17 years a PE Teacher. No longer.
It has been a challenging year professionally. An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for their own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress, but the wise person never has to blame another or themselves. I’m often ignorant, though I’m practising daily at becoming more wise. I’m guided by the words of Epictetus – “Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.” The obstacle therefore is not one of Fortune, which is out of my control, but one of Identity.
So much of who I am is tied up in my work, specifically my role of a PE Teacher. To begin with it was who I wasn’t, then it became who I was. I fell into PE Teaching and for a long time I felt shame at the profession I had joined. I was proud to be a teacher, but not a PE Teacher. That embarrassment was summed up whenever I met new people and the etiquette of small talk required you to discuss what you did for a living. I either said I was a teacher, in the hope that they wouldn’t ask which subject I taught, or I apologetically replied “I’m just a PE Teacher.” So much anxiety and guilt about my professional identity was bound up in that simple word – ‘just‘.
Then I had a conversation on a train with an ex-pupil. A critical moment that redefined my professional identity, making me turn my gaze from outwards to inwards. To peer deep within myself and realise the clear gap between the ideal self that I was trying to project and who I really was. I wasn’t a very good PE Teacher and probably had done more harm than good. From that moment I was committed to developing my craft of teaching PE and coaching school sport. I learnt to be proud of being a PE Teacher, dropping ‘just’ from my answer to those who asked me what I did for a job. It has become my identity. More than a partner, a son, a friend or a good person. They were pushed aside to make room for the worth I found in my role as a PE Teacher.
In Range, David Epstein’s book that explores generalists and specialists, he tells the story of a group of smokejumpers in the Mann Gulch fire in 1949. Smokejumpers are specially trained wildland firefighters, who provide an initial attack response to fires by parachuting into remote and rugged terrain. However at Mann Gulch the fire had move from the South Slope to the North Slope which put the smokejumpers in danger. They were given orders to drop their tools and run to escape the fire, some didn’t and were caught by the flames. This holding onto tools happened in four separate fires during the 1990s. The dropping of the tools by the fireman caused an existential crisis, for if they dropped their firefighting tools they are no longer a firefighter. If no longer a firefighter, then what? That mindset of holding on to something is what kills you.
So if no longer a PE teacher, then what? That answer is to be explored, but in part it is not to define my whole worth solely through a profession. My job must be part of my identity, not what consumes it. It must be something that serves a community by developing their craft. The craft of being a good person, who tries to live a good life. Who develops and expands their capabilities for the benefit of those around them. A reciprocal process which states ‘I gain only when I give.’ The 2nd Mountain as David Brooks calls it, an identity that puts relationships and commitments front and centre. To do that I need to down my tools and embrace the unsettling anxiety that comes through letting my identity of being a PE teacher go.