So It Goes

This morning, I stood on my balcony with a cup of coffee, listening to the cars on the highway and feeling the unseasonal light breeze pass me by. I’d just finished yoga, one of the first yoga sessions I’d attended in a shamefully long time, although it was by this point noon, it felt as though I’d just woken up. I looked out at western Tucson and felt a familiar tug; a feeling so specific that I can only tie it to traveling, or to a deep and decisive change in my life. I suppose it’s a bit of nostalgia, and a bit of bittersweet understanding, but it’s something all on its own as well. I knew why that tug began to pull. In a week, I’ll be ending my current job. In two months, I’ll be ready to move to China.

I won’t miss my current job. It was crushingly challenging, and my mental health suffered greatly in the past two years. I witnessed the death of a student, I found myself swept up into a statewide teaching strike, I watched dozens and dozens of students experience trauma and fumble their way through the school year, not understanding how to heal. I spent a lot of nights crying, and far more days in a state of tensed anger. I hope that my next job, despite being across the world, will be easier and more inviting.

Yet, if I step back, I have to tell myself how grateful I am. In the past two years, what did I learn? What did I gain? My perspective of the world around me was heightened, widened; that always has been, and always will be, good for a person. I have learned to check myself, to stop more regularly and ensure I am taking care of myself. I am slower to offend and to be offended, whereas in the past, I held a much more quickfire mentality. I believe (I hope) I am more patient and empathetic – I certainly understand people better now. All of these are lessons learned, lessons I may not have necessarily learned without teaching.

I am in a transitory period of my life. That is about all I am certain of now. I won’t miss my job, but I’m thankful for the changes I’ve experienced within it. I will miss Arizona something terrible, but am far more excited for moving to China than I am sad for leaving Arizona. It’s an odd feeling, this. With as many moves as I’ve had, I’m not sure I will ever master it. And that’s okay. As my favorite author, Vonnegut, said, so it goes. So it goes.

The Second Spring Break

It’s Monday. There is a coffee in my hand, and I am almost ready for school. I haven’t been in my classroom in exactly a week due to what I, and a few other teachers, have been calling my second spring break.

Last week, I spent four of the last five days in California with over 70 middle school students. It is one of the huge, intensive science trips that my school offers for students. It is exhausting – every day, we get up between 5am or 6am and go to sleep around 10pm – but it is a ton of fun. Every place we went is open to the public, and is great for schools and regular science-lovers alike.

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Having spent almost seven years in Tucson, I have traveled to San Diego at least once a year while living in Arizona; California feels like a tiny second home to me, and this week was additionally special because it will likely be the last time I travel in California before I go to teach in China.

Our first stop was in Dana Point to visit the Ocean Institute. This is a nonprofit educational center open to the public, not just to schools, and does some pretty incredible work to help educate on marine life and climate change. Our school slept in the institute overnight; two full days were spent experimenting, kayaking, exploring tide pools, and learning about marine ecosystems.

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For many of our students, this was the first time they’d left the state, let alone seen the ocean or stood on a beach. We took an evening to hang out on the beach and watch the sunset before going to our next hotel. The following day was spent at Disneyland: exhausting is about the only way I can describe that day.

Our final day, we went to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the San Diego Zoo. This was easily my favorite day (although I was so tired I could barely think straight at this point), and if you’re just planning to visit San Diego, both of these places are worth the trip.

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This is the view from the aquarium. We were let in early, so the sun had only just begun to rise over the California hills. While the students explored the aquarium – primarily judging the fish they saw based on whether or not said fish appeared in Finding Nemo – I spent no small amount of time staring at this view.

The San Diego Zoo, which followed, is impressive not just because of its size, but because of its conservation efforts. This is what impressed me the most, throughout the entire week of our trip: every educational center, whether it was the Ocean Institute or the aquarium or the zoo, taught students about ecosystems and animals with an understanding that these natural treasures are being threatened by climate change. It’s a lesson that we can’t afford not to learn, and I love that it was included.

 

 

Enchanted: Las Cruces, New Mexico

I’m sitting on my couch, writing this post as I watch another nature documentary (when not outdoors, watch the outdoors, am I right?). I’ve just come back from Las Cruces, New Mexico. I took the trip in order to run a half marathon with a friend and, luckily, we had time to explore. What a wonderful final break before the final stretch of the school year. Although I did not have much time in this city, I loved what I saw: blue skies, friendly people, beautiful architecture and color, local art, good food.

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Because we were very, very hungry after our run, my friend and I found ourselves at Cafe de Mesilla due entirely to Internet searches involving what was closest to us. (Delicious. I recommend the omelettes.) We spoke for a bit with the owner, who pointed us in the direction of Old Mesilla Village. If you visit Las Cruces, definitely make a stop to Old Mesilla Village. It is a small plaza, easily walkable, and filled with shops of local art and other unique products. It was a beautiful, breezy day, and we explored almost every store while we were there.

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The architecture is clearly quite old, and likely restored with original materials embedded in certain areas of the buildings. When in Old Mesilla Village, it is easy to picture the days of horse buggies and no air conditioning. Of course, I’m not wishing for those days – I love my Jeep too much – but it is always fun to be able to feel the history in an area, like in Las Cruces.

848f5641-7d53-4943-9340-b42eba124fd4Something I loved the most about Las Cruces was how brightly colored the city is. Although I live in Southern Arizona, with similar traditional architecture, Tucson is too large to have such consistencies in the look of buildings and decoration. I saw these bright blue doors everywhere in Las Cruces, often surrounded by some pastel color or blinding white, like the one in this photo. It’s worth it to walk around just to see such colors, and I cannot understand why every city in the U.S. doesn’t look like this.

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I did not spend enough time in Las Cruces to really give recommendations of what to explore, eat, or do while there. I can only recommend that you go. I will certainly be going back if I have the opportunity. New Mexico, I think, was aptly named: the land of enchantment.

An Easier Way: Work Visa

I did not go to Los Angeles over spring break for my visa. I found an easier way, one which I hope every expat teacher learns about far sooner than I did: an agency that is located in Los Angeles, taking my papers to the Consulate for me.

Although I am still waiting for my documents to be mailed back to me, there is already a palpable sense of relief. This has been a series of fiery hoops to jump through, and I’ve yet to feel as if I’m doing it quite right: such tiny things, like handwriting an application rather than typing and printing it out, can get you turned away from the Consulate to try again.

The company I hired to help me is China Visa Service Center. They have locations in cities other than LA, but because I am currently a resident in Arizona, the LA Chinese Consulate is the location I need to send my documents for authentication. With all costs for individual documents, what the Consulate will charge, and shipping fees to get my documents back home, it is less than half the price of a hotel in LA; that’s not including the money I’d have to pay for driving out to California, food and putzing around in the city for a week to wait for my documents to be authenticated.

I’d say that’s pretty good.

After I get these documents authenticated (for me, a teacher, I need a criminal background check and my teaching Master’s degree – both notarized and certified by the state of Arizona), I need to scan and send them back to my school in China. They will then fill out an application for me that will be sent back to me, and I will have to take that application back to the Chinese Consulate a second time to apply officially for my work visa. I am hoping that, if this agency is as effective as I want them to be, then I will be able to hire them a second time for my work visa.

Mt. Wrightson

I am sunburnt. Badly sunburnt. My right toenail is dangerously close to falling off (mainly due to my hiking boots, which need to be replaced after years of trails), and it is sorely bruised. This is the second time I’ve climbed Mt. Wrightson in the past few months, and I have to say, I feel like I’ve come up against this mountain twice and ended with some serious “trail wounds” – after all, the last time I climbed this mountain, I didn’t make it to the top because of the snow and was sunburnt on my eyeballs because of the snow.

But oh, man, is this mountain worth it.

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I chose the same trailhead as last time (there are a few starting points from which you can start the climb to Mt. Wrightson), a trail called Old Baldy. It is about 10 miles roundtrip and an estimated elevation gain of approximately 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The peak is at almost 9,000 feet of elevation, and from the peak, you can turn in any direction and see thousands of miles on a clear day.

The weather was perfect – breezy, just warm without being painfully heated – and although there was a small section of snow at the very last stretch of the mountain, we cut our ascent time significantly because we did not need to climb over 3-4 feet of snow. Usually at this time of the year, April is fully into 90 degree days and burning sun, so I think our group was lucky; this hike, during a normal year of normal weather, would likely be perfect in the month of March.

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One of my favorite aspects of this trail is that there are so many sections to it. From Old Baldy to the Josephine Saddle, it takes about 1-2 hours depending on pace; it is completely shaded, with lazy, loping switchbacks and a steady climb. After the Josephine saddle, there is a noticeable increase in how steep the trail becomes, but it still isn’t overwhelming for a frequent hiker – this is the second section, still littered with longer switchbacks while becoming slowly more exposed to the sun as you reach the second saddle. This took about another 1-2 hours, mostly due to my increasing number of breaks. Then comes the final section: less than a mile to the absolute peak of Mt. Wrightson, a series of very short and exposed switchbacks that wrap around to the summit.

Because the trail is broken like this, it does not feel as though you’re in some grueling, purgatory-like climb. The views are changing continuously throughout the ascent, and there is never a boring part of the hike. It feels like three hikes rolled into one beautiful day.

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Wrightson makes you work for the summit. It is a long hike that rewards hikers who can endure the hours and steady incline. It is absolutely worth the wait. I’ve spent the last six years hiking in Tucson, and this is without a doubt now my favorite hike in the Tucson area.

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China Update: The Visa Process

Next week is spring break for the school I currently teach at. I will be driving to Los Angeles, which is the closest Chinese Consulate to me, so I can hopefully begin the process of getting a work visa in China.

It is a complex, specific process, and I am very focused on not getting it wrong. The first time I drove to L.A., it came with a two-day break and I planned poorly enough that I couldn’t submit my documents because I didn’t have enough time to stay in L.A. and wait for the documents to be processed.

Basically, the work visa process for teachers is a two-step process: you need to first get documents authenticated by the Chinese Consulate, before completing the application and taking said application back to apply for the official visa. If I can authenticate my documents (first step) I will hopefully be able to get the official visa (second step) soon after my school year ends, so that I can have it ready to go far before I fly out to Shanghai.

While I’m in Los Angeles and waiting for the documents, I’m going to be as much of a tourist as possible. If you have any ideas about what I absolutely need to check out in L.A., definitely let me know!

Teaching in America

This is obvious, and probably doesn’t need to be said, but I have not been posting much on this blog lately. The primary reason is that I do not have a ton of positive topics to discuss with my work.

I am not going to be the teacher to post lesson plans, photos of my classroom, or talk about grading techniques. To be frank, I don’t enjoy that. It feels like additional work. I also collaborate in lesson planning with other teachers, and it doesn’t feel like fully my material to be displayed out in the digital world, so I won’t post that type of material. I originally made this blog for two primary purposes: to process my own personal experiences, and to relay to others outside of the profession what it’s really like to teach in America.

I have tried to rewrite this half a dozen times, but the truth is: teaching is obnoxiously difficult. It is draining. It is thankless. It is grossly misunderstood. My first year of teaching was one of the most difficult years of my life and this year, my second year, is only marginally better.

People don’t want to hear that. When I attempt to talk about this, the reactions I receive in return range between ignorance of the profession and patronizing. I’ve been told I’m too negative. I’ve been told that I didn’t understand what “real work” is like, and that I’m adjusting to adulthood. I’ve been told that I have it easy, with summers off and work ending at 3pm.

I work somewhere between 50-70 hours a week, depending on the time of the school year and what I am teaching. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning to exercise, because I’m so emotionally exhausted by the end of the day that there are about five people I can stand to be around after work. I am attempting to manage anxiety attacks, which surfaced sometime after my student died last year, and which I’ve never suffered in my life prior to teaching. I work with students who live in areas of high poverty, high abuse, high neglect, high drug use, high illegal immigration and deportation. That stress on the students transfers to me every single day in their behavior and in the relationships I build with them; I cannot do anything to help these kids, realistically, outside of legal mandatory reports, so I often watch kids go through the entire school year in traumatic situations. All of this, and more, yet I get paid so little that over half of my monthly paycheck goes to bills.

In college, I worked full-time while taking a full set of classes. In high school, I worked part-time immediately after school let out. I understand work. I understand stress. This is not normal, and this is not healthy.

Last year, during my first year, one of my friends went through her first year of teaching at the high school in my district. She is no longer a teacher. The school gave her 200 freshmen, with all classes holding 40 or more students. She saw the same trauma in her students that I did, saw the same student behavior that I did. Her department did not help her with lesson plans; she would stay up until around 1:00a.m. on weeknights, planning lessons and grading papers. She did not have mentors to talk about what she saw in the classroom. She had a department head tell her that students were misbehaving because she was pretty, not because there were forty of them. She left the profession. I have a friend who is in her first year of teaching, and experiencing largely the same issues. She may leave the profession, too.

While I recognize that my position at my current school represents and extreme end of the public school system in regards to abuse and trauma, every new teacher goes through the same mental and psychological stressors that I do. The system is built this way. The training for teachers in minimal compared to what the job actually demands; you’re expected to do everything fully and effectively, immediately, but you have no real emotional preparation for the exhaustion that comes in the first few years of teaching. And so there is this strange, distorted process that feels almost like hazing: “oh, your first four or five years are really tough, but it gets so much better after that! You won’t like your first few years but you’ll enjoy it after those tough first years!”

So people quit. Why wouldn’t they quit? Because of our culture and because of the public education system’s structure, teachers are expected to be teachers, parents, social workers, therapists, and police officers to all of their students. That is an impossible burden. There is barely enough training for teaching, the act of instruction and transferral of knowledge, let alone training for any other aspect of what I do every day. People aren’t prepared, and people are expected to do the impossible, so people quit.

Over the last two years, my mental health has suffered incredibly. I am exhausted. I am increasingly resentful.  There are about a thousand different ways this post could end, but I don’t have a clear ending. I’m just exhausted.