Diego Turned Angel

On Child's Level.pngI’ve never considered myself to be certifiably insane, but – deciding to be a long-term sub for the last month of the school year? – maybe I should reconsider the state of my mental health.

After I resigned from my cushy (and soul-numbing) corporate job in April, I took a three-week long term substitute teaching assignment at a nearby elementary school. I figured it would be a good opportunity to learn some key teaching skills before I started my full-time teaching job in August. And I was right.

What I hadn’t taken into consideration were the facts that:

  • These 5th graders in my class had already finished their state testing and so felt like there was no more learning to be done.
  • They believed that they ruled the world (as the oldest grade in their school).
  • Summer (and graduation from elementary school) was less than one month away.
  • It was a Title I school.
  • I had basically zero experience with classroom management.

Suffice it to say, I nearly died those first few days. I had kids threaten to have their parents sue me when I said the wrong thing, had kids tell me they hated me and I was the worst teacher ever, had parents calling in wanting a parent-teacher conference because they believed their child was being bullied, had to get a counselor involved because a fifth grade boy was following girls into the bathroom and touching them inappropriately… It. Was. Madness.

But I survived. And I am better for it. And, looking back, it was actually a lot of fun. Because – for the first time in nearly eight years – I actually had purpose. I actually felt challenged. And I finally made an impact.

Diego was one of the kids I nearly sent to ISS the first day I subbed. He talked incessantly and, as soon as I got the class calmed down and on task, he (as a natural leader and the class clown) had the power to get them all off task again. I felt like I was constantly battling him for the class’s attention.

And Victor. He was the most simultaneously hateful, cynical, apathetic person I have ever met in my entire life. He loved to argue with me in front of the class just for argument’s sake. He knew I couldn’t physically touch him, so he openly defied me on a daily basis when I asked to speak with him privately outside. He refused to go in the hallway, and I couldn’t physically force him, so for a long time, I lost the daily battles of power struggle with Victor – the most arrogant, abrasive student I can imagine I will ever have in decades of teaching.

But as the weeks went on and I learned students’ names and personalities and values and insecurities, I slowly learned how to individualize not only my teaching but also my motivation and discipline of each one.

On my last week of subbing, the students were supposed to be engaging in silent reading time. Diego repeatedly got off task, reading out loud in an intentionally loud voice and distracting other students. When I asked him to read silently, he claimed not to be able to read without saying the words out loud (this was a lie). He – like Victor – refused to go into the hall with me, so I knelt down on his level and whispered to him quietly.

“Diego,” I sighed. “I know you think I don’t like you, but I do. I think you’re adorable. You’re smart, funny and a natural leader. You have so much potential!”

I shrugged my shoulders and continued as I knelt beside his desk on his eye level. “You are not a bad kid. But right now you are making bad choices. I can see the kind of man you could be, and I really want to see you reach your full potential. You are natural leader with a lot of power to do a lot of good in the world. But in order to do that, you need to start making better choices.”

To my surprise, Diego’s eyes started to water. He was tearing up, and I realized he probably had never been told by anyone that he had potential; that he had value and worth and power to do good in the world. So I went on, “It’s really up to you. I only have a few days left here, so it won’t affect me either way. But every day, you make choices that have consequences, and those can be good or bad consequences. I hope for your sake – and the world’s – you choose good.”

Diego just hung his head and wouldn’t make eye contact with me after that, so I left him alone, but he was surprisingly quiet the rest of the day.

The next morning, the class was working individually on a math worksheet, and – to my surprise – Diego raised his hand and asked for help understanding how to add fractions. He’d never expressed interest in learning before. Encouraged, I knelt by his desk and gently explained to him how to find common denominators so he could add (or subtract) fractions easily. I watched the lightbulb flash in his eyes as he “got” it, and he worked a few problems on his own to show me that he understood the concept.

Later that afternoon, some girls got in trouble for selling homemade “slime” (that ended up clogging the school toilets), and a lot of the kids – exposed to this entrepreneurial spirit for perhaps the first time – were trying to figure out how they could make some side money selling something at school. Diego came up to me and asked simply, “Will you give me five dollars?”

“Why would I give you five dollars?” I asked, not unkindly.

Diego looked thoughtful. “What if I gave you something?”

“Like what?” I asked, forcing him to think through what he was asking.

“Hmm… like a cake?” he suggested.

“That sounds nice,” I told him. “What kind of cake?”

He furrowed his brow, thinking hard. “Maybe chocolate or strawberry?”

I smiled. “Diego, if you bring me a chocolate cake tomorrow, I will give you five dollars.”

I had little to no expectation that the little man who’d given me so much trouble would actually follow through in baking a cake, but the next morning, Diego bounded into my room, beaming with delight he tried to hide a bit as he dashed up to me holding a little 9″x9″ foil pan.

“I brought it!” he exclaimed, and I peeled back the foil to see chocolate icing covering what looked like a homemade box cake.

I smiled at him and pulled a $5 from my wallet. “Here you go,” I told him. “You earned it!” His delight as he accepted the money made me smile all the more.

In retrospect, I probably couldn’t have done that exchange with Diego if I was a full-time teacher or if I hadn’t been about to leave that school campus, but I’m thankful for the way it worked out because not only did I finally make a meaningful, positive connection with a formerly disruptive student, but Diego also learned some important lessons about entrepreneurship, determination, and the power of our choices. He finally had someone show him tough love and believe in him for becoming more than he was.

The next day was my last day, and I had essentially no hope for a reconciliation with Victor, but even he surprised me. Early in the day, I kept Victor outside of the computer lab to talk with him before he went in. I gave him a similar speech to the one I’d given Diego, and like the other boy, Victor started to tear up. I don’t think either one had ever experienced a loving “I believe you for better” heart-to-heart. And at the end of that school day, Victor – the thorn in my side and bane of my existence – was the first to volunteer to stack chairs on the desks before recess. He picked up loose papers and helped me tidy up the classroom without being asked, and my heart was warmed by his transformation.

After a tough few weeks, God gave me two amazing reminders of why I’m going into teaching. It’s going to be hard but good. It’s going to be challenging but worth it. There are days I will want to cry in frustration, but I believe there will be great purpose and impact on individual lives. And that’s what I want to be about in this next year and in this next season of life.

A few weeks later, Seth and I were at dinner with some friends – old and new – and one of the new girls asked what I did for a living. After a few moments, we made the connection that she had formerly been a teacher at the elementary school where I’d subbed. “Oh my gosh! You’re THAT sub! I heard you did an amazing job, and all the teachers there want to have you back as the sub for their classrooms!”

I smiled and thanked her, storing up those words in my heart. As we drove away in his truck hours later, Seth turned to me and said with a squeeze of my hand, “Your reputation precedes you. I’m proud to have you by my side.”

I’m glad to be there. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Authentically Aurora

Advertisements

Exit Interview (Part 4)

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 8.42.21 PM.png

I just found out on Friday that, back in January, my boss blocked me from getting a $2,000 performance bonus that another manager had nominated me for. She really is the worst.

My manager has such a controlling personality that she never gave me anything meaningful to do, so – with all my spare time – I offered to do side projects for other managers. When I performed well, they nominated me for a recognition award, but apparently my boss told the talent forum I was having performance issues in my day job and shouldn’t be rewarded for “supposedly” performing on side projects. I am so glad that TOMORROW IS MY LAST DAY!!!

On Friday I got an automated email from HR asking me to respond to a 3-minute online exit interview. When I started at this company eight years ago, HR did face-to-face exit interviews to understand why people were leaving and how they could better the organization to prevent future exodus. It’s no surprise to me that we have devolved to a 3-minute online exit interview that only took me literally 20 seconds: First name, last name, employee number – and then select from a drop-down box the reason you are leaving. How sad. How pathetic. Eight years’ worth of a career summed up in a single drop-down box.

If I had the chance to do a real face-to-face interview with Human Resources, this is what I would have said:

“First of all, I am sharing this information with you because I want [company] to be a better company. I want y’all to succeed (in no small part because I am a shareholder). And I see gaps in the way you bring people in, the way you train them, and the way you treat them. Nothing I am about to share is out of bitterness or spite; it is an honest account of my eight year career here at [company].

“When I first hired in, [company] hired me into a virtual team. My first boss ever was based in Amsterdam, and my line manager changed four times over those first fourteen months. Still further, my first four managers here at [company] were all based in Europe. I had a virtual team, a virtual manager – no real support. And I was a 22-year-old fresh out of college. I was ready to leave by month three.

“My parents advised me to stay at my first job for at least two years, and my pension wasn’t fully vested until year three, so I stuck it out. But in that first job, I – being a Type A perfectionist, self-starter and high achiever – frantically tried to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with no direction from a boss who was having a personal breakdown across the pond in Europe.

“When I finally got moved to another role fourteen long months later, I was given to a first-time line manager who (blessedly was State-side but) had me doing data entry. For twelve months, I surfed the web, did data entry, asked other managers for real work, did data entry, got put on one token project, and did more data entry. Eventually I went to my line manager and told her that it was not benefiting [company] to pay me six figures to type data into a contract management system, and it was not benefiting me to have my brain rot away as I slowly went insane. She graciously (and meekly, as was her way) agreed with me, and we went together to HR, who placed me in my third role two months later.

“My third role with [company], about 2.5 years into my career, was the first time I had any real responsibility. I was finally given contracts to negotiate, bid packages to manage, and purchase orders to process. For the first time, I understood what Procurement meant, and I’d worn the title of Procurement Analyst for over two years. That was a good, meaty role with a smart, caring boss, and I learned a ton! But the moment I finally realized what Procurement was, I also realized that I had no desire to work in Procurement.

“After that, I had a couple of roles in Functional Excellence and Operational Excellence where I absolutely thrived. I had a boss who gave me free reign over big data, and once I automated all of the weekly, monthly and quarterly reports my predecessor had done manually, I had four days a week where I just got to play in the data and develop my own personal presentations for senior leadership on opportunities for improvement, prioritized by overall impact on the company. I had a boss who trusted me, respected me, and gave me the white space to think creatively. She also made sure I had a platform to senior leadership by which to voice my thoughts and analysis. Those were the best two years of my career, and my bonuses and performance scores reflected the fact that I was finally in an area I loved under a boss who knew how to lead me and champion me.

“Then we had an organizational restructuring, and I found myself shuffled around with everyone else. I ended up in Global Functions managing IT contracts – rather, one 10-year, 4 billion dollar contract. Actually, my boss managed the contract as the Procurement Lead. I was just her grunt to do her menial tasks. Except that she was so controlling that she didn’t even trust me to do her menial tasks. In two years, I never heard a single positive comment from her about my work. There was never a ‘good job on this’ or even a simple ‘thank you’ for getting something done on time – and I always got my work done on time. It would be inexcusable if I didn’t, because I was only 20% utilized. I spent the other 80% of my time asking other managers (who trusted me) for more work. Or building my network, going out for long lunches and coffee dates. Or shopping online or writing my blog.

“One year into the role, I made a few complaints; raised my hand to say that this reporting line was intolerable; that my relationship with my boss was toxic and could not last more than another year. Nothing happened, so I started to actively look externally. I started working on my teaching certification at work, studying for state certification exams and taking online courses. I didn’t have any other work to do, and I am not one to let grass grow under my feet. I will always find something productive to do, and it was [company]’s loss that they were unable to make better use of my time and talents.

“I wanted to be utilized. I wanted to add value. I wanted my work to matter; wanted my life here to matter. But I repeatedly found myself under bosses or in work stations where I wasn’t challenged; wasn’t heard; wasn’t valued. And that is the real reason I’m leaving. People say, ‘People don’t leave companies; they leave bosses.’ And it’s true that this latest boss was the worst I’ve ever had (and I’ve had 14 just at [company]). But more than leaving because of her, I am leaving because the [company] system is broken. I look at the managers ahead of me – middle management, senior management – and they are not people I want to work for. They are not people I respect, and I do not want to become them. I don’t like the direction I see this company going, and I don’t like the way leadership has been permitted to treat its people.

“You hire the best and the brightest out of college because you can. You have that brand name recognition. And you say that you want them to come in and make things better. You say you want a fresh perspective and creative thinking and innovative problem solving. But you don’t. Not really. You want lukewarm, mediocre college students who are not passionate about anything to come in and fit neatly as a cog on a wheel of the machine that you are driving into the ground. I know that’s what you subconsciously (or perhaps unintentionally) want because that is what you have done to each of the brilliant minds you’ve hired.

“Look around you. No one here likes their job. No one here laughs or smiles or has any semblance of joy. This place has no future. Unless – unless! – you take to heart words of the surely countless people like me who are telling you things you don’t want to hear. And we are saying these things because it is ultimately for your good. Things need to change if you ever want this company to be top quartile, and it all starts with how you treat people.”

Too bad they’ll never hear what I had to say. Ironically, they don’t have a proper system in place to hear that their people are not heard. It’s so beautifully and tragically poetic.

Authentically Aurora

Why Do You Work?

Job Arial view

Which is more important to you: time or money?

 

Why do you work? To be successful, to maintain a certain standard of living, to find your identity and purpose, or for some other reason?

 

I decided in 2nd grade that I was going to be an engineer. My reasons were varied and diverse:

  • My dad was an engineer, and I wanted to be like him.
  • I enjoyed math and science; problem solving was a fun hobby for me. I was always up for a mental challenge.
  • Smart people become engineers, and I wanted to be thought of as smart and successful.
  • I liked objective subjects, where no one could give me a bad grade without being able to justify their actions (like when I got a C on my first history paper because my teacher “just didn’t think it was well written” even though all of my facts were accurate).

Having earned an engineering degree and having worked at a major oil company for seven years now, I have come to find that working in the business world is not all that I imagined.

  • Though my dad was an engineer, he worked at a small company where he rose through the ranks and set the tone for a culture that appreciated creative problem solving and new ideas. This is not the case at a Major. When my dad’s little company got bought out by a giant, he disliked his once enjoyable career as much as I do now. Although my company recruits creative, self-motivated, intelligent individuals, it takes those brilliant minds and sticks them deep within the confines of The Machine, where they are no more than a cog in the wheel, and all individual thought is not only stifled but punished.
  • Problem solving is fun when dealing with a closed set – like an Agatha Christie murder mystery where all of the suspects are snowed in to a log cabin, minimizing unforeseen variables. But the real world is messy, and there are an infinite number of variables that are impossible to control or calculate into a solution. This is significantly less fun than the problem sets I solved for fun as a kid.
  • As I have written about multiple times, simply having an engineering degree – and even being a well spoken and intelligent person – does not mean that people will think you are smart and successful. My boss thinks I’m incompetent just because our working styles don’t align.
  • Although in school, math homework has a right or wrong answer, in Corporate America, workers get graded based on subjective opinions and perceptions, many of which are more a reflection of the manager than the employee being evaluated.

While our parents worked primarily to earn a living, Millennials are generally driven by a need for purpose and identity; to find meaning in their work. I hate to ever be a part of the crowd, but of late, I find myself fitting the generalization. Money is not much of a motivator for me. At this stage of life – having experienced all that I have at the hands of Corporate America – I would rather earn less and be more fulfilled in my work. Which is why I have started working on my Teaching Certification in the hopes of teaching junior high math.

Some fellow Christians will tell me (and have told me) that I should find my identity in Christ and not in my job. That’s true, but that’s no reason to stay at a miserable job. The bible says in Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (2:24), and again, that “that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work” (3:22).

Some lower-income friends will tell me (and have told me) that money is not a motivator now because I’ve never had to go without. While that may be true, I imagine there is a lot of character development to be had from learning to restrict spending as a result of voluntarily taking a pay cut.

Some friends will tell me (and have told me) that every job will have its frustrations and disappointments. While I acknowledge that to be true, I also believe that – if every job has its challenges, and every work environment has a couple of “difficult personalities” to deal with – I may as well enjoy the work itself. I’ve spent seven years not enjoying my workload in addition to dealing with difficult people.

There have been countless closed doors over the past seven years of trying to change careers. But I’m prayerfully considering yet another attempt at a new career path, and hopefully God sees fit to swing the right door wide open, whether it’s teaching or something else I have yet to even consider.

I’m hoping it’s teaching though. After all, teachers have the best blogging material.

Authentically Aurora