A year ago, I made one of the more difficult decisions of my life. For four years after I graduated from college, I taught high school English in Providence, Rhode Island. As with many new teachers, my first year in the classroom challenged me on many levels, and during the following summer, I reflected on how to engage students more effectively, both to my class and to school in general.
On the first day of school, I had a new slogan at the front of my room: Knowledge = Independence. The immediate objective of education, I reasoned, is to impart knowledge and skills, which, in the long term, afford students the ability to make decisions on their own, using their experiences to open new doors. In the past few weeks, I’ve been relearning that lesson almost every day.
When you’re a student at any level, from kindergarten to graduate school, you always know what to do. My professors assign reading, so I read it. They assign papers, and I write them. In many ways, the job of a teacher enjoys similar parameters. No one had to tell me my basic responsibilities: form strong relationships with students; plan differentiated units and lesson plans to meet them at the appropriate levels; evaluate their work fairly; adjust planning accordingly.
My internship, however, is far less defined. For the first month, I’ve rotated through every town department, meeting everyone from engineers to lawyers. You’d think that at least one of them could tell me what my job is, but no one did. For the first time in my professional life, it’s my responsibility to find projects that are beneficial to the organization. This realization is simultaneously liberating and terrifying. I can do whatever I want! But what if I can’t think of anything?
One thing I have to remember is that the open nature of my job description belies a careful balance I must strike. By all means, I should take the initiative to explore project ideas. However, that doesn’t mean I should start shooting off e-mails from the manager’s office. I need to be aware of relationships.
When I was teaching, I unintentionally acquired a reputation for ruffling feathers for the sake of my students. While at times I could justify a brusque e-mail, I had to learn to balance urgency with diplomacy. That consideration is true in any work environment, but there is inevitably a learning curve. I’ve rotated through almost every department, but I don’t know the subtle dynamics among them. That’s part of the knowledge that I need to operate independently.
Chris Saunders is a Marvin Andrews Scholar who is interning with the Town this summer. He will write weekly entries for Marana 365 through August.