On Teaching and Learning

Taking A Leap

Anatomy and Physiology was my favorite course in college. After spending a semester elbow deep in human cadavers, I returned the next semester as a lab assistant and began tutoring the subject to underclassmen. So ten years later, when my parents saw an ad in the local paper for an A&P instructor at a private college in our area, I decided to apply. But not without hesitation.

  • I had never before taught at a college.
  • I had never before taught A & P.
  • And did you catch that ten years had transpired since I had anything to do with A&P?

But I had a few things going for me.

  • I have a Masters degree. In a related field (physical therapy).
  • I have a Masters in Education, too. Colleges like people with degrees. The more, the better.
  • I had teaching experience. It was mostly one-on-one and in math, but hey.
  • And it was mere weeks before the semester was due to start. In other words, the college may have been a little desperate.

Thankfully, they only needed a lab instructor. Lab, in my opinion, is much easier and much more fun to teach. Sadly, we would not be dissecting cadavers.

After just two semesters, the department chair tried to convince me to teach the lecture portion as well. “You know I’ve never taught A&P,” I reminded her.

I managed to hold her off another year–until she realized it was only my perfectionism stopping me. “You on your worst day is better than any other option we have,” she said.

Well, if you put it like that . . .

After two-and-a-half years there, I moved on to a community college. I taught one semester and didn’t accept the offer of summer teaching because I had decided to give myself a one year sabbatical. The department chair said “If you ever find yourself back in the area and wanting some work, give me a call.”

The Best Laid Plans . . . 

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Fast-forward to December, 2014. When we moved to Schroon Lake I’d told Michael I wouldn’t stay past the New Year. It’s too cold. After not working for nearly a year (by choice), I felt like it was time to go back. And there weren’t many options in Schroon Lake.

But Michael was excited to spend the winter here. The concept that the lake actually froze–to the point one could drive across it–fascinated him. He wanted to try ice fishing, and walk outside in below zero temperatures. I had none of these desires. But I had some ideas.

My Natural High

I couldn’t decide what avenue to take next in life, but knew I wanted to teach. Of all the jobs I’ve had (and there have been many), they have all involved teaching in some form. The more I taught, the happier I was. I’ve read that you know you’re doing the work you’re meant to be doing if, at the end of the day, you feel energized. After I finish teaching, I’m on a high–I’m replaying what worked and what didn’t, excited for what I’ve learned, what changes I saw in my students, eager for the next class.

Don’t Burn Bridges

So two days before Christmas, I e-mailed the department chair at the community college at which I taught four years earlier. Like most colleges, she had her spring semester staffed. But, like most colleges, things changed last minute. And so it was that I was given ten hours of courses to teach each week for the spring semester.

“They didn’t even interview you?” Michael asked.

“Well, no, but I worked there once already.”

“For one semester. Four years ago!”

Never mind that I was teaching two courses I had never taught before.

“What?” Michael asked. “You mean you don’t know the subject?”

“I probably know a lot of it. I took the course twenty years ago.” I was hoping the material in the General Biology labs I was due to teach overlapped with the material I taught in A&P. Michael laughed. “This makes me think about my college instructors in a whole new light.”

Thankfully, one look at the syllabus and I realized I would be okay. Two-thirds of the labs were things I taught in my three years as an A&P instructor. And the other labs would not be that hard to brush up on.

Home Again, Home Again

The college, however, is back in my hometown–three hours south of Schroon Lake. But the universe has a way of providing whatever one needs. The apartment over my parent’s garage, after having been inhabited continuously for more than thirty years by my grandmother, then my brother, then my youngest sister, was available.

And so it is that I’ve become a commuter. I don’t teach on Fridays, so on Thursdays I head up to Schroon Lake.

On Sundays, I return to the apartment that was once an oasis in my childhood: the place where I could escape the loud, chaotic life of siblings and parents, and take my spot on Grandma’s floor to attend her lesson on all things baseball as we watched the Mets games together.

Grandma didn’t just teach me about baseball. She taught me how to ask nicely for things. She taught me that everything must be put back in its place after I use it. She taught me that BLT’s are a perfectly acceptable breakfast food (as are Entenmann’s chocolate covered donuts).

As I open the two-inch think Biology textbook to prepare for next week’s class, I smile as I realize I’m living in the former home of a woman who taught me things I’d never find in a textbook.

_______

And for those of you wondering: yes,  that list of all the wonderful things Grandma gave us–the one copied onto her tombstone–still sits on the windowsill.

My Back Pocket

I have a piece of paper in my back pocket.  My figurative back pocket, that is.  In reality, the paper sits in a green file folder marked, “PT License.” The paper was issued by the state of New York.  License #020405.  I received it after successfully completing an accredited physical therapy curriculum and passing a board exam.

Lucky for me, a person only needs to pass the board exam once.  Then, should she decide to resign from her first physical therapy job less than three months after she started it, never to look back, she can pay a few hundred dollars every few years and keep that piece of paper – in her back pocket.  In case she ever needs it again.

Ten years after it was first issued, I used that license as it was intended.  I sought out a part-time physical therapy job and was amazed – and a bit shocked – at how easy it was to get a job in a profession I hadn’t practiced in ten years. Five months later I was accepted into a doctorate of Physical Therapy program.  In both cases, I convinced others of something I wasn’t sure was true: that I wanted to go back to physical therapy (or, in the case of the latter, that I wanted to teach future physical therapists).

In December of 2009, I resigned from my second physical therapy position.  I completed my first doctorate course successfully, but didn’t take another.

That same year, New York State implemented a continuing education policy for physical therapists. So when I renewed my license this past summer, they could have asked me to prove that I had completed that requirement.  They didn’t ask.  But I had.  Teaching Anatomy and Physiology to freshman nursing and physical therapy students meets the requirement, and I did that for three years.

~~~

“It was easy when I was in PT School,” I told my friend Saturday afternoon.  “I just put on my lab coat, put my stethoscope around my neck, and went as a PT.  Or a doctor.  Or whatever people thought I was.”

I was visiting my friend at work that afternoon and had two Halloween parties on my agenda for that evening.  I’ve always wanted to be a flapper for Halloween, but never think about it early enough to pull it off. And my default Halloween costume? The last time I’d worn that lab coat was in 2009, and I was pretty sure I donated it to Good Will since then.

“I’ve got a lab coat I don’t use,” said my friend.  Conveniently enough, she’s in the medical profession and I was visiting her at work.

“Perfect!” I was all set.

Back at home, I got ready for the party, came downstairs and declared to my housemate David that, for Halloween, I was going as one of my past lives. “Why is it you’re not a physical therapist?” he asked.  I sat down.  This could take a while. Mostly because I didn’t really know myself.

Leaving my first PT job had little do with actually practicing PT.  Lack of confidence played a role.  As did my desire to explore all the world had to offer.  Less than a week after leaving that first job, I found myself in the familiar gray and green uniform of the National Park Service.  Six months later, I was roaming the streets of Paris, Venice, and Rome.  And six months after that, I was living in Boston volunteering for a year with Americorps.  The list goes on and on.

I left that second PT job because I didn’t really want to work in a nursing home.  The only reason I chose to apply there was because the want ad said that I could call to inquire about the position. I wanted to be able to explain my absence from the profession before submitting a resume.

“But you have a license, right?” said the woman on the other end of the line.

“Yes.”

“Then it’s not a problem,” she said.

I thought it a fluke.  But as I look back, I’ve had numerous PT’s say they’d hire me in a second – most having no knowledge of my skills as a therapist.

Which reminds me of a corporate job I was once hired for. They didn’t care about your skills – or lack thereof.  Those are teachable, they explained. What isn’t teachable is a good personality. Which, apparently, I have.

So here I sit, contemplating it all again.  Third time’s a charm? Perhaps.  Weeks ago I printed out the forms I’d need to get a license in North Carolina.  They sit on a shelf in my closet. Maybe I’ll pull them out.  Maybe.

Post-college life

A while back (November actually), I started a series of posts on how I got here.  By “here” I mean how I got to the point where I’m generally accepting of the fact that not everyone is meant to have just one job that they go to 9-5 for twenty years.  How I got to the point where I actually accept and usually embrace that who I am is someone who will never have just one full-time job, but will have many different income streams that will come and go with the tides.

So last we left off, I was one of just three people in my class o f thirty-six to have a physical therapist job upon graduation.  And every single one of my thirty-five classmates knew the last thing I wanted to do in life was work as a physical therapist.  Why?  Well, that’s a bit of a complicated question.  At the time, I genuinely thought I didn’t want to actually be a physical therapist.  In hindsight, I now know that it wasn’t that I didn’t like PT, it’s that I liked so many other things too and didn’t want to pick just one.  But no one had told me yet that it was possible to live a fabulous life without having a 9-5 job.

So I did as was expected and started my part-time physical therapy job.  I came home every day and cried.  Well, sometimes I didn’t make it home.  I went to the county park at lunch and cried on a park bench.  Secretly hoping to see my ex-boyfriend who worked there, which I did.  But that’s another story.

It wasn’t that the job was so bad.  It wasn’t at all by most accounts.  My co-workers were happy people willing to help me at any time.  My patients liked me and got better.  The setting had all the latest equipment.  The problem?  It was my first post-college job and I felt lost.  Up until that point I’d worked in PT settings with a supervisor to talk to.  Here, the place was so busy I barely had time to think.  I took to talking into a tape recorder between patients so I could remember at the end of the day who I did what with when it came time to write notes – if there was time to write notes.  And though everyone said they’ d be happy to help me, I felt that they were entirely too busy to help.  In hindsight, I should have asked to sit down with a senior PT once a week to review my caseload and make sure I was on track with my treatment plans.  But it was my first job out of college and I thought I was supposed to know it all.  Oh what a relief to have since learned you never know it all and it’s okay to ask questions.

Funny, even, that ten years later I have done more things that I had zero experience in without a problem!  No degree, no background, just a desire – I’ve lost track of the number of times that’s been my work situation by choice.

But I was young and inexperienced with the working world.  To her credit, my mom told me to do just what I mentioned above – ask to meet with someone once a week.  I never did.  Instead, two months after starting the job, I resigned.  It was the first of many jobs from which I’d resign over the next ten years.  I can’t recall what I said or any of the feelings I felt.  You know how you do something so much you don’t remember anymore what it felt like the first time?  That’s me and resignations.

My boss took it all in stride.  To this day, whenever he sees me about town, he will always introduce me as “the girl with the shortest PT career ever.”  I can laugh now, but it was nothing but tears back then.

What prompted me to leave?  Well, I had worked as a Park Ranger a few summers before and was still in touch with my old boss there.  He always wanted me back, but PT internships took up my summers.  I was at the park chatting with him one day and he told me how one of his seasonals was leaving and, once again, asked if I wanted a job.  I don’t think he thought I’d take him up on it – now that I had a degree and license to practice something completely different.  But he was wrong.  I did the math.  Because if I was going to quit my first PT job, I’d need to make it okay with dad, and dad’s language is money.  I figured out that working full-time at the park would earn me the same as working part-time as a PT.  So I resigned and went back to work as a Park Ranger.

No, dad wasn’t happy.  In situations like this, we tell mom first.  She then preps dad for the news, sometimes delivering it herself.  Having had more experience with him, she handles his incredulous looks and angry stammering so that by the time we get to him he’s not necessarily adjusted, but has calmed just a tiny little bit.

I dug out my old gray and green uniform, found  my signature Park Ranger hat, and went back to work at a job I loved.  But most park jobs are seasonal.  My season ended in December, 1999.  But by that time, I had my next adventure all planned out….