This is the story of my gap year.
It's how I began pursuing my passions once again - and how I began living my life with a new found purpose.
Today’s posts focuses on advocating for yourself and having close friends who inspire you. I was feeling stuck with nowhere to go, and someone came to my rescue and helped me try something different for a change.
My Gap Year Journey: Part III
It was early June of 2017. Summer was calling, and the White Mountains were waiting. I was excited for longer days, summer fun, and hikes with Dylan.
My colleague Lisa and I had just visited a Spanish program at a nearby school to observe their classes. After the school day ended, Lisa and I sat down at a local cafe. It was finally a warm day, as spring was late to arrive. Typical New England!
We relaxed and enjoyed chatting outside on the patio with cups of tea. Our conversations have always varied, and that day we talked about everything from traveling and teaching to healthy food, yoga and more.
While now I find it so easy to talk to Lisa (I call her all the time!), back when I first met her, I was extremely intimidated. I was also worried about working together.
Prior to Lisa’s arrival at my district in 2015, I was the only Spanish teacher in the entire school. I spent four years designing my own curriculum while also creating my own tests, worksheets, and projects, AND juggling the workload of 150+ students. It was a challenge, but I liked it. I prided myself on being organized and knowing almost everything about the ins and outs of my school.
When the Spanish program began to grow in numbers, it was time to add another teacher. My department head told me they planned to hire someone with over twenty years of experience that lived abroad in Spain for ten years. While I knew she was without a doubt the most qualified candidate for the job and would be a wonderful addition, I felt really uneasy.
I had been doing things on my own for a while. Now someone with twenty years of teaching under their belt AND with a history of living in Spain (my favorite country besides the US!) was going to work with me!? I began teaching right out of college with no background in education. I wouldn’t know anything compared to her!
She’s probably so much smarter than me. More experienced. Better teacher. I bet her Spanish is perfect. Mine isn’t as good as it used to be. I’m going to seem so inexperienced.
I was really worried to work with Lisa, but my nerves didn’t last. Once I met Lisa in person, I immediately took a liking to her. When we began working together, I realized how lucky I was that she was hired. Lisa is honest, creative, and so much fun in the classroom. She has high standards but also a heart of gold. She’s always willing to discuss ideas, try new things, or just go with the flow.
Lisa's intuition is uncanny, and she has a knack for just doing what “feels right”. Her gut feelings have never been wrong!
My planning, organizing, control-freak brain had a hard time adjusting at first. I wanted to do everything together and plan out every detail! Lisa didn’t work that way. We’d connect and share what we were doing, and slowly I began to relax a bit and teach from my heart. Lisa gave me the self-confidence to let go of the lesson plan and textbook, and be able to teach based on my own experience, knowledge, and understanding of my students' needs.
Quickly, Lisa became more than a colleague, but a close friend and confidante. We shared stories, laughs, lessons, and lunches together. Having her as a second teacher was the ultimate gift and blessing to my teaching career and my life!
During that afternoon tea in June of 2017, Lisa asked me a very simple question that had the gap year idea springing to the front of my mind.
While we were chatting about work, life, and travel, Lisa brought up a good point. She mentioned I had so many talents and needed to share them with the world. I appreciated the compliment but wasn't sure what I should do with it.
Lisa asked me this:
“Jen, what do you want to do?”
In my head, I knew the answer. Travel! But I just didn’t know how I'd do that with my schedule. A sabbatical wasn’t even allowed at my school, so to me, that meant it was impossible. Why bother saying it?
But a little voice in my head spoke up and said: "it’s okay, you can tell her.”
What did I have to lose?
I didn't want to change jobs. I didn't want a house. I didn't want kids - yet. I just wanted a chance to explore.
Adventure. Wanderlust. Passport stamps. Beaches. Mountains. Foreign lands. I wanted to see the world! And I wanted to see it with Dylan. There was no way we were going to wait until we were 65.
Taking a deep breath, I told Lisa that I wanted to take a gap year in order to travel, but I couldn't.
Lisa smiled and asked, "Why not?"
I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. She actually listened. Instead of telling me all the reasons why I shouldn't do it, she simply asked why I wasn't going to.
I stated the facts and what I knew to be true.
"It's not in the contract, so I can’t.”
Those words right there show how much I was limiting myself.
If it's not in the rule book, it means it isn't allowed.
Abide by the set parameters.
Don't color outside the lines.
Stay within the box.
Go with what you know.
These were the kind of beliefs I once held in my head.
With patience and kindness, Lisa's response was simple.
“So, make it happen. Don't wait. Just ask our supervisor about a gap year, and see what he says.”
Don't wait, just ask.
Just ask the question Jen. Go find out!
I couldn't believe it. That’s it? It was so simple. How did I not see that all I had to do was just ask?
When had I become so afraid of marching to the beat of my own drum?
All I had to do was ask a question. Just ask and see what happens. I could do that!
But then fear, as always, came back, taking quick hold of my one chance of hope. I felt myself stiffen. My immediate reaction was to argue back, and I did.
"But it's not in the contract! It hasn't been done before! No one's done it!"
Lisa had anticipated my knee jerk reaction, but her response was wise and once again, filled with both patience and kindness.
“Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Maybe it isn’t, but you don’t know that yet. All you have to do is ask and find out. Then you can decide what to do.”
And there it was.
All I had to do was ask about it. Then if it really wasn’t an option, I’d form a different plan. I didn't want to quit my job, I just wanted to take some time for myself. I really hoped I could do that and then come back to teaching and doing what I enjoyed.
That afternoon left me with a lot to think about. It took someone I trust to remind me that it is okay to not follow the norm. People are going to question and be fearful when you step outside their comfort zone, and when you step outside yours.
While my friend Lisa had always encouraged me to try new things and take risks, she really helped me to take the biggest risk of all.
“Don’t wait, just ask”, were Lisa’s words that day.
The following week, I did just that. I arranged a meeting with my supervisor with the hope that it would all work out. I shared my idea to travel the world after the following school year and asked if it was something feasible.
“I think it’s great.”
All of my worrying, self-doubt, and concern over something that ended on a positive note!
My boss had no problem with the gap year. He explained that I had given ample notice, it would be an excellent way to enhance my teaching, and would only add good things to the Spanish classroom.
The decision would ultimately be made by the higher-ups - the principal and then the superintendent. My supervisor said he’d broach the idea to the principal in a few days and offer his approval to help begin the process.
After a few days of wondering, I heard back. The principal was on board too! A week after that, I met with the principal privately, who also offered his approval and support. Shortly after, it was given to the superintendent for the final say.
We decided together I would teach for 2017-2018, and then take 2018-2019 off as an unpaid sabbatical year for travel. I would be able to resume my teaching job there when I returned in the fall of 2019, but without any contractual obligation.
I had done it.
My gap year was approved, and I had a job to go back to when it was all done.
I couldn't believe it!
I came home jumping up and down. I was thrilled! It was the first step toward officially taking time off for travel, and I was so incredibly happy. Though my sabbatical would not begin for another year, I felt so empowered and proud of myself for going after what I wanted.
That day when I scrolled through wanderlust hashtags on Instagram, read up on my favorite travel blogs and browsed Lonely Planet's website, I felt my dream starting to really become a reality.
What I learned through that afternoon tea with Lisa was that if you keep putting it off, you will never be ready.
I was nervous to ask about taking a gap year. Doing something different can be scary. But like I tell my students who fear public speaking - you just have to practice.
I was getting comfortable with change, starting right then!
So whatever you are working for, dreaming of, planning to do, aspiring to, hoping for, or wishing for - don’t let anyone get in your way.
Be your biggest ally and advocate for yourself. Take that leap of faith and embrace the unknown.
Sometimes you have to just go for it - don’t wait, and just ask!
My last posts on gap years will be shared here soon. I’ll be talking about the aftermath of the gap year process and where I am now compared to when it started. Thanks for following along!