Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Do you Do and Why - Dan

What do you do and why?


Dan and I met in math class freshman year of high school and have been friends ever since. Like Joanna (who also knows Dan and was featured a few weeks back), Dan and I have come and gone from each other's lives, but I've always considered him a dear friend. He always seemed to have a lot of sensibility about him and a care free, exploratory attitude that I hoped to attain... even now. He and his wife, Luann, even up and moved to another county for a year - something that I wouldn't have the guts to do, but love that they were brave enough to jump into the unknown. Keep reading to learn more about Dan's journey.

1. What do you do?

I teach English as a Second Language to adult immigrants and refugees. In the past few years my students have been mostly low-literate and pre-literate learners. Classes are free to participants.

2. Why did you choose to do this? Have you always wanted to do this? Did you fall into this career or actively take steps to get here? Did you choose it or did it choose you?

I think my interest in learning about worlds other than the one in which I grew up may have pushed me to this career path,  but I came into this career through trial-and-error. Once I got a taste and realized that I did have talents and interest in the area of Adult Basic Education (ABE), only then did I go out and pursue further education in the field.

3. What did you need to do to get here? Did you go to school? If so, was your degree related to what you are doing? Did you do something like an internship or work your way up for years? Did you take advantage of things like Informational Interviewing with those in the field?

I studied International Relations and Spanish with a major in Latin American Studies, not knowing what I would do from there. I think I imagined myself working abroad in the US foreign service. At the time, Minnesota was not as much a part of Latin America as it is today so I didn't have much idea of what do to locally but I hoped to make a positive change for society.  I ended up trying a few things as a volunteer in areas that provided help for homeless and  low-income clients.  I did a seasonal job working with migrant farmworkers. I registered latino voters.  I interviewed welfare recipients for a statewide study. All random social service-type jobs that might have had some tangential connection to Spanish-speakers, Spanish being (as least I thought so) my only marketable skill. Meanwhile I also did fairly unsatisfying blue-collar work to pay the bills. In this vein of experimenting with different fields, I got a position with Minneapolis Schools. I was hoping to be a bilingual aide of some sort, but I was naive about how good my Spanish actually was. I didn't have the skills for that kind of job, but the district did find a job for me working in a computer lab at an alternative school. The job itself was a little bit undefined but I did my best. I could see that perhaps education was for me, but maybe not with high-schoolers, as I felt barely out of school myself. I was not a good authority figure. So I kept interviewing for other random jobs, some in education. Back in 1997 I was offered a position as an ABE paraprofessional at the place I work now.

In that paraprofessional job I saw a kind of job I hadn't previously imagined. I was able to work with 5 -6 different teachers in as many classrooms with adult students of all levels, from recent immigrants to native Minnesotans working on GEDs to stroke victims re-learning how to read. I think encouragement by some of those teachers, those who told me I was a natural at it, made a big difference in my sticking with it. As I was given more responsibilities in that first year, I gained enough confidence that I determined I would go back to school for my license, so I could teach my own classes. So for the next two years or so I worked there and studied at night. The combination of classroom theory and classroom practice was good training for me. Being in those other classrooms not only gave me ideas of how to teach, they sometimes gave me ideas of how not to teach, which formed my classroom practices.

I quit that paraprofessional job so I could do my student teaching, two months in elementary, two months in a high school. After those experiences, I was reminded that I wasn't interested in teaching secondary, but surprisingly I was beginning to imagine myself as an elementary teacher. As the practicum was ending, I interviewed with some elementary schools, and was about to accept a position when my former ABE manager called and asked if I was interested in taking the place of a teacher who suddenly had to leave. It was a decision that would affect the course of things to come, professionally and financially. I took the ABE position and have rarely looked back.

If I had become a K-12 teacher, I think I would have made much more money by now. I would've been able to do more typical middle class things like buy a house, drive a newer car, take annual vacations with summers free. On the other hand, the stresses of K-12 teaching in the areas of classroom management, long hours, government mandates and job insecurity probably would have led to some serious burnout by now and I might have already changed careers.

I enjoy the work I do now. On a day-to-day basis I don't feel like I'm doing it for a paycheck. It has become more of a part of who I am as a person to try to do the best I can for the people who've entrusted me to teach them. Of course every job has its issues. In this job, for me, the problems mostly stem from actions and different ideas of coworkers, as well as government mandated stuff that is unavoidable in any public institution. I have lots of room to be creative or not be creative in my own instruction as long as some benchmarks are met. The students in my classes fulfill some of that desire I had to travel to foreign places and learn more about the world. And of course it's very rewarding to know that I am helping people meet their goals.

(part b - As a student, I had many opportunities to visit other ESL classes, but not with the same eye a jobhunter might have. A few years ago, when Louann was looking for a new career she volunteered, did quite a few informational interviews and site visits. From medical librarian to dental hygienist. I think they helped her figure out what she wanted to be when she grows up, and that she didn't really want to look in people's mouths, after all.)

4. What would you do if you weren't doing what you are? Would you do this out of necessity, because you happen to have the skill sets, or because it is your dream job?

Right now I'm afraid I don't have the imagination to think about other careers. I have a pretty focused skill set. The only chance I have for advancement within would be to take on more bureaucratic work and do less (or no) teaching as a supervisor or manager; essentially taking away all the good parts and replacing them with the parts I don't enjoy. The only changes I can see, other than teaching other types of classes, would be movement to another program or a leave of absence to teach abroad for a year or two.

5. If you could create a job description of what you are doing what would it be?

Aside from the actual work, there are some very important factors in my current position that are good for my quality of life:

  • I don't work every day, and for the most part I leave my work at the office. I dedicate 4-5 days per week to this job, no more. I have about 6 weeks off in the summer to recharge.
  •  I have almost no commute to work. We moved closer to the job for this purpose.
  • I appreciate the professionalism of my colleagues, but can also be frustrated by the lack thereof.
  • Split shifts means exercise time or nap-time built-in.
  •  My hours and my wife's hours are such so that we do get to see each other regularly, but we also have solo-time alone at home. Both are necessary for us to be happy.
  • Taking advantage of some opportunities to be part of the profession on a statewide and national level provides stimulation and perspective on the world outside of my little classroom.

I appreciate how Dan calls out that he chose a path that leaves a positive impact on his quality of life. Far too often I think we take positions because they will bring us more money or because it will give us a loftier title, but those things don't always equate to job and life satisfaction. I (like many others) am trying to find that work/life balance myself.

Thank you Dan for sharing your journey!

Want to know more about this series? Click here.

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