You Were ALWAYS Enough
I almost got fired my first year of teaching. Technically, it was my second year as a teacher, but my first in the United States. My first year was in Taiwan. I loved living there. I loved teaching there. I loved learning a little Chinese. But if I’m totally honest, the culture shock was a bit intense at first. I was horrified by what was, by my judgment at the time, blatant brutality in the discipline of the Chinese teachers on a few occasions. I recall once a Chinese teacher peeking through the window of my classroom and catching sight of a student who had a particularly hard time focusing in class. Mid-lesson she opened the door, roughly seized my sweet, distracted little Tony by the arm and dragged him out the door and proceeded to shove a huge wad of paper down the back of his shirt while we gawked in shock through the open door. On other occasions, I saw Chinese teachers yelling in the face of crying preschool-aged children. As a recently graduated, young 20 year old, I was left speechless and dumbfounded.
The language, with all its tonal inflections, came across harsh and abrasive to my ears too, and sometimes I saw patriarchal patterns that left me appalled. On one occasion at a hotel I stepped up to the door to intervene, having no clue what I was going to say, in what I’m 99% certain was a violent domestic dispute. I knocked at the door and when no one answered I persisted. I was met by an enraged man with fire in his eyes, and spied a woman shirking inside with tears down her face in the background, and all I could think to do was point into the room and gesture “Ok-ma?” (In Mandarin “ma” is often added to the end of a question much like we use a question mark). The next day the woman, who was distraught and crying when I knocked, approached me and told me in broken English that her husband insisted she apologize and explain to me that things hadn’t been what they sounded and appeared to be the day before. I could sense her unspoken gratitude for my intervention, her terror, and I felt her deep sadness and guilt at her self-betrayal. These experiences weren’t in any way representative of the entire Taiwanese population, but there were some subtle surprising cultural undercurrents that rocked my innocent, naive world. However, in just a short time I adapted and came to deeply respect and love the Taiwanese people, the Chinese language, and the rich culture.
I admired their commitment to family and heritage. I loved learning about and exploring the elaborate, colorful temples trimmed with lanterns and dragons, smelling of incense and piled with fresh food offerings. I respected their respect for their elders and ancestors. I was intrigued by their spiritual customs and practices and amazed by their commitment and devotion to such practices. I was in awe, with some mixed feelings about the hard work ethic and dedication to education. Some of my elementary students were at school from 7 in the morning until after 9pm at night. And many of their parents worked 6 or 7 days (and often nights) a week. I loved their healthier lifestyle and shared family meals. I remember once feeling terribly embarrassed in the Taichung Costco food court as I looked around at my American peers and contrasted the meals in front of them (usually food, soda, and sometimes ice cream) to the Taiwanese families huddled around sharing one meal. I loved that by the time I returned from my one year of teaching there I had completely outgrown any sugar fix I previously had. The thought of eating a candy bar utterly repulsed me. Perhaps my favorite was how safe, kind, and welcoming the Taiwanese people were to foreigners. They treated us like family, and occasionally like celebrities.
The Taiwanese children loved the more lax, peanut butter and sugar-loving Americans. Their English classes were less rigid, with dramatically less terrifying consequences for disobedience, and I imagine the curriculum and activities were more active, involved, and engaging. The kids loved it. The young college graduate teachers loved being loved and so welcomely received.
So when I returned home and obtained a job teaching kindergarten at a reputable private school for the wealthy I was unpleasantly surprised by the less than enthusiastic reception I received, not from the children, but from my school director. No matter my efforts, I couldn’t seem to win her approval. At one point, I was written up for not having prepared my students better for their spring music program and not instructing them in choreographed actions and dance routines. I had only taught them the songs, with no idea choreography was part of the expectation. I had very literally missed that memo in my ‘teacher mailbox.’
I remember receiving a laundry list of reprimands of all the things I had done wrong in my teaching, with a single mere mention at the bottom that “my bulletin boards were, however, excellent.” It was the only acceptable item mentioned.
I was utterly crushed. By her assessment, my crafting skills were above par, but in every other category of teaching, I was severely subpar. I was in over my head. My biggest struggle was discipline. My private-schooled American kindergarten students wouldn’t listen to me and I was floundering to help the students meet the high academic expectations. On the last day of school, after programs, festivities and farewells the director called me into the office for another “write-up”, indicating emphatically that there wouldn’t be another. I was mortified. Teaching was my passion. Colby and I had just gotten married the month before and my $24,000 teacher salary was what we lived on while he went to school.
The last day of school blow landed hard. While most were soaking up the sunshine and celebrating, I cried every day for the entire first week of summer, and then I judged myself hard for it, creating a vicious cycle of migraines. I was crushed by the director’s low appraisal of me, especially after giving my heart and soul all year to those kids. I wanted to get over it and I wanted to run. I vacillated between quitting and returning in the fall, but her harsh evaluation and threat of termination ignited a struggle in me and ultimately I decided to go back, determined to prove that I was in fact, an exceptional teacher, the school was lucky to have me, and I would have it known.
The next fall the all-day kindergarten class size exceeded the school’s student-to-teacher ratio, so another teacher and I were assigned to teach the class together. We were like bread and butter. I like to think of us as a dream team. I’m pretty sure those were some of the luckiest kindergarteners ever to have such a wicked cool duo of teachers (but I’m biased… and I do concede, all kindergarten teachers are amazing). We sang songs. We dressed up and acted silly. We square danced. We did science experiments. We painted. We taught the kids to read and to write. We had lots of fun, and my point was proven. Together we received an award at the end of the year.
I’ve often thought back on that experience and marveled at how I could have such a total turnaround. What shifted in me? Perhaps the director’s harsh “never good enough” appraisal was exactly what I needed to find the resolve within to challenge the hidden beliefs she was mirroring back to me. And in hindsight, I can see, that she and I shared the same wound. Deep within she was battling the same disbelief in herself. For, as one of my mentors taught me,
“When we experience suffering without compassion, it’s because we share the same wound.”
Now I can see the grace in it all. Life delivered me exactly what I needed. As I lay in bed tonight, after talking about boundaries, behavior, and rules with our kids, I realized a few things. One, I learned that trust is earned and respect is gained by clear boundaries given with love. That first year at the American private school I was addicted to, and starving for the love, affection, and approval of those little children and disoriented from the ‘easier’ experience with my previous Taiwan students who were eager to listen and comply and relieved to receive the soft reprimands of their English teachers when they didn’t. I was desperate to be loved and liked. And my American kids did — they loved and liked me, but they did not listen to me. They did not respect me, and deep down, they probably didn’t totally trust me… why? Because I didn’t totally trust myself and you can always smell a wolf in sheep's clothing. I was looking for my worth in the approval of the school director and the affection of five and six-year-old kids. I was convinced my worth was based on the “above par” evaluation of others.
I remember the most powerful piece of advice I was given that year by my boss’s boss one day on her visit from the corporate office. At after-school pickup, I told a parent that her child, Jack, who, like Taiwanese Tony, struggled a bit with focus, had “had a hard day.” The parent complained to the administration about my comment and the corporate manager, with love, but firm correction told me,
“Emily, what you’re really saying to that parent is ‘I had a hard time helping your child manage his behavior today.’”
It was the most valuable, eye-opening feedback I received that year. All the write-ups and morale-killing criticisms from the director only served to defeat and disempower me, but that one comment, given with clarity, kindness, and firm, gentle compassion brought so much perspective to my mind that it motivated me to shift my approach. I determined to be loved and liked AND respected and trusted. I knew I could, and I did.
And a few years later, when I had another particularly painful and sour experience with some dissatisfied, personally offended, attacking parents, my pain was softened a week later by the surprise arrival of a television crew in my classroom. I was dumbfounded to discover I had been selected, out of over 2000 teachers across the state, and nominated by several parents, to receive a teacher-of-the-week award. The $500 award money helped soften the grudge I held about the one-time $700 “bonus” I was given as “compensation” for receiving my master's degree in Education, taking my yearly salary up to $34,700.
As I look back now, I marvel at how life teases out these painful beliefs in inadequacy that we struggle so deeply to repress and provides just the right mentors to teach us the things we that we need. So many life lessons are clearer to me now, but this one rings out — know your worth is infinite and fixed and teach it to your children. Don’t wait for someone to challenge it or to be ripped to shreds before you discover it. It’s not about gaining approval, acceptance, “people-pleasing” or “keeping the peace,” it’s about finding inner peace to know that no matter what is said and no matter what the world reflects, you are ALWAYS enough.
If you don’t believe in your worth, you can bet that painful circumstances will arise to either reinforce that belief or finally give you the guts to find out you have been believing a lie.
You were born to shine.
The world truly needs your light.
How does this land for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience :)
Also, I think there are some stark things to be said about a worldwide need for an evolution of education. But that’s for another conversation…