No one who knew me was surprised when I said I was going to become a Spanish teacher. Spanish was my best class, after all, and I liked school in the way that kids who are good at school like it. My Spanish teachers were adults who got to speak Spanish every day and I wanted to be like them.
I declared a Spanish major and a psychology minor in college. I always had the goal of being a teacher in the back of my mind, but I wanted the opportunity to do other things like the dance team and spend a semester abroad. The following year, I got my teaching license and embraced how much I loved being a leader, being a mentor, and how much I loved working with kids.
When I moved to Denver in September of 2016, there weren’t any Spanish teacher jobs available, but I wanted to get involved, so I accepted a position as an assistant preschool teacher in a bilingual school. This job paid even less than regular, full-time teaching, so I did some thinking about what else I could do to support myself. I had the random thought that Denver is home to several major sports leagues, and maybe they would hire me for a weekend job. I had no idea how important my job with the Broncos would end up being when I sat in my interview, but I often think that I’m someone who appreciates hindsight quite a lot.
In 2019, three significant things happened. One, I was let go from a teaching position that I loved. In Colorado, principals are not legally required to inform a probationary teacher (a teacher with less than three years of experience in the district) why they are not renewing their contract, so I never got any closure on that. It was devastating to my confidence and my perspective. I accepted a new position, but I never got my feet back under me. I never felt like I was successful and I had totally lost my spark. The second thing was that I developed anxiety around my job. I had daily panic attacks, was constantly physically ill, and I wasn’t an effective teacher. This led to the third thing, when I had to think about leaving and what on Earth I was going to do next.
I worked with my therapist to understand the reasons I got into teaching in the first place and what it is that I need from my work life. Something that came back around for me in this time was remembering that I fell in love with a language first. I was a good student who liked learning a different language and all the things that being bilingual gave me. Bilingualism is connected in research to significant cognitive benefits, on top of the fact that studying one language can teach you a great deal about other languages. I followed that thread and thought to myself, what would it be like to study how languages are connected to each other and the impact that they have on us as speakers and listeners?
I applied to several graduate schools and right when COVID-19 was first interrupting the flow of our lives, I accepted a spot in the Masters of Linguistics program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Deciding to leave teaching, a career that I loved for a decade, was the hardest thing I have ever done. It felt like giving up. It tasted like failure and disappointment. I even faced backlash from people in my life who didn’t think I was making the right decision. But I knew deep down that I could not regain the happiness I had lost. The things that I loved about teaching kids could be found in other places where I wouldn’t have to face issues like underfunded districts, critical parents, cruel administrators, and the unending amount of emotional labor. There were too many things that I couldn’t help my students with, like having potable water in their building, and it was too heavy a weight for me to carry any longer. I had to at least try to move on.
But there is one more layer to this story that I want to share, and that is the nature of inspiration coming from really unexpected corners of your life. As I embarked on my new academic journey, I was also starting my fifth year with the Broncos. I was fortunate enough to be asked to work in full-time security for two months. One afternoon, I was in my class via Zoom while sitting at my desk. The class was sociolinguistics and the subject was communities of practice. This is an idea that describes how groups of people who bond through identity, cause, etc. will also form their own patterns of language together. The language helps them identify who is one of them; it carries inside jokes, affection, and more that are specific to the group and what they mean to each other. One example of where this takes place is a sports team. It was like the two halves of my brain collided very suddenly right in front of my eyes. Sports teams use language in specific, quantifiable ways, and I want to be involved in that research.
I still have two and a half semesters left in my program and, no, I don’t know yet what job I’m going to have when I graduate. However, I am bolstered by the knowledge that I found the thing that makes my brain spin in a positive way, something that I wake up in the morning excited to learn more about, and how I can contribute to the world. One of my professors has used research like what I am working on to help 9-1-1 dispatchers and doctors in their interactions with people who need help. Maybe someday I will be the person doing research that helps others, and it won’t come at the cost of panic attacks and never feeling good enough. My old career was important in so many ways, but it wasn’t right for me. I needed to follow the cues and make my exit even though it was painful so that I could pursue something that is important in a different way.
To anyone who is dissatisfied with their job, please know that you are not alone. If you are having the same feelings of anxiety and sadness that I described, please don’t stick around because you think that you have to. I know from experience that it’s not worth it. No job is worth your mental health. Taking steps away from your career can feel really scary and overwhelming, but know that you can make it through the transition. It’s crucial to have supportive people in your corner to help you with your plans and your morale but, in the end, we only get one life and you shouldn’t settle for being unhappy.