in the few days of staff meetings before school started. Between the time I had been out of the teaching world and the old brain, I was (as expected) overwhelmed. Not only did I need to learn how the school functioned, but I had to also develop curriculums for my Creative Writing Class and English classes. I spent a fortune on online curriculum materials, but it also saved me time and my sanity, so the money spent was worth it. 

Once school started and I got to know my students, the jitters were replaced with excitement. I loved the students, and I loved teaching them. I got better at navigating Google Classroom and entering grades into Gradelink. I got to know the teachers and enjoyed being at a school as a teacher once again. But what I didn't anticipate was the way my boss went about letting you know if you weren't doing something correctly or to her standards. I would say I was given a two-week grace period to know everything before the comments started. I had no warning because the teachers were pretty tight-lipped about our boss until I opened up the dialogue when I couldn't hold it in anymore. One day, in particular, I was yelled at in front of the students because I let a student go home from the after-school homework club because he was done with his work early. I don't remember ever being so humiliated. First, I was never told that it was not an option (other students could go home early, so why not this student?) Secondly, to be yelled at in front of the students was incredibly unprofessional and could have taken away any credibility I had worked hard to gain with my students. I took the mental beating and then drove home, trying to convince myself not to quit right then and there. But I thought of my students and how fond I was of them. Instead of quitting, I wrote my boss an email stating that I wouldn't be treated like that again. I did receive a half-assed apology followed by a long and unnecessary explanation of the purpose, necessity, and blah, blah, blah, of this and that. But it wasn't long before the passive-aggressive comments began and started grinding me down. The comments would imply that "the boss" was the only one who could do anything right, that "the boss" did everyone's jobs, and if "the boss" didn't do it, nothing would ever get done. "The boss" professed these beliefs daily. 

The negative, back-handed comments continued. I wasn't a bad teacher, nor were my other cohorts, but "the boss" certainly made most of us feel as if we were. When you work for someone who exhibits narcissistic qualities, you will rarely be praised, never receive a real apology, never be told: "you were right" (even when it's obvious), and rarely given credit for the extra work you do. You will also be forced to listen to all the great things they do, including your job. Their egos must always be stroked, that is, if you want to keep down the criticism they dish out regularly. I began to realize that I was working for a narcissist. 

On the website, Satoris Howes, Ph.D., lists 15 signs that your boss might be a narcissist. My ex-boss checks off most of these signs (if not all). Here are the 15 signs Dr. Howes lists:

1. They talk about themselves almost exclusively.

2. They have fantasies of greatness. 

3. They require constant praise.

4. They show a sense of entitlement.

5. They take advantage of others.

6. They are envious of others.

7. They lack empathy.

8. They are remarkably charming.

9. They are extremely competitive.

10. They find criticism intolerable.

11. They hold long-lasting grudges.

12. They are constantly on the go.

13. They get their supply from having great "communal" skills.

 Working for someone who exhibits the above traits often makes the workplace a toxic environment. A narcissist will grind you down until you are dust. Without the ability to show empathy, your needs will never be met, and therefore, your job will be a wasteland of toxicity and lost dreams. And, like me, you will lose your last bit of patience, tell them to go to hell, pack up your desk (in my case, my entire classroom), and drive away, hoping that that "the boss" will feel the blow as much as you did (but deep down, you know they won't). 

I cried all the way home, sad to leave my students, sad to know that I would not be able to give them the goodbye I wanted, sad that my boss was bound and determined to belittle me to the point of me walking off the job before the job was over. I have never quit a job like this. I am not a quitter. But mental health is important. Too often, people continue to work or live in toxic conditions, allowing it to take a toll on their well-being. Some people even take drastic measures to hurt those who push them too far. It's an expansive problem in our society, being told to "suck it up" and forced to put up with the abuse because if we don't, we are considered weak. No one should put up with that BS. No one should be treated with disrespect or be belittled, or made to feel inferior. And if someone decides to put their mental health above the bullying, they shouldn't have to explain themselves. They are not weak. In fact, they are strong for sticking up for themselves. Fortunately for me, I don't need the money from my job, but those who do, have no choice but to put up with the constant abuse, which only whittles away at their mental health. My advice? Start looking for a new job.

Now to answer the question, "what was I thinking?" Well, I was thinking by going back into the classroom, that I could make a difference in my students' lives. I would like to think I did, even if the time was short. I thought I could share my passion for English, and I'd like to believe I did that as well. I learned a lot from going back into the classroom. Not only did I learn that sometimes kids just need someone to show they care, but I also discovered that praise and the ability to see past the minutia of their behaviors can create positive results. But beyond what I learned about my students, I learned some valuable lessons for myself:

1. I will never work for a narcissist ever again.

2. I will never be molded into a robotic teacher.

3. I will always look out for my students' mental health.

4. I will not be made to feel inferior when I know I am intelligent, reliable, and competent.

5. I will never allow anyone to talk down to me. I am enough.

6. I will continue to find ways to be a guiding light for those who need it in an environment that is supportive.

Who knows where the next adventure will take me. I am open to the possibilities. Perhaps I'll finish the novels I started before my life changed its trajectory. All I know right now is that I am at peace with my decision. As much as I love my students, I just couldn't compromise my mental health or who I am as a person. There comes a time when we must know when to walk away. My day was today.