Being Honest About Your Struggles Helps Others Buy In to Their Own
Warning: the following short biography is highly self-absorbed and slanted. This is entirely by design.
As a young sports fan growing up in Staten Island, I fell asleep each night to the sounds of the games on the radio. I was fascinated by the stage provided by all parties, and as someone who excelled in school and constantly sought challenges, I envisioned a dream as a broadcaster. I worked hard to convince my parents to put me in the best schools they could, leading to an acceptance to Northeastern University where I got to live out my passion through a degree in communication studies and involvement in the sports department at the student radio station.
I was able to dive right into the world of pro sports at this time as a producer for the top-billing sports talk station in the country, where I worked to cover some of the most significant American sports moments of the early 21st century. I parlayed this experience into a job in California as a pro hockey announcer with the Bakersfield Condors. I lived my dream, and through teaching I can convey that buying into education can still turn ambition into reality.
This is the version of my story that I usually put out there, and it's a story I've crafted because it's the version of me that I always wanted people to see. It fit a narrative that put me over as driven and motivated, but it hides the gritty reality of the struggles and failures I've faced to get to this point.
The thing is this: those failures are what made me, yet they're the things I've felt I needed to shroud.
When we introduce ourselves to our students, the version of us we try to present is wisened, experienced, authoritative and confident. It has likely taken you hours, weeks, years of pain, heartache, and anguish to reach this best version of you. But that's not what we share, because it makes us vulnerable. So when we promote personal development to our students, concepts like grit and growth mindset, we leave out the most influential and impactful case study to illustrate their true impact: our own.
A recent episode of the wonderful Art of Charm podcast, "Truth: A Better Way to Talk About Ourselves," dives into this idea, and its host, Jordan Harbinger, provides his own example of how crafting a self-mythology can create a detrimental echo chamber of inherent ability. This hit me hard in particular, because I had fallen for my own self-narrative in my current role. I took this as a challenge to recraft my story as I truly experienced it.
Below is the product of a couple of weeks of self-reflection.
My parents tried hard to provide a normal life for me. They didn't belong together, and their version of a normal life sometimes involved means that one wouldn't necessarily qualify as "up-and-up." To that end, they held firm in the idea that your job as a parent was to provide a better life for your kids than you had. I don't know if I was spoiled, but I was definitely attended to. So when I was the skinny smart kid in the public school and grew frustrated with bullying and passive enrichment, it didn't take much to convince them to take me out and put me somewhere else.
This was a cycle that would continue all through middle school, where what was successful in obtaining good grades stopped working. Teachers gave up on me, and on occasions where I had broken through, I was accused by those teachers of cheating. Amidst these academic frustrations were deeper fractures at home. Alcoholism, theft, gambling, fraud: I have vivid recalls of these, which led to a more aggressive side that led to suspensions. When you start tallying Adverse Childhood Experiences, the number upon reflection became astounding.
I had outlets to escape these influences, and many of them involved some sort of retreat. Performing in school plays, playing video games, and listening to WFAN in New York. The sounds of the Mets, Knicks, and Rangers were my lullabies. There were stretches where Bob Murphy and Howie Rose would have more positive things to say to me as a young fan than my parents would.
I sought stability in my life, which is why I had a particular fondness for math. These were problems that I could control because I knew how to visualize the structure behind it. Math was also the venue where my creeping rebellious streak was valued and honored. When my elementary school teachers presented a method, I developed my own alternative, knowing they'd reject it even if it worked, and I did it anyway.
Our middle school took us on a field trip to our zoned high school, at the conclusion of which sophomores literally growled at us from behind a chain link fence: "If you come here, we will kill you." It was the last thing I needed for possibly my last chance to escape my surroundings. I desperately scheduled a meeting with my school counselor and asked him if there were any other options, and he recommended me to a high-tuition college prep school, which I was able to convince my parents to send me to on the condition that I passed their scholarship exam, on which I somehow turned in the highest score ever submitted.
I had my share of successes (my insight and analytical joy of math meant I passed two Calculus AP exams and a Computer Science AP) and a good amount of downfalls but because of the quality of the school, I was able to gain early admission to Northeastern. It was later reported that my class at Northeastern was a year in which a glitch has admitted too many freshman, and I wondered if my 2.7 GPA put me in that share of the class of '05 that should have never been there. But I was there, and tried to make the best of it.
Loans were an issue, and I worked wherever I could to supplement what my parents co-signed for. While pursing a dream as a sports broadcaster that many in my family tried to dissuade me from due to the low salaries in the field, I used a lineage of college broadcasters to work part-time as an overnight producer at WEEI. This was during a fortuitous time that included some New England Patriots Super Bowl wins and the 2004 Boston Red Sox historic World Series win. I was there because I was willing to be anywhere, anytime, often at the expense of my classes. I missed classes, dropped courses, all because I saw this as a chance to prove people wrong. I saw that I had an outlet for what I had used as my escape and threw myself full-force into it.
I graduated in 2005 without a job for two months after sending out demo tapes and getting just one interview with a hockey team in Utah, who opted to promote from within. I got a call from a college friend asking if I was still looking for a job, I said "Yes", and the next day I had an impromptu interview over the phone with the Bakersfield Condors, who needed a media relations director on short notice. I was offered the job the next day, and drove across the country a week later.
As was the case with many dream jobs, it was anything but. The locker room was not kind to my awkward presence, the front office machinations made little sense to me, I was harshly criticized on message boards dedicated to how awful I was at my job, and I never truly felt like I had the support of the people I worked with. After one season, my contract was not renewed, and I was done. I was thousands of miles from home, and I was finished as a broadcaster.
I stayed in Bakersfield to see through a relationship with a girl I met, in part because I wanted to prove that I could find a path to happiness. We got married, and have two incredible children. To support our life, I tried a variety of careers that led to more spinning wheels: first car rental, then local TV ad sales. The latter came just as the recession of 2008 hit, and so hurting for income I decided to give substitute teaching a shot and loved it. I realized I had all these skills that played a perfect role in the classroom, and I saw an opportunity to launch a second career.
That was seven years ago, and now I support math instruction for a K-8 school district with over 32,000 students. I never had a vision of this level of education as a career path, but every failure I've experienced (including those I make today and tomorrow) has prepared me to be successful now. For a long time, I was driven by the need to prove people wrong. When that didn't work anymore, I asked myself who benefitted from my indignance? With my dream of broadcasting, the only answer was "me."
Today, where I am as an educator, the answer is "them."
That's a version of my story that has only previously been shared in my home. It's longer, but it's truer than the elevator pitch at the top. Hopefully, it comes across as genuine. In doing so, it reflects what my true values are: following passions, overcoming hardship, and growing from failure.
Crafting your true narrative can be painful. As a teacher, you are the truest model of the products of education. It is of paramount importance that you then use your true story to communicate the values you wish to see espoused by your students.
Being honest, vulnerable, and reflective of your failures will only make your students feel safer in their own.
You don't need to be mythical. You can, however, be happy with imperfectly adaptive.
What's YOUR true story?