Time for Change…

Laura mentioned in a previous post and many of you have heard from me already, but yes indeed, the days of Mr. Rhea the Art Teacher have come to a close. I am now working for The Miller Company as Director of Marketing, and with a whole two weeks under my belt, I am loving it.

More about the specifics of the new gig later, but first, some words about teaching. I consider myself profoundly blessed and forever changed because of my four years at Polk Middle School in Carrollton. It’s cliche, but (almost as cliche as the phrase, ‘it’s cliche but…’) I suspect I learned more from my students than they learned from me. I know the time I spent there was valuable and lives were changed; tears on the last day of school let you know that you did at least part of your job with excellence.

My own path towards becoming a teacher began one day in the computer lab at UNT during my second semester there as a Communication Design major. I looked around at the seniors fretting over projects that I would be working on in a few years and a future devoid of personal meaning revealed itself to me. From that day on, I had absolutely no passion for my schoolwork. I quit attending classes and eventually left UNT without even bothering to formally withdraw from the University. Predictably, academic probation and a card full of Fs followed me. Not that I cared.

For all I knew at the time, I was done with school for good. The irony of that sentiment would be fulfilled a little over a year later. I was living in a duplex on Polk St. in Paris, grappling with the issue of having left school to avoid a life that would leave me unfulfilled, only to find myself equally passionless at home. It would be a while before I discovered that my lack of hope and meaning had nothing to do with my major, job, or geography; but instead had everything to do with my own spiritual anemia — something God Himself would rescue me from at around this time as well.

Bored and with no particular direction, I happened to be on the phone one evening with a friend from high school who was attending Texas A&M, Laura Swasko (you know her as Laura Rhea). The great thing about Laura is that we’ve always had fantastic conversations. Even during those years where I was a logically convinced atheist, and she a joyfully redeemed Christian, we were best friends and always afforded each other our deepest respect. I even said to a friend once, “You know, in a different life, Laura and I would be perfect for each other.” So, it was during one of these conversations on the phone that I was sharing my general lack of … you know, what the heck to do with my life … and she says, “Didn’t you want to be a teacher in high school?”

This was true. Our senior year, my interest and appreciation for Art had really taken a hold of me. Too practical (even as an 18 year-old) to believe that I could make a living for myself as a liquor-swilling studio artist, I settled upon the idea of following in the footsteps of my art teacher and all around one of my favorite people, Mrs. Tschoerner. When I shared this sentiment with her one day in class, she dryly replied in classic Tschoern fashion, “You sure about that?”

Equally disconcerting was the time I spied my Middle School G/T teacher at the Valentine’s dance our senior year and struck up a conversation that pretty much ended with, “Well, I’m thinking about becoming a teacher.”

“Oh, Brian. No.”

Those conversations and others like it are what eventually convinced me to major in Art, but with a focus on graphic design instead of education. But then, fast forward a couple of years and drop-out status to the phone conversation with Laura, “Yes! Teaching!”

Within days, I was registered for a Summer class at Texas A&M – Commerce. I would continue to live and work in Paris while commuting back and forth doing 18 and 15 hour course loads over the next several semesters. I worked hard and made good grades; unfortunately, the Fs from that last semester at UNT resulted in my graduating GPA being one one-hundredth of a point below Honor Grad status. On the one hand, that means nothing. I’ve never been asked in an interview, “So, did you graduate with honors? No? Mm. Sorry, there’s the door.”

On the other hand, and this is the one I look at most often, I love that. It took no small amount of commitment, sacrifice and focus to graduate in that window of time; but in the end, what would have been a symbollic reward for that work was kept away within a hair’s breadth as a reminder of who I once was.

In the Fall of 2003, I did my student teaching in middle and high school and that experience confirmed my decision to become a teacher. I graduated in December, one week before Laura and I got married, and one week after the wedding Laura and I moved to Arlington so that she could attend UTA and pursue a Master’s in Social Work.

There aren’t many teaching jobs that open up in December (go figure), so I spent three weeks as a waiter at the Chili’s near the Ballpark before I was hired as a graphic designer at Bioworld Merchandising. I liked the guys I was working with, but I applied and reapplied at every school district in DFW and we hoped and prayed for a teaching job in the upcoming school year. Fittingly, a volunteer that Laura met at IBC knew of an opening for an art teacher at Polk Middle School … I interviewed with Mr. Hicks and received the job!

Nobody needs to be told that teaching is really hard. Though in this modern world, I don’t know of many jobs that are without their own immense amount of stress. But teachers seem to garner an extra degree of sympathy. Laura can attest to this: I cannot even count how many times over the past four years when telling a new acquaintance I teach middle school, that their response has been, “Oh…My Goodness!! Well, God bless you! I just can’t imagine.”

Besides graduating with a lot of educational philosophy, developmental psychology, and best practice pedagogical approaches rolling around in my head, I also had a couple of numbers up there, too. Twenty, one, fifty, and five. Twenty percent of teachers quit after one year. Fifty percent before five.

There were plenty of days during my rookie season that I thought, “Oh yeah. I’m definitely going to be in that 50% that leaves in a few years. No doubt.” But the vast majority of the time I was optimistic about my prospects for improvement and I didn’t have the trouble that many young teachers experience, that being a lack of administrative support. Mr. Hicks is a model for how principals should lead a school and his support was instrumental. I learned a lot in year one and I put it to work year two. It went about as well as I suppose a year can, and year three went great as well.

But when it comes down to it, there is a very, very small percentage of people who are actually cut out for teaching long-term. In my fourth year, I began to realize that I was not one of them and I probably would not be a teacher for the rest of my life. I didn’t know if that meant two years or ten, I continued to work hard and do well by my kids, but it was a realization that I became pretty comfortable with.

I didn’t feel like I needed to escape teaching and I certainly didn’t wake up with a sense of dread about going to work, but it was a sort of … yeah, comfortable knowledge that this is not, it turns out, what I’ll be doing from here on.

I shared this with the guys in my accountability group, and it planted a seed that would eventually sprout as this new job and the inevitable career change. One afternoon this summer I was showing Gene (who is in my accountability group) some design pieces I’d created and he shared with me that The Miller Company’s current Director of Marketing had taken a new job and would be leaving in a few weeks. Based on the work he was seeing, he offered to mention me to his boss and the owner of TMC, Tom. Gene called me later that night to say that I had an interview in the morning. The interview went great, Tom offer
ed me the job and I was more than happy to accept it. Start to finish the whole thing went down in less than 24 hours. It was quite the to-do in the GrapevineRhea household.

The extra tweak in this story is that just the week before I had accepted a job about three miles from home at Dawson MS in Southlake. It was the fork in the road that I didn’t expect to come to quite so suddenly. I still loved teaching and had gotten pretty good at it; I could give Dawson a few great years and see where we found ourselves then. But, I feel blessed that the exact type of job I would be looking for later was available now. I could leave teaching knowing that I hadn’t overstayed myself and that my new job was not an opportunity for escape I had clung to in desperation, but a timely, suitable challenge that I am all too ready to take on.

I was only a waiter for three weeks, but I always say I think it’d do everyone a bit of good that hasn’t waited tables to give it a crack. It’s made me more aware when we go out to eat. I usually pre-bus our table before we leave, and I try to be a little more sympathetic to a less-than-attentive-waiter if they look like they’re in the weeds (waiterspeak for swamped). There’s not a doubt in my mind that four years teaching will have some lasting effects. Some I can already sense, some I’m sure will only reveal themselves later; I’ll be grateful for them all.

3 thoughts on “Time for Change…”

  1. Brian,
    This is a really great account of the background for your decision to leave teaching and help make The Miller Company an even better place. I applaud your very personal and sensitive sharing and it is obvious that not much happens in your life that is not for a purpose. Your ability to grow and learn from every experiences you have is one of your greatest strengths. I am really proud of you and can’t wait to hear how this new adventure unfolds.

  2. It was nice to talk to you about this on Sunday, and then to get to read the whole story. You’re on a great journey! I’m glad you’re enjoying your job!

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