Professional Learning

Two Educators: Two Roads Converged

June 23, 2016 Updated June 21, 2016

“Two Educators” is a series written by Dylan Fenton, high school English teacher at Collingswood (NJ) High School and Brian Kulak, Chief Academic Officer at Collingswood (NJ) Public Schools. In this series, Dylan and Brian tackle educational topics from their unique perspectives as a teacher and an administrator. This post originally appeared at

Kulak: C’mon. You know how those first few years are.

Passionate. Idealistic. Romantic. Stressful. Consuming.

When we make the decision to enter into this contract, this life-affirming journey, we do so with the kind of grandeur and optimism at which we will later scoff while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram photos of our former selves.

Look at them, we think. All smiles, self-congratulatory poses, and an almost sideways glance that dares us to disparage their happiness. Even the people who look slightly less elated are doing their very best to feign the same kind of wonder we are portraying.

Sure, there are warts, roadblocks, detours, breakdowns, interventions, therapy. But those aren’t the pictures we’ll find on Instagram. For those first, say, five years, no amount of yoga or wine can make static our constantly undulating world.

During those first five years, we live in a perpetually chaotic balance between futile attempts at figuring life out ourselves and asking for help. While on that tenuous fulcrum, we are forced to (over)analyze our strengths, our weaknesses, and our ability to play well with others. We are simultaneously derided for choosing to live this lifestyle and praised for choosing to live this lifestyle. We hear, “I don’t know how do you do it” from a select group of friends. Or, “I might try that at some point” from another.

But, seriously, what’s the end game? Are we going to do this for the rest of our lives? At what point do we consider moving on, maybe somewhere else, to avoid the inevitable staleness that haunts so many of us? It’s at these times that the rest of the world seems panoramic while ours seems so dreadfully myopic. Maybe we would be better off pursuing something on our own. Maybe we do need the kind of variety that this life just doesn’t afford us.

And that’s only during the first five years. Give or take.

But, then, we tend to hit our stride. We start to figure “stuff” out. Sometimes we create a sense of stability, through our shared experience, for which we so desperately longed during those first several years. Other times, something brand new is introduced into our lives that reminds us why we signed up in the first place. Still other times, we look at those same Instagram pictures but through a completely different lense. “We don’t need to post about our lives and our choices; We just have to live them. We have arrived!” we think.

Because it’s during this phase that we…fully commit to a life so many others leave without so much as a goodbye to something about which they were so certain just a few years ago.

Over the next several years, we wonder to what can such self-awareness be attributed? Humility? Check. Reflection? Yup. Time? You bet’cha. That’s why this part of the journey, call it years 6-10 or so, is so crucial. Because it’s during this phase that we have made the conscious decision to grow with each other, those of us who are still in it, to shed the obligatory self-doubt, to fully commit to a life so many others leave without so much as a goodbye to something about which they were so certain just a few years ago.

And that’s only for the next five years. Give or take.

And that, my friends, is when the real work begins. Over the next 5-15 years, nestled in the relative comfort borne of experience and collective wisdom, we enter this next phase with, gasp!, a bit of entitlement. Because we have seen and done so much, often in concert with others who have made it this far, we tend to cloister ourselves from those who haven’t a clue about what they’re about to enter into. Oh, sure, we’ll offer kind words, we’ll show up at all the necessary functions, and we’ll wave our hats in solidarity, but we aren’t really present. I mean how could we be? We often don’t even speak the same language.

By this point, we have the same like-minded friends, so there’s no room to add more. We probably vote the same way, we exchange stories with the same basic characters and premises, we laugh at each other’s jokes, we roll our eyes at the same time and for the same reasons. We are, after all, veterans at this thing. Fifteen plus years affords the kind of privilege that comes with membership.

This, however, is also the time that complacency is often synonymous with comfort. It’s a time during which we may begin to go through the motions of what once was a passionate pursuit. Maybe we devote less time to it. Maybe we devote more time to anything else. Maybe we do look at what is shiny and new, and long for it. Or resent it. Maybe we recognize we are at the point of our journey at which it would take longer to go back to the beginning and start again than it would to just finish the journey. The point of no return, as it were.

And that’s when we have a decision to make. Again.

I guess the point is that marriage teaching, like so many other things in life, is very difficult.

Yet we keep choosing each other.

Give or take.

Fenton: Those months of gestation are phenomenal. Even though you’re not the real thing yet, you’re so full of hope, happiness, and old-fashioned goodwill that there’s little, if anything, that gets you down. When there are setbacks or difficulties, or the demands start to intensify, they’re so manageable that you start to wonder what all those complaints you’ve heard from others over the years are about. You feel confident and proud. You learn to take all the unsolicited advice with a knowing nod and a smirk that says, Thanks, but I think I got this.

But once that formative period is over, everything changes.


And when it does, you suddenly find yourself alone and this world that you imagined being so comfortable, so warm, so navigable, now seems foreign and mysterious. Unpredictable and scary. You’re not really sure what to do and no one seems to be able to help you. There are decisions to be made constantly and there’s this frequent feeling that you might be totally screwing up and you sometimes find yourself wondering, Just how the hell did I get here?

There are people and support systems to help you, but they can’t solve all your problems, and hey, you’ve got to figure this out one way or another and hand-holding is not going to help you get there.

So you struggle. There are sleepless nights and frequent illnesses and crying. Lots and lots of crying. Often you work so hard and have nothing to show for it except the wasted hours and a look of exhaustion. And when onlookers see you they give you compliments and congratulations and commendations, but their words feel empty as you see the veterans around you make doing this look so effortless.

You try and you fail. Make mistakes that seem monumental. Feel unappreciated and unworthy and you even wonder from time to time, Was this such a good idea?You spent all that time reading books and going to classes and planning for thisexact time, and when the time comes, all that preparation seems utterly…useless.

But you keep coming back. Keep showing up. Keep trying, driven by an overwhelming desire to get better, grow, succeed. Because, what other choice is there, really? Giving up, of course, is not an option.

It’s not that you’re great at what you do, but you’re not terrible either. You kind of suck at it and are good at it at the same time.

And then, the unexpected happens – the successes come. They’re small at first. A smile is returned, a skill is learned, your effort to create an environment that is warm and nurturing seems to have actually worked. It’s not that you’re great at what you do, but you’re not terrible either. You kind of suck at it and are good at it at the same time.

As time goes on, it gets easier. The successes are more frequent and come with much less effort. All those stupid cliches about earnest work, trying your hardest, and staying the course, well, they turn out to be true. You find that you get out of this what you put into it, and most of the time, that’s a whole lot.

And when that first year is over, what’s left of it? The memories and images and stories – they all get stuffed back away into the drawers of our mind where we’ll take them out from time to time and gaze on them sentimentally. They will fade, change color, and take on whole new meanings as we grow older and attain the experience that grants us deeper perspective on them.

But what we really achieved that first year is a foundation. The willingness to grow, learn and not get everything 100% right the first time around. The knowledge that it’s not how perfect the circumstances were, but the human connections that we made that were worthwhile.

We come away a little more humble, but more open. We may still feel lost and uncertain at times, but that feeling is no longer crippling. We get comfortable with uncertainty and the fact that we don’t have complete control over everything all the time. And the patience. Oh my, the patience that we discover within ourselves that we never knew we were capable of is astounding. And so we come back that second year a little wiser, a little more ready to take on new challenges, and just a little bit better at what we do.

And that’s around the time that we might just see an expecting parent student teacher and offer up some unsolicited advice. And when they blow us off with a smile that’s a little too confident, we’ll understand.

We’ll totally understand.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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