The Misfit Piece

At our Teach For America summit today, we had to bring in a 5-7 minute story about ourselves.  There weren’t a lot of guidelines beyond that, so I wanted to share what I came up with.  It’s pretty personal and discusses how I struggled a bit before finally getting into teaching.

My Story

Have you ever made a really big puzzle before?  Not those kid ones that have a two-digit quantity of pieces, but those huge ones that you work on slowly for weeks?  Well, I have made a bunch of those.  I was raised on puzzles as a kid, and my family almost always had one out in the dining room for all of us to pop in and work on for a bit.  It was a good bonding experience, but that’s not the story I want to tell today.

I brought up these challenging puzzles because of that misfit piece.  There comes a time when you get really frustrated with a the puzzle you’re working on, and even one fitted piece would make you feel as though you’ve made significant progress.  You come across the piece you think you’re looking for, and it really looks like it should fit where you had planned.  But then you notice that the edges aren’t quite matched up.  You realize you can either leave the piece there, and hope that maybe it is the right piece in the end, or you can accept defeat, take it out, and find its true home.

Well, until October of 2010, I was that misfit piece.  I was determined to keep trying different places to see where my perfect fit was, but I constantly found myself stuck where I didn’t quite match up with my peers.  This started in college, when before freshman year started, I gave up on my dream of teaching and opted for a better financial future by majoring in economics instead.  Sure I enjoyed my econ classes and did really well on my exams and projects, but was my heart in it?  No.

After a summer job at a hotel, I realized that maybe I should veer into business instead.  I really enjoyed working with people, and felt that a Masters in Economics might trap me behind a desk, while a Masters in Business would keep me interacting with all different kinds of people.  I applied to a private college with a great reputation for its business school, was granted a sizeable scholarship, and found a way to commute from home to save for the remaining tuition.  Everything was lining up, and I was ready to finally feel like I was in the right place.

Unfortunately, figuring out logistics doesn’t mean you’ve figured out your life path.  In my two year MBA program, I completed three internships, one full-time summer HR job, and three graduate assistantships.  At three of these positions, I was told by a manager that while I was doing fantastic work, I needed to change my personality to fit better with the company.  Yes, I cried over this.  It’s hard enough to change your work ethic, but your personality?  I was basically told that “we like your work- we just don’t like you.”  That was tough.

I also faced a lot of challenges fitting in with my peers.  The team I was put on for the first year was very frustrating to work with because it took us so long to decide on how to complete projects, and often times, I ended up doing more than my fair share of the workload.  My second year was even harder because we had to choose our own teams.  I had one class where I was almost certain I was going to drop it to make room for a consulting project instead, and a girl still refused to allow me on her team.  All I could think of was “is this seriously still happening when I’m 22 years old?”  I can understand if someone didn’t want to work with a slacker, but I was hard-working, dependable, and rarely got lower than an A in any course.  I hated this girl for humiliating me for a while, but perhaps I should thank her for what happened next.

There I was, sitting in the back row of a Technology in Business class, occasionally adding comments to the heated discussion on social media in the workplace when I had one single thought: “I wish I was teaching elementary school kids right now.”

To this day I can’t tell you where this thought came from, or why it popped up in the middle of that class.  But suddenly, I was scouring the web for ways to become a teacher.  I figured it was a phase that I would forget in a week, but I kept feeling a pull towards the classroom.  I ended up applying to Teach For America the day I saw Waiting for Superman in the theater- not because the movie is amazing, but because the whole time I thought “I WANT TO DO THIS!”

I was so scared when I sent that TFA application in.  I didn’t tell my parents because I was afraid they would be upset that I wasn’t using their generously funded MBA wisely.  I didn’t tell anyone at business school because I was afraid they would look at me like I’m crazy- “You’re going to apply for WHAT?”  But January rolled around, and I found out I had skipped the next step in the application process and had to schedule an interview two hours out of town.  This meant it was time to fess up.

Lucky for me, my parents ended up being really supportive.  They were surprised at my decision to be a teacher, but I think they could see it was something I had put a lot of thought into.  I completed my interview and was sent an e-mail a few weeks later saying I would be teaching elementary school in Tulsa for the 2011-2012 school year.

While my classmates discussed which job offers they should take- three figure salary at Corporation A, or two figure salary plus stock options at Corporation B, I was visiting local classrooms and furiously taking notes about how to manage a small group during centers.  I kept worrying that this huge risk wouldn’t pay off, but I can tell you standing here today that it did.

Yes I’m poor.  Yes, I’ve had days where I feel like I’ve completely failed a child.  And yes, I’ve even burst into tears a couple times in the teacher’s lounge.  But I did the impossible- I found my place in this big puzzle we called life.  I get along great with my co-workers.  I created my own family of wise owls with my class.  I found a job I enjoy getting up for every day.  I get excited about coming up with engaging lessons, centers, and projects for my kids.  And I feel like I’m genuinely helping people every day.  After 23 years of indecision and heartache, I’ve found a place where I can be the best version of me- and if that isn’t a perfect fit, I’m not sure what is.

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