Teaching Opinion

When One Door Closes, Another One Opens

By Starr Sackstein — July 02, 2019 6 min read
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It’s cliche, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.

As I readied my office for my final departure, taking my name plaque off the door and doing one more once over to make sure all of my personal effects were removed, I couldn’t help but allow the emotions I was feeling to flood me.

Comfort is not an experience that is easy to walk away from. Security and safety are basic human needs, and every time we take great risks in our lives, we are sacrificing comfort and security for the hope of what will come next.

Of course, there is a great leap of faith that comes, when you know there is uncertainty and you still jump into the void believing wholeheartedly that you will land safely even if you can’t see where.

Throughout my life, I’ve been this kind of risk-taker. A colleague said to me recently that I seemed like the kind of person who was comfortable wandering. I suppose some could hear this and think it was a compliment or an insult ... personally, I see it as a positive.

Ever since I was a college student, I moved from place to place, nomadically almost. My undergraduate experience was comprised of three different schools, in three very different places. First, the University of Arizona got me as far away from home as I needed to be at 18. The friendships I made there I still have, and the experiences helped me realize that when you aren’t in the right place, it’s better to take the good and cut your losses and move on. Since I didn’t feel like I was getting what I was supposed to out of that experience, I decided to take a semester off, work, go on Phish tour, and think long and hard about what I wanted to do next.

After working at KB Toys and traveling a bit to see Phish, I decided I wanted to try a smaller, liberal arts school, a little closer to home. I applied to a few and decided on Skidmore College, where I would continue studying American and British Literature as well as creative writing. The learning was far more rigorous, and because it was so small, there was nowhere to hide. Of course, transferring in in January creates a small challenge because social groups are already formed. Fortunately, there were a few of us in my cohort, and we became fast friends.

My professors and classes challenged my thinking, but there was still something in me that wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting from the experience. So I applied to NYU and got in easily since my grades were good at both of my prior schools. My parents were pleased that I elected to be so close and to be at such a prestigious school in Manhattan. My first year, I lived in Manhattan, which really wasn’t for me but was still an experience.

Me, being me, I wanted to leave after my first year there, but my parents wouldn’t allow it. They threatened my funding, and so I stayed to graduate but commuted from home my senior year. Since I had taken classes through the summer to make up for my time off, I was ahead of the game. Able to fit 20 credits, which was an overloaded schedule, into three days of classes, I was able to take a part-time job at a literary agent’s office. It was here that I decided I didn’t want to work in publishing, but what else could I do with an English degree that wasn’t teaching?

Shortly after graduation, I had a string of forgettable jobs until I fell into information technology and started working as an assistant to a director, which is a fancy name for a secretary. He knew I was bored and so he let take classes in networking and HTML and allowed me to write for the company’s newsletter. After three years, I decided I wanted to go back to grad school to be a teacher, and that’s just what I did.

Quickly, I was admitted into an education program after procuring a job in an underserved school with a high-needs population. They had a program in New York back then called a Trans B where you could be fully employed with a mentor while you were getting your certification and degree. I worked blindly at first during the day and dutifully at night at grad school, hoping every day that the situation would improve.

And it did.

In one short year, I got my master’s, my permanent teaching license, and had found a home in teaching English, particularly to underserved populations. As a matter of fact, I had started to apply for doctoral programs in urban policy to help reform the city school system. But as those plans were being made, I became pregnant, and being a mommy was more of a priority. I would have to come back to my studies at another time. To me, this was the universe telling me that this wasn’t the right path at the moment, and as more time went on, the more I believed that.

Things changed in my first school, and the state took it over. They expected us to use scripted lessons, so despite the love and commitment I felt for the students, I took a job in the suburbs thinking the grass was greener.

Simply put, I was wrong, and so after two years in the burbs, I transitioned back to what I thought would be my forever home in Queens. I rescinded my initial resignation and started teaching in a journalism school that I called home for nine years. The comfort was real there. My colleagues were my family. The students and their families were at times like extended family. When you work in a small school in a community, you have the honor of teaching all of the children and getting to know families so well.

Fortunately, I was able to design my own programs and classes. I developed with them. I got involved outside of school in national organizations, I achieved national-board certification and I kept working harder and harder so that the comfort wouldn’t consume me. I even started speaking at conferences nationally, as I wrote my first books and was asked to do my Tedx Talk. More and more responsibility befell me, but I realized I had outgrown my position long before I left.

With the promise I made to myself many years before, that I would leave teaching if I ever stopped loving doing it, so as to never become embittered and angry about going to work each day, I decided change needed to come again. Leaving that school was almost like severing a limb. I was angry at myself for not doing it sooner, but I do believe that I was there for a reason.

Once I left that school, leaving got easier again. After only one year at my next school as a hybrid instructional coach and teacher, I took the biggest risk of my career and left the classroom to become a leader in a new position in a district that was much closer to home, which would help mitigate some of the personal challenges that were happening at the same time.

Taking on a leadership role was everything I hoped it would be and everything I hoped it wouldn’t be. Many aspects of my job were fulfilling and gratifying while others not so much. And so I was haunted by the fact that I couldn’t be in a place that wasn’t going to make me happy.

And so now I close this door, too, knowing that another one is opening before me, and the only way I could fit through was to shut this one completely. The relationships will remain as will the work we did together.

But it’s time to move on.

What are your non-negotiables in your career that would make you have to leave comfort for possibilities? Please share

*Photo by Starr Sackstein

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