About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

This is that marvelous time of the school year when teachers can begin to see that (sometimes desperately) needed break coming in December.  Some schools even get an entire week off for Thanksgiving, and that’s right around the corner!  Often parent-teacher conferences happen around this time of year, and there are grading days to get those first report cards out.  The best part about this time of the year is that by now, teachers feel confident and at ease with their students because they know them now.  All the names and faces are familiar, there are inside jokes, and comfortable familiarity accompanies the start of class.  This time of year finally means the ability to adjust plans and teaching styles to meet the different needs and levels of students because teachers know their classes more personally now.  I remember how much I loved this time of year when I had my classroom because greeting my students had become positive and fun, I could gear my teaching style towards the different class personalities that had developed, I was much more confident in managing any issues with students.

It is an interesting sensation to mark the calendar by a school year pattern though I am no longer in a school.  But this may be one of the most important things I do for myself as an unemployed teacher.  On the one hand, it might seem almost painful to be reminded of what I am not able to experience without a classroom.  Indeed, the first autumn when I was unemployed, I did not do this, and I absented myself from connection with the school year (probably mostly out of grief for the loss of the profession I was so passionate about, and I just had to work through that loss).  But now, that school calendar is a saving grace.  One of the themes of this column has been the idea that just because I don’t have my own classroom right now, I am still a teacher.  A mindful connection with the school year calendar now helps me to continue to nurture my teacher-self.  I don’t know if unemployed people in other professions do this, but as a teacher who still hopes and intends to return to the classroom, that rhythm of the school year and teaching is a way for me to stay in the “school zone.”

Interestingly, unemployment does not necessarily mean boredom or lack of work (as can be the popular conception of it).  Just looking for work can be incredibly time consuming.  But as all unemployed people know, we can’t fill all of our time with job searching because it can be a very defeating to only focus on the hunt.  So scheduling time out to do other professionally-focused tasks really helps me to compartmentalize the different aspects of unemployment.  Time set aside for job searching has its place.  But I also tune into the school year and engage in the profession of teaching.  I think through the subjects I teach and retool lessons with newer information.  I research areas of inquiry that I haven’t used recently or at all and incorporate them into original lessons.  I am a constant learner myself, and so I do research and find ways to increase my awareness of tools and information pertinent to what I teach.  This all engages my mind, connects me to one of the pieces I most love about teaching: the creativity. This practice also uses my time productively, and I get the very valuable sense of achievement that can often be missing during unemployment.  In addition, I know I will be prepared with new ideas and lessons when I do go back to the classroom, and not reliant on materials that have aged since I last formally taught.

I also keep in tune with the school year through social networking.  I set up a Facebook page specifically for staying in touch with my former students so that they could always come to me for advice or information, or just discussion about what they are learning or experiencing.  By now, they are all in college or graduate school, and many of them have already graduated from college and have moved into their adult lives.  But by staying connected to them, I get the wonderful opportunity to still teach.  They ask me questions or ask me to look at their work or engage me in conversation about issues in the news.  Maintaining that connection taps into a part of my heart that loves that interaction with students and that back and forth of discovery and learning.  We still get “aha” moments together, we still learn from each other, and teaching happens.

The school zone can be risky because it could remind me of what I used to have and where I might be instead of where I am.  But the challenge of unemployment is not to live in the future, but to find the richness of the present.  Keeping in tune with the school year, continuing my best practices in creation of lesson plans and materials, improving my own skills in technology and research, and maintaining relationships that channel the best parts of teaching interactions, all combine to enrich my life outside the classroom and remind me of who I am.  Because I’m a teacher, so I might as well act like one!

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


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