And a Happy New Year!
Each December 31st finds me typing a letter to my friend Mary, who has long been my muse in writing. In my letter, I try to summarize the year, and project positive changes for the next. After twenty-five years of such, some themes are clearly consistent. The summaries have always included both successes and failures, and the projections are always optimistic. The expectation is never that one year will be just like the last; instead, a recognition of inevitable yet unexpected changes are always on the calendar pages, waiting to be found.
What has changed in recent years is the setting for those successes and failures; no longer in the classroom, and no longer working with hundreds of students and dozens of partners, my reflections have necessarily focused more on my home setting, and myself. This has been an uncomfortable change for me. In years past, I have felt needed, and so valuable. My worth could be measured in not only administrative evaluations and parent and student comments, but also by salary increases. (This bears some explanation: there are those who believe that all teachers earn the same salary by virtue of years served – but many teachers move farther ahead on the salary scale due to continuing education beyond the required re-certification requirements, and leadership responsibilities.)
From an ever changing cast of administrators I received consistently positive feedback. By my fifteenth year I had crossed salary tracks three times by taking extra coursework through staff development courses and graduate school classes, moving from an assistant’s salary track to a teacher’s track, then to a teacher’s with a Master Degree, then Master plus 30 additional credits, and then Master plus 60. In my sixteenth year I helped to negotiate a contract that included a new Master plus 75 credit track. By the end of my seventeenth year, I had completed those additional credits, and reached the end of the tracks. I could pursue a Doctorate, which would be the next and last track, but the cost of the doctoral program would exceed what I could afford. Instead, I took the opportunity to continue to grow and expand my skills by moving from the elementary setting to the middle school setting, and in my second year there I took on the role of team leader, which brought a stipend to my salary.
Instead of taking continuing coursework I began teaching those staff development courses that provided the required continuing education credits we all needed for the state’s new re-certification. Instead of teachers in our district needing three credits every third year to move forward on their salary track, the state now required 120 hours of study to renew one certification, and thirty more hours for each additional certification. Creating and presenting staff development courses with graduate school equivalence was a new challenge for many school districts, but ours had been doing this for years. Presenters of coursework could either take double credit for themselves, or receive a stipend in payment. As I had already maxed and surpassed all tracks at the Master Plus level, I chose to ask for the stipend, adding to my salary. And I felt competent, successful, and dependable. I had worth.
But MS and its self-administered treatment with injections brought deep depression, and there is no room in a classroom for a teacher dealing with the side effects of depression. “Cog Fog” is the term used by people who deal with the loss of focus, loss of initiative, loss of energy and loss of confidence. Retiring before I’d completed my goal of 32 years … retiring because of impending failures rather than from a position of strength and success … leaving a setting where beginnings and endings were defined by the calendar, and every challenging year had closure in June – I was suddenly on land rather than on the seas … my sea legs wobbled on land … I had lost my inner compass, which had always pointed toward success.
But as difficult as that retirement was, it brought to me the freedom to experiment with that treatment. I had accepted what felt like a sentence, a penalty for having a diagnosis of MS, with the belief that I would then be able to make my goal of 32 years. Having failed, I had nothing to lose by discontinuing the treatment that was to have slowed the progression. And when I stopped injecting, I felt a return of strength. I was able to set new goals for myself. I was able to begin defining my worth in different terms.
All teachers have to be well educated in their content area. I achieved that in many content areas. A good teacher also has to be in tune with the developmental age of the students. I had found success with each change of classroom by studying child development and by listening carefully to my partners who had preceded me at this grade level. My personal strength as a teacher lay in my ability to be patient, understanding, compassionate, and persistent.
I use those strengths now in this different setting. I am patient with myself. I feel compassion and understanding for the mistakes I’d made in listening to doctors rather than to my own inner self. I persist in researching MS and its treatments, and explaining to people that the medication did not serve my purpose, and that a different medication, one to treat depression, was the one that could make a difference in my life. I continue to eat healthier rather than eat socially. I please myself in terms of choosing the level of activity day by day rather than meeting the expectations of a school calendar. I nap when tired, and stay up late when energized by a project, sleeping in late the next day. I no longer apologize when I am unable to meet others’ expectations or wishes. Instead, I explain upfront that I don’t like to make promise that I may not be able to keep.
I have a pension, and while not abundant, it is enough that, with my husband’s own social security, we can pay our bills. I no longer am at risk for failing in the classroom and being fired. I feel safe for probably the first time in my adult life – safe from economic failure due to school budget cuts, a threat that loomed large in my first five years as a new teacher who received a pink slip every year for those five years … I feel less threatened by the “what ifs” of MS and its progression – I know what to expect as possibilities and what to expect as unlikely to happen. I can hold my own in a medical discussion about my prognosis. I know what to watch for, and what to avoid. Meat and Dairy are inflammatory, and inflammation causes a worsening of MS symptoms. I know how to live without those threats.
My self-worth now is measured in smiles, in love, in compassion and in understanding. I am a giver again … in the fire department where I can contribute clerical skills; at the public library where I can help provide community involvement by scheduling local author events; in our home business where I can create quilts and tea cozies and other fabric arts that make other people happy, which still makes me happy. I can spend my time every day with my best friend, my husband … and with myself, someone I can respect once again.
I will have a Happy New Year, and wish all of you not the same, but what will make your New Year Happy.