There I was, standing up at the front of the room with marker in hand, writing the last line to balance a chemical reaction on the whiteboard. When I finished that line, I turned around, and that whispering that happened every time my back was to the class immediately stopped. I backed away from the board and turned back toward it to check out my work. Every line started higher on the left and then sagged down toward the right side of the board, a bit like a rainbow.
“Coach [that was their nickname for me], your writing on the board has gotten a lot better.”
“You think?” I asked.
“Definitely.” A bunch of other people confirmed. They seemed pretty genuine. I had no idea they had been paying so much attention to that. I was simultaneously self-conscious and pleased.
I looked back at the board again… my writing wasn’t in straight lines across, but they were right. They only sloped a little. Plus the writing was big enough you could actually read it. I had gotten better.
Then I remembered it was probably more important to ask if people understood the problem itself.
“Does it make sense how I did that?”
Nobody asked any questions. Secretly I was glad. I couldn’t be sure I’d be able to answer the questions. I had just taught myself how to balance chemical reactions a couple nights prior. That was pretty typical… I was always only about two days ahead of the high school chemistry class. A Neils Bohr I was not… I hadn’t taken chemistry since my junior year of high school about ten years prior to that. If you asked me to name another famous chemist, I’d probably distract you and run away. I might’ve spelled Neils Bohr wrong, I don’t even know.
The bell rang. Most of the class grabbed their stuff and more or less ran out. A bunch of people pounced on me at the front of the room.
“Coach, here’s my homework from when I was sick last week.”
“Coach, can I talk to you about the quiz I missed?”
“Do you have after school hours today?”
“Guys, one at a time—” I interjected.
One by one they asked me questions, handed me late assignments, and I fiercely scribbled to-do notes on post-its to myself and stamped them to my notebook, my cart, my forehead. There were post-its everywhere. I distinctly remember drowning in my own sea of post-its.
I then loaded all my gear and threw it on my cart. I looked at the clock—four minutes between classes were now down to one or two minutes left. My next class was at the other end of the building. I raced my cart down the hall while rifling through my stuff trying to find the transparency with the problem set on it that I’d put together at 10 o’clock the night before to give myself an opportunity to catch my breath when I kicked off the class. When I got to the room there were a few students waiting for me at the door.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” a student asked.
“Can I get the homework assignment from when I was out?” another student asked.
I did my best to handle their questions, but that was right about the moment I realized I seriously had to pee and there was no way I’d make it the full class without having to go. The bell rang— too late. I’d most likely have to hold it. I got the problem set on the overhead projector, gave everyone the instructions, walked to the desk at the side of the room and flopped into the chair.
It was only third period and I was already exhausted. A few minutes of peace while they worked would be—
“Um, I have a question…” one of the kids called out to me.
I heard myself say I guess a few seconds will have to do.
* * *
Fast forward a couple years later. It was 8:50am and I’d woken up about ten minutes prior. My first meeting was at 9 o’clock. I thought to myself, Good. Plenty of time for my morning commute.
I walked from my bedroom to the guest bedroom which doubled as an office, where I sat down at my desk and flipped open my laptop to boot it up. I went to the kitchen, toasted a bagel, got myself a cup of tea and walked back to my computer. I picked up the phone to dial into my meeting with two minutes to spare. I let out a relaxed sigh.
At the time, the contrast couldn’t have been more extreme. I first took a teaching job after the company I worked for prior to that began to tank. I had always wondered about teaching as a career. I thought it was something I’d have a passion for… it felt like a mix of service and creativity. I had always enjoyed school myself, so I thought it would be fun, I thought I would enjoy finding creative ways to explain things to kids, and I even thought the summers off would give me the opportunity to write books. On paper, it seemed great.
I lasted a year.
There were great things about it, no doubt. The kids were hilarious. There were some awesome moments, like the time one of my students was at risk of getting kicked off the wrestling team for bad grades and I tutored him after school… he got a perfect score on the next quiz, eeked his way through the final exam, and ended the year with a passing grade. He was grinning ear to ear when I saw him and he told me I was the best chemistry teacher ever. (With all due respect, his only point of comparison was the real chemistry teacher I’d taken over for when she went out on maternity leave, and I’m pretty sure her own chemistry education hadn’t stopped in her junior year of high school. I digress…)
But make no mistake about it, teaching high school was a terrible personality fit for me. The day was so structured and scheduled. I am a fairly introverted individual, yet I found myself in a role where one has to be on stage all the time, talking, fielding questions, disciplining… and oh yes, the disciplining. I’m a softy—pretty laid back, definitely not a disciplinarian. My classrooms were on the brink of out-of-control on a regular basis. Classroom management is so key, but I could not seem to find that key. Nobody feels good when they misplace their keys.
Anyway, I was constantly behind, stressed, and sleep-deprived from trying to plan lessons the night before. Any way you slice it, I was pretty miserable.
Now if I compare that with my working at home gig, things couldn’t have been further from that. I went back to my journal to see if I wrote about the transition and all I could find was this response to a friend to a question I commonly fielded about my work-from-home job:
You asked me if I get bored working from home and if I miss working in a school or in an office. Obviously I don’t miss the school since I was so fried by it by the end, but after working from home for a little over a month now, I have to say, you’re right. I do really miss office life. To cope with it, I’ve started making some changes to the home office to make it feel more like a regular office.
–I’ve begun brewing bad coffee every morning. I don’t even drink coffee. It just sits there and I complain about how bad it is.
–I’ve built myself a cubicle and hung some pictures on it, and a bunch of cynical work slogans including the one I got yesterday that says “I always give 100% at work. 20% Monday, 30% Tuesday, 25% Wednesday, 15% Thursday, and 10% Friday.”
–I have gone for scratchy one-ply in the office bathroom. If possible, I hold it until 6pm when I can go use my other bathroom.
–I’ve set up a suggestion box. Some idiot keeps writing “Get a bigger TV in the lounge.”
–I’ve set up a water cooler with a stuffed animal next to it so I can still get my fill of awkward water cooler conversation.
Me: So, did you see Biggest Loser last night?
Me: It was pretty crazy, wasn’t it?
Me: Think there’ll be cake for my birthday today?
Me: Yeah, I thought so.
Indeed, life is rough. But I think I’ll manage…
People always asked me if working from home was boring or lonely—that was probably the most common question. It wasn’t for me. But I can tell you that being “on” all day with constant interaction with people is often draining and sometimes stressful to me. The introvert in me needs quiet time by myself.
People also asked me how I could focus with all the distractions. Wouldn’t I just be tempted to do other things and never get any work done? Or is the reality that I just goof off and work less and that’s what makes it such a great gig?
Not at all. I worked very hard for those two years. I almost never felt distracted. Back in college, there were those who preferred to study at the library. I hated going to the library… there were all these people walking by, I’d get distracted by people-watching, by friends coming up to talk… I preferred studying in my dorm room. I could shut things out, snack when I needed to, take breaks when I needed to, but otherwise dive in and stay focused.
The most noteworthy difference about working from home relative to teaching was my lack of stress. I was working a comparable number of hours, maybe more. I had to travel for my work-from-home job which often has its own challenges. But overall these two years worked so much better for me.
Was my work-from-home gig my passion? Certainly not. Teaching had a much better shot of becoming a real passion.
These days the mantra seems to be all about finding work you’re passionate about. Everywhere you turn, people are telling you that passion for your work will solve all of your work woes. And I love passion—I advocate for it as well. Life is short. Love what you do.
But I learned a pretty practical lesson during my brief stint teaching and then working from home. It’s not a sexy lesson, but I think it’s important to remember since I know even I still get swept away thinking about things like passion, meaning, and fulfillment when it comes to work.
The lesson for me is this:
There are so many things that contribute to your enjoyment at work. The space and environment, the people, the work culture, the subject matter, the role you have, the boss you have, what you wear, the hours you work, how long your commute is… they can all make or break your experience at work. Don’t understimate the importance of the utterly practical and ordinary.
And if something is a bad fit for your personality, well, it’s probably easier to change your job than it is to change your personality.
Me: Right Bear?
Me: That’s what I thought.
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