Why I Left Teaching to Focus on Human Kindness

Since last year, I’ve been doing quite a bit of soul-searching. In my last post, I wrote about transitioning out of teaching in the U.S., how human kindness is making a comeback, and how I was going to lead the charge. The truth is that I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that would look like, but now I have an idea. Much like my previous life transitions, this soul-searching period has required an evaluation of all the things I had learned up to this point.

Finding a Love in Education

As mentioned in my About Me page, I have spent the majority of the last 15 years teaching, mentoring, tutoring, and coaching. Right out of high school, teaching with the Young Americans was such a profound honor and joy. I LOVED their mission. You see, the Young Americans are “dedicated to the promotion of understanding and goodwill among people throughout the world through music, dance, performance, academic education, and cultural interaction among Student Members and their audiences.” It took everything I loved when I was 17 and made it into the perfect teaching environment. After three years in the group, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in education.

My first real taste of teaching in my own classroom was in Madrid while doing the Fulbright Program, whose website states that “[...] through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.” Again, a mission I loved. I found fulfillment in focusing on unity through small, everyday interactions, mostly because I believe that it’s small actions that make the biggest changes.

Back in the U.S. of A

When I finally got into my own classroom in the U.S. years later, I was overjoyed. I was eager to take what I had learned in all of my previous experiences and use those skills in the classroom. This time I’d be teaching History instead of English, which made it easy to work in the cultural components. Over the course of those two years in the classroom, my style of teaching was a mix of sociology, cultural anthropology, history, and psychology. This approach to teaching proved helpful during my last year of teaching, which happened to coincide with the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

 Photo by  Nicola Tolin

Photo by Nicola Tolin

It was the perfect storm, really. It was one of the most difficult and tense years to be an American, let alone a teacher in an American school. The election and its results fueled some deep discussions and posed some profound questions both in and out of the classroom. Meanwhile, my girls were showing me that my teaching style was helping them through their final year in middle school, a difficult prep year before they headed off to high school. While I cherished every single moment teaching those girls, I realized that there was something missing for me, and it had nothing to do with them.

The Shifting Focus

I quickly realized that teaching in a classroom in the U.S. was very different from teaching in Spain and teaching with the Young Americans. Though I loved every bit of my experience as a classroom teacher in the U.S., I realized that I moved away from the missions that made me feel most alive and connected as a human being. You see, in both of these experiences, I was focused on building and strengthening the bridges that connect people on a much broader scale.

 Photo by  Celia Ortega

Photo by Celia Ortega

Teaching those girls made me realize that my greatest strength was focusing on that human connection. The election highlighted all of the work we still had to do, but teaching in the classroom only let me focused that energy within those four walls. I wanted my impact to be greater, much greater. I wasn’t sure what that looked like since, in all of my previous experiences, it had always been spelled out for me.

In the Young Americans, music was our tool. It’s a universal language that awakens the confidence in kids, stirs emotions in adults, and brings hope to a community. In Spain, it was in sharing our cultures with one another that made the U.S. and Spain connection so strong. When I taught in the region of La Rioja, I was the first or second American most of my students and colleagues had met. In Madrid, I was one of many, but I continued to add color to the vibrant image they had of what an American looked like and sounded like. I was the first Mexican-American most of them had met. We shattered cultural misconceptions on both sides and gained insight into what each of us had to offer the other. They taught me to savor the moment and I taught them to bring more empathy into the classroom.

The Next Step

As I mentioned, it was the perfect storm of a year. I knew I wanted to leave my teaching job. I also knew that I had developed some unique strengths through all of those diverse and colorful experiences, both domestically and abroad. I also knew that I had a message for a much bigger, broader audience. What I didn’t know was how I was going to use all of this and put it all together towards my goal of putting the “kind” back in humankind. I asked for guidance and the universe answered.

Sometimes you have to create the opportunities to exercise your strengths. For me, that opportunity came up during that dreaded time for teachers that comes after winter break, but before spring break. If you're a teacher, you know EXACTLY what I'm talking about. During this time, schools have professional development events for their community. Since our teachers already had a wealth of information themselves, our school decided to have an unconference. Now, the basic setup of an unconference is that the participants suggest the topics they’d like to discuss, some of them volunteer to facilitate, and then everyone breaks out in groups.

I volunteered to facilitate a mindfulness in the classroom session. It was something I had been reading about and was eager to learn from others and pool our knowledge to better help our student community. It would take another few pages to describe that experience, so I’ll just say that the result of that lit a fire in me. What I found was that the teachers were the ones eager to incorporate mindfulness into their own lives. I contacted several of my colleagues to collaborate on giving faculty more resources on incorporating mindfulness into their daily routine.

The other thing I was super amped about was injecting more play into our weeks. As the community elected Social Coordinator, I invited colleagues to enjoy moments together outside of school hours to have fun and play through different activities and gatherings I would arrange, such as Family Food Fridays in the Faculty Lounge or Ultimate Frisbee on Friday afternoons. I can’t say I revolutionized the school. In fact, I’m fairly certain all of those traditions left with me at the end of the school year, BUT I found that I had a gift for connecting large groups of people. I was unearthing their greatest needs, which were a chance to slow down, be present, and engage with the greater community.

All of that combined with my previous experiences confirmed what I already knew to be true: I had to make this my goal in life and make a career out of it. The need isn’t just isolated to schools; I see it everywhere. There is an epidemic of loneliness and disconnect and I want to be a part of the force that changes that through my business. I’m currently in a program to help me create a purpose-driven business and I can’t wait to share that with you when I finish!

In the meantime, I’ll be sharing stories on my blog about my own journey. I find that when we are vulnerable and share both about our triumphs and our challenges, we strengthen the fibers of humanity. Much like Brené Brown explains in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line”.

Thank you for coming along with me on this journey :)

*If you also care about people-to-people connections and their impact on making a difference in the world, please visit the Stand For Fulbright page.*

Have any of you left a steady career to pursue an endeavor elsewhere? What sort of challenges and doubts did you face when making that decision?