Self-Care Saved My Life...and Career: Part I

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A career in education was a no-brainer for me. My humble beginnings and Mami’s no non-sense upbringing taught me the importance of a solid education at an early age. In the 4th grade, I was selected to attend a gifted and talented middle school in Harlem that changed the course of my educational trajectory. Attending the (original!) Mott Hall school was a launch pad for my subsequent academic and professional achievements – a scholarship to attend boarding school, admission to Columbia, and several accolades and awards. Deeply grateful, I felt the need to pay it forward and help others much like I had been helped.

Over the next several years, I worked at different levels of the education ecosystem. Straight out of undergrad, I worked in education policy at the NYC Department of Education (shout out to my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Berger, for hooking me up with my first J-O-B!) At 22, I was sitting at the table with then-mayor Bloomberg, helping shape policies that affected all 1.1 million children in NYC. It was one of the steepest learning curves I've climbed, but I loved it. I knew the work I was doing was meaningful, but after a few years, I felt my experience was incomplete. I was curious to see how the work I was doing at the district level actually played out on the ground. 

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I joined Teach for America, became a teacher, and got my ass kicked. Teaching little kids had to have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And! I was going to graduate school full-time too! Needless to say, it was a stressful time for me. Although I helped my students make some impressive academic gains, I wasn't completely sold on the idea of being an educator. The part that I enjoyed the most was developing lasting and deep relationships with students and families. Seeing a little human grow and evolve over the course of 10 months is truly remarkable. But after 5 years of teaching in the US and abroad, I still felt unfulfilled. Teaching children in a school didn't quite feel like my calling. 

After working abroad for a year, I was back stateside and had been applying to jobs in the non-profit sector. I got zero call backs. Like NADA. I was so perplexed because I knew I was also applying to jobs that I overqualified for. I couldn't figure it out. Then an opportunity to help lead a school fell on my lap. I did not see myself working at a school again but, I also don't believe in coincidences.  I signed on to be an assistant principal (the title was Dean at this particular school, the responsibilities were the same) on an interim basis while the person in the position was on maternity leave. I thought I could figure out my next steps between now and then. The end of my contract came, the person whose role I was in had returned, and the principal still asked me to stay on permanently because of the work I'd done. Again, confusion. When no other positions panned out, I gladly settled into my new role. 

I had always struggled with "going with the flow," so I was struggling with what was happening because I hadn't planned any of it! As I tried to make sense of why I was where I was, I thought that maybe I was in this role because I've always had a bent for making processes more efficient, managing projects, and ensuring that things run smoothly. So I went into my role with that expectation, and was soon disappointed. Deeply disappointed.  I found myself wrapped up in office politics, too many (useless) meetings, and feeling like I really wasn't doing what was best for kids..or myself. Even so, I took on more responsibilities. I started to feel like I had to justify the title I was given.  I would leave work at about 7p (I was coaching an after-school program for girls), commute 1.5 hours to my apartment in another borough, eat dinner, shower, log on to my laptop to do more work, go to bed at 10p, wake up at 4:30a, go to the gym, get to work by 6:30a, to do it all over again. Day in and day out.

I did that for a few years years before I finally crashed.

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It wasn't just the unsustainable lifestyle that made me crash, either. It was the effects of it: anxiety, deep internalized self-sabotage, negative self-talk, unhealthy eating habits (I eventually stopped going to the gym altogether), among other things. I wasn't just overworked, burned out and deeply disengaged, I felt completely lost, going through the motions of life. I had zero social life and barely spoke to my family and friends. It was just me on the hamster wheel. I felt deep sadness and an insurmountable amount of shame: there I was, an educated woman of color with multiple degrees, more money than she had ever made, a passport full of stamps, and doing high impact work, living, what felt like, a purpose-less life. At the end of the school year, I quit my job with NOTHING lined up. I could not live like that anymore. I didn't know what the opposite was but I had to find out.

Want to find out how I recovered? Read on for part II.