Teaching for a Baby

My decision to go back into elementary school teaching was a mathematical one. In 2005 it cost about $20,000 for one set of IVF treatments. It cost the same to adopt a baby from China. Either way, if we wanted a baby, we needed twenty grand. Problem was, we didn’t have $20,000. So I began looking for a job.  It was late spring. Steve and I were walking through a residential neighborhood in Mountain View one evening when I noticed a private elementary school on what looked like a nondescript former public school campus. The sign said Yew Chung International School. I had left teaching many years ago but the Chinese name immediately piqued my interest. As luck would have it, I looked online and discovered the school was hiring. I applied, interviewed, and was offered a job teaching second and third grade, all within a couple of weeks.

According to my fertility doctor, a number on my lab tests indicated that it would be unlikely for me to get pregnant. She urged me to start IVF immediately.  So Steve and I visited the best clinics in the Silicon Valley. Each center presented us with a sheet of paper with the percentage likelihood of getting pregnant broken down by age of parent and other indices. I was 33. We also visited several local adoption agencies. One agency told us that the chances of our being able to adopt from China were pretty high.  After months of researching, Steve and I decided that if I didn’t get pregnant by the end of the year, we would adopt. We concluded that if we were going to spend $20,000 we wanted a baby for sure, not the potential of getting pregnant through IVF.

We decided to try one last thing before starting the adoption process—Chinese herbs. Steve’s aunt told us about a Chinese herbalist in Los Angeles that had helped many women conceive. So we drove down from the Bay Area to visit this doctor. He took my pulse and looked at my tongue, told me that I had endometriosis, and stated matter-of-factly :  “You will get pregnant if you eat my herbs.” He scribbled some notes in my file and directed me to the nurse for the herbs. Hopeful, I looked at Steve with a “is this for real” expression and he seemed to be in agreement. The nurse (must’ve been his wife) told me the cost for three months would be $1500 and that they only took cash.

We left the office and withdrew  $500 from three separate bank ATMs within walking distance of the office. I watched with amazement as each of our pockets grew fuller and heavier with bills.  We returned to the office and the nurse ushered us into the dim corridor where she carefully counted each $20 bill on the counter. She nodded her head at the right amount, stuffed little ziploc bags of pills (thank God they were pills!) into a brown paper lunch bag and sent us on our way.

After eating a couple days’ worth of pills, I discharged an ashy, black substance. Within a  month, just a few weeks into my my teaching job, I discovered I was pregnant. We were going to have a baby!

Author’s Reflections:  

Why did I go back into teaching, when I had decided to leave the career previously? At this point in my life, I didn’t really care if the job was the best fit for me. I just needed a job, and needed one fast.  Teaching at Yew Chung turned out to be a positive and memorable experience. In my previous position I had 30+ students and very little parental support. At Yew Chung I had just 12 students and plentiful support.  A dad who was an technology executive made copies for me each Monday. A mom with a PhD in science helped to teach math to small groups, and another mom helped with my computer rotations. Parents checked in with me regularly and made sure homework was turned in. My students had a Chinese teacher for about 1.5 hours a day so I also had extra time to plan and prepare.  Although the work was still exhausting, I did not struggle the way I had my first two years of teaching. Classroom management was no longer a main concern and I was able to focus on designing lessons, teaching, and building relationships. I could individualize instruction, build a warm and nurturing environment, and got to know my students well. My Chinese-American heritage  helped me connect culturally with the kids (many who were bi-cultural) and serve as a bridge between Chinese culture and American staff and parents. Looking back, this year of teaching at Yew Chung was quite special. I enjoyed my students’ “children-ness” and shared with them the joy of the expecting a baby. It was a wonderful, often magical context to be a teacher and soon-to-be mom.

As much as I enjoyed my students and working at Yew Chung, I knew that it would be my last year of classroom teaching. There was something else for me out there in terms of career, although I did not know what it was. Even amidst the joys of soon having a baby, the still unresolved unsettledness surrounding my  career saddened me. My last day of teaching before going on maternity leave was another gray Bay Area rainy day. It had rained every day the entire month of March that year and going into April the days were still drizzling. During my last afternoon recess duty that last day of teaching, the sun finally starting peeking through. The bell had just rung and my students had dashed off to wait in line for me in front of the classroom door.  In a brief rare moment of quiet aloneness, I looked up into sky and noticed a double rainbow. Two rainbows had formed a perfect circle above me. It was a promise of a new beginning.


Could I Have My Job Back?

Yes, that really happened.

The day after I had quit my teaching job, I  thought about my lack of savings and the fact that I would have no money in a few months and—asked for my job back.  My principal was gracious to receive me, but told me that unfortunately, another teacher had taken my third grade position. But I could teach fourth grade. This meant, essentially, that I would have to start over again. New curriculum, new lesson plans, and a new grade with 30+ students, as opposed to 20 students in my third grade class.

I accepted her offer but was dejected.

It was another rough year. My classroom management had improved but the discipline problems were worse than the year before. I had one particularly challenging student who was aggressive, mean and “not afraid of the principal”. Her mom did not want to hear about any behavior problems because “that is your job”.  I had another student who refused to follow directions that she did not like. She  declared, “my parents told me I don’t have to listen to you because you’re a bad teacher.” Her parents did not want to speak with me either.  I had volunteered to take several of the “tough case” boys that others did not want because I knew they were good kids. I loved them, but they required much effort.  Each day was a struggle.

No longer able to maintain the long hours and intensity of  “saving the world”  (see my last entry), I started burning out. I had gotten so thin that the school nurse took me aside and asked in a low voice if I were anorexic. I was not, but my health was failing for lack of self-care.  In addition to this, I had to deal with  political backlash from another teacher (the one who took my third grade class) for choosing not to  join the strike for higher pay.

Internally, I was scrambling for my next steps.  I knew I  had to quit, but didn’t know what to do next.  I was so desperate that I flew to Colorado (on my meager teacher salary) and spent a couple of days with a career coach highly recommended by a friend. The coach concluded I had so many strengths that it would be difficult for me to choose a profession.  There was no clear path to take.  He then advised me to conduct informational interviews with people doing jobs that sounded interesting until I found what I wanted to do.  Somewhat hopeful, I began calling friends, friends of friends, alumni contacts, even random people I had come across who had interesting job titles, asking them questions about their jobs. I did this for a few weeks, but it was not helpful. I made no discoveries.

So I went back to what I knew. I was good at academics, so applied for graduate school.








First Year of Teaching

My first teaching assignment was at a small public elementary school in Huntington Beach. I taught third grade. It was a “tough” school in that many of the students were reading below their grade level, were second language learners, or had socio-economic challenges. Several of my students had fathers in jail. Whereas most of my teaching program classmates had chosen positions in high-income areas such as Irvine and Newport Beach, I wanted to teach kids in need.

Although I had done my student teaching at the school, I had no idea how difficult having my own classroom would be.

First, the workload. I had students of vastly differing abilities. Some were still learning their letters and sounds and others could read fluently. Some could barely speak English, while others wrote stories with ease.  I therefore had to individualize assignments and create leveled curriculum tracks, rotating students in groups through centers. Because there were so many struggling students, I tutored during lunch and after school and called parents at home to discuss their child’s progress. I quickly realized that most of these parents were exhausted in the evenings, working two jobs, or did not speak English. Although they were glad that I cared,  parents were limited in time, energy, and education to support their kids academically.  If they could they would have been doing it.  Several students had learning or developmental issues, so I advocated for them. This meant initiating meetings with parents,  and pushing for Student Study Team and IEP meetings, all before or after school. The resource teacher did not like me.

For some kids, my efforts made a big difference. One child had serious speech issues that had never been addressed before. Another child’s mom credited me with teaching her son to read. I chose leveled books for him to take home daily at his reading level.  His mom did not know how to do this.  I saved discarded library books for one student who was bright and curious, but always in trouble. The other teachers did not like him. He was uncoordinated, dark-skinned, and loud– one of my favorites. I gave him the books after school and he began to read them in class instead of horsing around with the other boys. I’d go to the public library every two weeks and borrow the maximum number of books allowed for teachers–100.  I exposed my students to the best of books and literature. Kids who did not have books to read at home could read at school instead.

I  was the first to arrive in the morning. I arrived by 6:30 AM and prepared until 8 AM, watching the sun rise, it’s light reflecting off my whiteboard. I  worked through lunch and was the last person to leave. I took papers home to grade and materials to prepare.  It was not unusual for me to fall asleep at the wheel of the car as soon as I had parked in in front of my house. I had no parent volunteers, no teaching assistants.  Still, a parent would ask accusingly, “Miss Wu, why don’t you put something new on your bulletin board?”

Managing the classroom was a nightmare. I was completely detached from the world of children and families. Why weren’t kids listening to me? Why were they always arguing? Why did they talk back? Why couldn’t I get the class to quiet down? Why did I have to yell at them for them to listen to me? I was sweet, nice, and stepped all over.  Imagine me with small footprints–no, tractor tread marks–all over my face and front of my clothes. Inexperienced working with children, I did not know how to assert my authority. I could not relate to their home and family backgrounds.  I only knew my own Asian heritage where most kids do what the teacher says.

As the school year progressed, I grew to dislike teaching more and more. I counted down the days until summer. Managing the classroom and all the non-teaching tasks such as preparing materials, enforcing behavior plans, resolving fights and friendship issues, photocopying, and organizing papers was extremely draining.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night stressed, look in the mirror, and find permanent frown lines between my brows.  Soon my desire to do good  was not enough to compensate for my disdain for everything else.  I kept up the after-school tutoring, advocating for services, and designing fun lessons, but the classroom discipline and mundane tasks were killing me.

By the end of the school year, I decided to quit.





How I Decided to Become a Teacher

My stay in Taiwan ended with a telephone call. My dad let me know the bad news that my grandfather was sick and that he may not have much more time to live. My Chinese program was over so I quickly packed my bags, said my goodbyes and headed back to the States.

When I returned home I discovered that my grandfather’s kidneys had stopped working and that he was on dialysis.  His life would be prolonged although he would slowly weaken. I spent much time fussing over his treatments.

On a personal level, I had classic reverse culture shock. Everything at home was the same and yet I had changed.  No one could relate to me. Everyone was happy to see me and I was happy to reconnect,  but each interaction increased my anxiety.  What was I going to do with my life now that I had returned from Taiwan?  What would I tell my family and friends when they asked what my plans were? My peers had gone on to jobs, grad school and  adulthood, and I was directionless and broke. I had a car to drive but didn’t have money for gas.

My parents wanted to have the “what are you going to do now” talk and I knew I needed an answer. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I made myself make a decision. I said I wanted to become an elementary school teacher and pretended it was what I wanted to do. I convinced myself it was a noble profession.  I reasoned to myself that if I were to go back to Taiwan or live overseas again, teaching experience would be beneficial.  Kids are cute and I could help disadvantaged children develop literacy.  I could get my credential in one year and escape my state of limbo. I’d have a focus for the next couple of years. I’d have a stable job. So that is how the decision was made.

Questions for Discussion: How did you decide on your career? Have you ever made a decision that you knew was a wrong one? If yes, why? What was the result?

Author’s Reflections: Looking back, I wish I had looked for a full-time job and spent more time considering options before rushing into making such an important decision. I could have worked as a substitute teacher first. Or asked for counsel from mentors or wise peers instead of making the decision entirely on my own. (Proverbs 15:22 in the Bible says “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) I was still young and had many opportunities to choose from,  but I rushed into the decision. Scared, I became overly practical. I didn’t ask for help. I lost hope in myself.