Am I good enough: From high school teacher, to counselor, to assistant professor
Teacher and Student
Starting in 2005, I often said and heard statements like, “Please stop sticking pencils in your nose,” “I’ll wait until everyone finishes talking,” and “Ew, Ms. Daly, smell this milk.” What can I say – such is the life of a teacher.
However, in my time as a high school Spanish teacher and school counselor at a vocational high school in New Jersey, I learned about trauma, resilience, poverty, violence, and camaraderie. As a 21-year-old novice teacher, I realized rather quickly that many of my students weren’t interested in conjugating verbs. They faced a myriad of problems - some typical of adolescents, and others relatively profound and catastrophic. In my quest for ways to help and guide them aside from giving them engaging direct object pronoun lessons, I sought instruction at the University of Pennsylvania’s Applied Psychology and Counseling graduate program. I completed my practicum and internship hours, threw myself into courses on research methodology and adolescent development, and practiced my “counselor” voice when I was alone. The beauty of this program was that it was so thorough and comprehensive, and yet it left me with even more questions than when I started.
To continue learning and to defer my now-six figure student loans, I enrolled in a Master’s program at Rutgers University-Camden. Through this program, I could continue to work full-time as a teacher and simultaneously further my understanding of deviance, violence, and prevention and intervention efforts. This program too, taught me facts, theories, and skills, but demanded further investigation.
In 2011, I enrolled in the doctoral program at Rutgers University-Newark where I split my time between the high school and full-time matriculation for two years. I was still intent on studying fist fights in school, juvenile gang membership, and situational factors that affect violence. Then, two things happened. First, the school where I worked refused to allow me to conduct my dissertation research there. Even though it would undoubtedly produce valuable information to prevent and successfully (not to mention, safely) intervene in fights, school administrators decided that they would not cooperate.
In 2012, as I chased my tail and tried to figure out what to do with the year of dissertation writing and planning I had done, I learned that a man killed his mother before he opened fire at an elementary school, killing 20 children and six educators.
Like the rest of the country, I was shaken by the images from Sandy Hook Elementary, and my heart ached while my mind demanded answers. As I returned to full-time work at the high school, I began my four-and-a-half-year dissertation journey to attempt to understand the motivations and trends of active and mass shooters and their attacks. Halfway through, in 2014, I transitioned to a school counselor position in the same school where I had worked as a teacher. I spent my days scheduling students’ classes, writing college recommendation letters, de-escalating conflicts, and figuratively (and sometimes literally) running around the sprawling campus. I spent my nights collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data, and then writing, submitting, and revising.
To say that this time period was stressful would be a massive understatement. The counseling job was becoming increasingly difficult with high-stress cases and low-morale within the district. The dissertation process was… well, exactly how we know the dissertation process to be. I was starting to burn out. I was having panic attacks at work, and some days I dreaded walking into the building. I used to think that finishing the dissertation would get me to the top of the mountain; that I would leave the stress behind, teach enthusiastic college students, and leisurely, but productively conduct research that would be renowned and widely shared (I’ll pause so that you can stop laughing).
Tenure-Track at a Teaching College
As it turned out, the dissertation wasn’t the top of the mountain. In fact, it was more like Base Camp 1. In 2016, I left behind the place where I had worked for 11 years. I said goodbye to my colleagues (many of whom were like my family), my students, and my memories of success, joy, frustration, and exhaustion. I accepted a position at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania (home of the beloved children’s television show host and activist, Mr. Rogers, and the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp). I loved the welcoming feeling of the campus, the Criminology department’s commitment to student learning and development, the teaching, and the liberal arts focus of the college.
I headed across Pennsylvania as a PhD candidate who was ABD (All But Dissertation), dove headfirst into the responsibilities of my 4:3 teaching load, and started down the road to tenure. I prepped my courses. I met all my new students. I attended faculty and school meetings. I introduced myself to my new coworkers, who were welcoming and friendly. I put the final touches on my dissertation and prepared for my defense.
I knew that deep down, I should have been proud of myself and my accomplishments, especially after my successful dissertation defense. And to some extent, I was. People started calling me “Doctor.” I had the profound responsibility and honor of educating eager young students who wanted to serve their communities in positive ways. I looked forward to sharing my love for research methodology and theories of violence. The colleagues in my department were (and still are) fantastic, and my Chair was supportive, open to new ideas, and had a wicked sense of humor. But it’s difficult to start over in a new place and feel immediately comfortable, especially when you find yourself in a new career, looking at a six-year journey toward tenure at a teaching college.
Dr. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), a renowned historian and professor at Grand View University, was recently called “a professor at a university no one has heard of.” In his response (which was much more polite and coherent than I would have managed), he explained the importance of his university and an interdisciplinary liberal arts education, the students they serve, and the obvious harm in such an elitist and disparaging comment. I chose a teaching college for many of the same reasons as Dr. Gannon, and I feel confident in my decision to focus on pedagogy and building meaningful relationships with undergraduate students. However, while my research and publishing requirements may not be as demanding as those at other institutions, the personal and professional rewards of an intimate teaching environment and mentorship come with a steep price.
In my first two years, including the one in which I was finishing a dissertation, I wrote a book, served as the editor for a reference book on mass violence, taught a total of 17 courses, advised two Master’s candidates in their theses, and advised 24 undergraduate students. I was elected to and served on two student-faculty committees, was interviewed by multiple news outlets after mass shootings, testified before PA House and Senate Education Committees about school violence after Parkland, presented at a symposium on school violence for educators, and organized and spoke at events such as a campus-wide Privilege Walk and a colloquium on mass incarceration.
I’ve enjoyed these tasks and found a true sense of accomplishment in the things that I’ve done, but in the back of my head, I hear a whisper that tells me I need to do more and do better. I wonder if the limited time that I have (I find it difficult to say no to things because I’m non-tenured and also earnestly want to help) is hindering the work that I’m doing. I find myself comparing my own work to those of my peers, wondering if the quality, quantity, and scope of my contributions are good enough. Good enough.
Me vs. Them
It’s classic imposter syndrome. I sit in rooms full of academics who have spent their careers publishing their work, and their CVs look like novels as a result. I look at some of my least favorite peers, and while I’m annoyed by their smugness, I’m also jealous of it. I’m envious that they are so confident in their work, and I’m convinced it’s because I opted to watch Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix instead of doing extra work.
The saddest irony is that like many, I was often mocked when I was younger for being “smart.” Everyone knows that being nerdy and smart and trying hard is like social suicide for kids in school (Just ask Regina George, from the iconic 2004 ‘teen flick,’ Mean Girls). However, I was promised by mentors and well-wishers that intelligence and perseverance would pay off in the end. I worked hard, put in the time, got the degrees, and I now spend many of my days feeling like the dumbest person in the room. I often wonder if the best version of myself was the one who was in the high school with the glass ceiling, feeling exhausted and burned out at the end of each day, but finishing with a purpose. At least that version of me was confident in her abilities most of the time.
When I try to convince myself that I’m worthy and unique in my own way, I compare my own skill set to those of my peers. “I bet most of them can’t break up a fist fight in high heels,” I think. I try to imagine some of my colleagues trying to teach a classroom full of 30 high schoolers after a food fight broke out in the cafeteria during a lunch-break. I guess I’ve got the upper hand in that category.
Unfortunately, that’s not included in my tenure dossier, so it brings me back to square one. I have to publish, teach, serve (lather, rinse, repeat) to prove that hiring me wasn’t a mistake. Or to prove that I wasn’t just “a minority hire.” To prove that I wasn’t just “a woman hire.” To prove that “I can do it.” I’d love to think that I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, but we all know that we do. That is quite literally what the tenure process is.
And then, the icing on the cake is the worry that I’m just being whiny, overly sensitive, or emotional. In most other professions, everyone else needs to prove their value too (I guess that back when our parents made up majority of the workforce, this was just called “doing your job.”). Bosses evaluate their employees, and employees feel devalued or unimportant, so why should we expect academia to be any different? I’ve read the literature on imposter syndrome, and I believe and understand it, but why can’t I just shake the feelings?
I fear that I’m becoming a statistic – that I’m one of countless women who’ve experienced identity issues and difficulties in achieving my goals. I push back against this mountain of mess, and then it all gets to be too much. I make lists (and then make lists of lists I need to still make). I then try to accomplish everything on the list all at once so that I can be good enough. In doing so, I exhaust myself, need to step back, and end up on the couch awake until 4 AM binge-watching a show I’ve already watched 97 times while I answer student emails from my phone (lather, rinse, repeat).
I’m not sure if it’s going to get easier. What if the rank of Associate Professor is just Base Camp 2? I wonder if I’ll always feel anxious, jealous, tired, and insufficient even amid professional success or notable accomplishments. I imagine myself in ten years and am sure that I’ll still be annoyed by questions that are answered in the syllabus. I know with even greater certainty that I’ll probably still feel the drive to do more and do better, because that’s how I’ve been wired since middle school. And then I think if I’m exhausted now at 35, how will I do this for the rest of my career? Then the mountain gets higher and steeper, and I’m tired all over again (Netflix, here I come!).
I understand that I can’t just keep complaining about it, though. There’s work to do, and it’s important. There is still a genuine need and urgency to study gun violence and hegemonic masculinity, and I have to continue to address my teaching responsibilities and my students’ applications to doctoral programs. In the meantime, there are things that I’ll do to stave off the overwhelming pressure and feelings of inadequacy.
I’ll keep developing my network on campus and on Twitter to remind myself that other academics feel the same way I do. They experience the same frustrations, and they understand. Their insights are often hilarious, and they’re like a form of therapy, but with complaints, shared annoyances, and helpful tools for staying afloat.
I’ll learn to find more joy in accomplishments and learn to accept compliments. I’m learning to say “thank you” (and stop there) rather than continuing with statements that downplay the things I’ve done and achieved. I’ll let people tell me that my book was helpful or my mentorship with students was meaningful. Of course, I’ll share the praise with my fantastic colleagues who are also committed, dedicated, and motivated, but I’ll accept that I have done quality work and made a difference.
I’ll continue to work to set goals and deadlines for myself while also accommodating some personal time for myself. Perhaps, instead of revisiting my friends at The Office for six hours before falling asleep as the sun comes up (while feeling remorseful the whole time), I’ll permit myself two hours and refuse to feel guilty about it.
I’ll learn to respect my own skills and abilities in ways that don’t involve publishing or other dossier-worthy inclusions. I can still take pride in my ability to de-escalate conflicts or tell jokes to wake the students up in class. I’ll know that I’m someone who can make them feel comfortable enough to confide in me or encourage them to engage in activism or social justice. I’ll struggle through more YouTube videos so that I’ll eventually feel proud of my ukulele-playing abilities, and I’ll find satisfaction in knowing that I bake a mean batch of cupcakes and can astonish (or confuse) most people when they see me (an Asian woman) speaking Spanish.
I’ll read and listen to the stories of other women who have experienced and overcome imposter syndrome and achieved great things. I recently listened to the audiobook of Michelle Obama’s, Becoming, and almost drove off the road when I heard her say that she suffered from it, too. I have something in common with Michelle Obama. This is a powerful testimony to the pervasiveness of impostor syndrome, even among the most influential and inspirational women in the world. I may never meet Stevie Wonder or encourage an entire generation of children to exercise, but I can meet a deadline and encourage a classroom full of seniors to cite sources appropriately.
Ultimately, as I write this, it feels like the path forward is full of choices. I can let the fear of failure and inadequacy cripple me and hinder my progress, or I can accept that I might not be perfect, but that I can surely be enough. I can compare myself to my peers, or I can set goals for myself that are independent off them and more suitable for me. I can spend time wondering whether I’m doing enough, or I can continue to work, do my best and know that that is enough.
In February 2019, when Hannah Beachler became the first African-American to win the Academy Award in production design, she ended her joyous speech with this: “Just remember to say this advice that I got from a very wise woman…I did my best, and my best is good enough.” I felt this in my soul, and it’s a mantra that I want to repeat daily. I just need to add that to my list.