Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Learning through play

I don't even know how to start this post. I've been told that for moments like this, the end is best and to work backwards from there. So here's my feeble attempt at telling you about an ending and how I'm suddenly mapping out a new beginning.

It all started at the end of June. I was a couple of weeks into teaching an intense summer school course, finding myself exhausted with learning new material, writing lectures and problem sets all while dealing with a coworker who had decided long ago that I was subpar (and was hence making life very difficult). In a moment where I felt I had gotten my nose above the water, I decided to check the status on the course I was slotted to teach in the fall. And I found I couldn't access the website.

Thinking this was odd, I reached out to a friend for coffee with the hopes of gleaning some information. One coffee date turned into a scramble for more information, snowballing into a situation where I didn't know what was happening or what to believe. By the end of the week, I learned my contract wasn't being renewed. Without any warning or feedback that there was a problem, this news rocked me. For the first time ever, I was told I was being let go and I'd be lying if I didn't confess there's been quite a bit of anger.

The truth is, though, I haven't been happy in this position. Though things seemed like they would go well, there's been a number of things that have left me questioning my decision to leave my postdoc early. But the assumption I was operating under was that it was just a matter of getting through the first run of the course and then working with the team to address and revamp the course for a better second round. A week after the news though, I came to my own conclusion that I was done. On the heels of this news, I had a hellish weekend that ended with me on campus till also 11 pm on a Saturday night (and some interesting car ride home due to the number of drunk drivers on the road) as my co-instructor had decided the first exam averages were too low, so we should regrade all the exams immediately so they could be returned at the promised time. This on the heels of having 5 months of conflicts with her over anything one could think of. And in that moment, where it became apparent that I was working way too hard at something I wasn't enjoying (and with people I really didn't like) and that it was time for a change.

And so began a month long reflection on what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I've gone the extreme, looking at leaving science altogether and abandoning all I've done for the past 6 years. It's tempting just to call it all a wash. But in my quieter moments I've found that maybe the answer doesn't involve an extreme change, but instead just a small shift. What if instead of abandoning everything, I just abandoned what was making me extremely unhappy? And what would that look like?

Years ago, while working at the Beat's daycare, I was helping one of the lead teachers set up an activity. I can't remember what exactly the goal was, but her emphasis was simple: children learn through play. Over the short period I worked with those teachers, I found examples of this time and again, be the lesson have more formalized goals or not. Success always came through play, be it messy, nonsensical or very simple.

The thing is, learning through play isn't limited to children but is actually a universal truth to all humans. Be it video games, chose your adventure, art projects or lab experiences: we all learn best through the process of touching, exploring, breaking and doing something ultimately we deem as fun. There's also a selfish element here as I'm at my best when I'm enjoying what I'm doing and feel like my work is valued. In short, I teach best when I'm engaged in the play too.

So for the rest of the summer course, I tried incorporating play back into my teaching. During those 3 hour lectures twice a week, I played trivia with my students as they learned about the circulatory system (did you know that Count Dracula is believed to have had a condition called Porphyria?), respiration (did you know some reptiles can have such low metabolic rates that they literally go for extended periods without breathing) and sexual reproduction (apparently I'm highly skilled with teaching about sex without causing most people in the room to revert back to their 12 year old self-conscious selves) and made a point of being present during lab section (which was seriously cool). And though I was limited with what I could for assessments (as an aside, 2-3 hour exams should be banned), I tried to make myself as available to my students as they struggled with mastering the material.

But I also decided to try something different. The day I received the news about my termination, I reached out to some contacts who were leading novels ventures, hoping for new opportunities. And one emerged. Though at an inopportune time, I suddenly found myself in a new world that I had long been searching for. I met people who were driven to bring science to the community, to give K-12 teachers training in content in order to enhance their classrooms and to do teaching were the focus wasn't on the final grade, but what the students were learning from the experience.

Damn, it's been fun.

So combined with me declaring that I never, EVER, wanted to assign another grade in my life, the simple shift in incorporating play into my teaching has laid the framework for making one of the scariest and most experimental leaps I've made in a long time. At the beginning of the month, with Grey's and E's blessing and support (and from BnB, who's been insanely awesome), I signed a contract to begin a journey as a teaching fellow with a brand new community lab.

Could this all explode in my face? Absolutely! Grey and I both know that here's a very real chance that all of this could end with me back in the unemployment line and rapidly job searching all over again. Is there any job security in the path. Currently, a big fat NO. And what exactly this does position looks like? Well, that's currently defined with each day I'm at the learning lab with the executive director. Hence a lot of uncertainty.

But here's the thing: my goal with transitioning away from being a bench scientist was to go on to be a science educator. And if I'm being really honest, I haven't been doing that for the past 7 months. Over the past 3 weeks, though, I've begun doing what I've always wanted to do. Daily, I meet new and fascinating people who have also made this leap and are blazing the trail for making science accessible to the general public in a manner that actually works. The other element is I'm tried of playing it "safe" as usually what others consider good career moves have actually been fairly shitty for both Grey and me. The advice is outdated at best and we're both tried of following it as its only lead to misery.

I honestly wish I had a roadmap for all that laid ahead and how it would turn out. It would make things easier just to know what to expect. But Grey reminded me the other day that infertility survivors are well equipped for navigating the uncertainty and pitfalls. We know how to pick ourselves up in situations that would crush the average human being. And maybe that's the biggest part of this whole situation: that instead of scrambling for the answer out of this situation I'm finally able to see those roads that aren't as traveled that could end in ways that are better than ever expected.

Wish me luck.


  1. Sorry to hear the teaching job didn't turn out. Truthfully though teaching can be anything from amazing to existential torture, so I'm glad you're not beating yourself up over one job not working out. Sometimes that's how the cookie crumbles. I'm so impressed with you for taking risks and trying to find work where you are truly making a difference and having fun. I suck at being miserable and I very much believe in making a big change when things just feel all wrong. Also totally hear you on never wanting to give another grade. Since I teach special ed I haven't had to give grades in years and I don't miss them at all (I spend hours on individual plans, but I'd rather do that!) Also I don't miss exams!

  2. Sounds like an exciting adventure! Bringing science to the general public in an accessible way is something my husband is also passionate about, but jobs like what you're describing don't seem to come along every day. Good luck, Cristy!

  3. Oh, I'm wishing you TONS of luck!

    This is so meta. You're doing what you teach others to do (and as your post title says): you're playing. You're less goal-directed and more activity-directed and it seems to me like this is likely to work out well in many ways.

    While I'm super excited for you taking this leap, I'm also super excited for those you're going to influence with your brilliant mind and methods.

  4. I'm sorry the other job didn't work out (I know how much it sucks to be let go...!), but seriously? This sounds amazing. Even if it isn't a job that lasts forever, it sounds like something you are enjoying -- and something that will set you up to do other cool, fun things in the future. Lord knows we could use a few more people with good science educations these days, right?? :p ;) Good luck!!

  5. Oh, holy wow you've been through the wringer! I'm so sorry that the other position didn't work out (understatement). I was let go once from a job I was unhappy in but it still hurt so much to be considered subpar, to not be valued, to be dismissed. And it sounds like your situation was so behind-the-scenes and not transparent at all, how shameful on their part. BUT, I am BEYOND excited for your new venture. Doing work with science to make it accessible and fun for K-12 students and the general public sounds AMAZING. I bet you will be great at this. I am so excited for this risk, and I hope that it pays off in all the best possible ways. It sounds like such a great adventure. And I love your last big paragraph. Much luck to you, and congrats on taking a leap into something you love!

  6. I am loving your discovery of play and your new and enjoyable workplace. It sounds wonderful. Learning what WE want, rather than what everyone else thinks we should do, is such an important lesson. I'm glad you've learnt it rather younger than I did!

  7. Sounds like a super cool new job! Congrats on the new and exciting opportunity!

  8. Sounds like an amazing opportunity!!!


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