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As teachers, we instinctively look for those teachable moments in the classroom.  You know them – those moments when suddenly space and time open up to reveal an opportunity to take what is at hand and turn it into a way to delve more deeply into whatever subject we are teaching.  Exercising this habit outside of the classroom is not so easy.  I didn’t find many teachable moments during the first six months of my unemployment.  Mostly, I tried to cope with my feelings of loss, fear, and insecurity.  But as I have maneuvered my way through this unexpected turn in my professional and personal life, I’ve eventually managed to learn a few things.  Here are some personal lessons that came along when I began recognizing those teachable moments:

Unemployment actually IS scary, so it’s okay to be scared.  Most GenXers like me began our professional lives fairly securely.  There were jobs available after college, and even when some of us shifted and found new directions in our 30’s, there was still opportunity.  Most of us became adults after the recessions of our youth, so we did not experience too many massive economic disturbances once we began work.  The effects of this current recession are far-reaching and long-lasting – and we have no modern equivalent to judge its future path.  The unpredictability of whether jobs will ever come back, whether our career fields will be relevant within the next 20 years, or whether we will even have the chance to retire when we are older all play into the scary atmosphere of being unemployed right now.  There is evidence emerging that shows the longer we are unemployed, the less employable we are, and that is not something to fill us with confidence.  So don’t judge yourself if you’re scared.  I often am.  But I’m no longer crippled by it, I’m doing my best to remember that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to face that fear honestly.

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Hit the Gym and Talk to Someone.  It sounds like a trite cliché to go to the gym when you’ve experienced a traumatic event – but it has done wonders for me.  I always had good intentions about exercising, and for some periods in my life, I kept it up for a little while.  But when I got laid off in 2011, I purposely joined the gym.  For me, the membership was the only accountability I had that forced me to actually get out and go somewhere every day.  Going to the gym gets me out of the house, gives me time on my own, and actually helped me to start feeling better emotionally because I work out my stress physically (also, I’ve gotten into great shape!).  I also see a therapist regularly.  Having a third party or professional to talk with can make all the difference.  Friends and family may be there to help, or as listening ears, but someone with whom you don’t have a personal relationship can be invaluable in helping you to explore possibilities for your life.  Both the gym and a therapist cost money – so when the savings start to run out or you have no supplementary income, there are cost-effective substitutes.  I strongly encourage you to pursue them – they really do make a difference in day-to-day management.

Do Some Research and Make a Plan.  Sometimes the best way to not feel crippled by the lack of a big picture is to create a new big picture.  I am a planner.  I like to know my big and small goals, and then make appropriate plans.  Losing the pathway I was used to relying on for my plans was a very difficult event.  For me, my unemployment occurred within six months of my marriage ending, and subsequently, I lost my house to foreclosure.  All of these changes resulted in my son and I had to leave our home and put all our possessions in storage.  We’ve lived with our extended family for almost two years now.  These events combined at first to make me feel hopeless and without direction.  But slowly, I started looking for a new path.  I learned how my state’s unemployment insurance works (watch out: most states treat teachers differently!).  I began collecting links to job sites and making a schedule for myself on who I contact and when so that I didn’t repeat the same effort too often and get discouraged.  I highly recommend NOT doing a job search every day – it can be disheartening, especially in the few months after the school year begins.  Pace yourself.  Make several outlandish 5-year plans that incorporate all your best-case scenarios so your sense of hope can be nourished.  But also make realistic 5-year plans so that you feel a sense of control over your own decisions and your finances.  Think ahead as much as possible – being caught unawares was the worst part of being laid off.   Learning how to experiment with new plans has really helped me cope.

Don’t Lose Touch With Friends and Students.  The first inclination I had was to withdraw from the world.  Sometimes, it’s hard to face the sense of shame of not working in a society that bases a lot of self-worth on employment.  Sometimes, it’s hard not to be jealous of friends who are still teaching.  Sometimes, you don’t want to remind those same friends of their own precarious situation.  Whatever the reason, it’s easy to find excuses to withdraw.  Try not to do this.  Make an effort to reach out at least a couple of times a month to get coffee or go to happy hour with friends and professional colleagues.  It really helps me to ground myself when I see my friends.  My former students have also tremendously encouraged me.  I keep in touch with many of them (some of whom are now graduated from college!), and I love those moments of joy and success when I see how they are progressing in their lives.   Validating your belief in yourself as a skilled professional includes staying in touch with those who can reflect that part of who you are back to you.  Even if it is hard at first, don’t lose touch with your connections.

Yes, sometimes I want to scream, “I don’t WANT a teachable moment – I want to teach!” But most of the time now, I cope a lot better because I’m looking for ways to learn.  Learning takes me outside myself, and that always helps me to focus on the possible, rather than the unknowable.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here

*Many readers of this column are also unemployed, so please add your own experiences in the comments- we all have learned ways to cope that can help others in similar circumstances. 


Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online...

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1 Comment

  1. My father is going through a bout of unemployment and although he has finally started work ay McDonald's, I feel his depression has hit an all time low. I feel like a helpless bystander during this tough time. Any tips on what I can do as a daughter?

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