By Rebecca Sperry
If you knew me prior to May 2015, then you knew a different person. As a full time Special Educator, I would spend hours of my free time writing lesson plans, evaluations, Individualized Educational Programs, behavioral plans, and developing curriculum. My job was my life, as it is for many educators. I was in my second year of teaching and finally felt like I was getting the hang of running a program for students with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, but on a Friday afternoon in March my entire world would change.
Education is unlike any other career, and though from the outside it may seem like if you get a job as a teacher you’re set for life, that is not the case at all. In my state, you are not a tenured educator until you’ve worked for five years in a school district. Every spring, right before February break, all of the non-tenured educators hold their breaths and hope that their contracts will be renewed for the following school year. They don’t need to give you a reason that they’re not renewing your contract, and if they choose not to renew it, you still have to work the remainder of the school year as if everything is ok. As if you weren’t just told they don’t want you back for the following year.
In March 2015, after putting in hundreds of hours outside of my contracted ones developing a program, writing curriculum, and putting everything I had into my job, my principal came into my room and told me that they weren’t going to be renewing my contract. I was speechless. I was furious. I was lost. My entire identity was my job. If I wasn’t the Autism Program Director, then who was I?
“I was speechless. I was furious. I was lost. My entire identity was my job. If I wasn’t the Autism Program Director, then who was I?”
For the remainder of the school year, I worked just as hard as I did before knowing that I wasn’t coming back in the fall. I knew why I was essentially losing my job (they were eliminating both programs for financial reasons), but that didn’t make it hurt any less. That didn’t make me feel any better when department meetings discussing the next school year were meaningless for me. I was jaded and I was spending my sick days at job interviews trying to secure a job for the following year, while my coworkers were enjoying the school year coming to a close.
Then, one sunny day in mid-May, I got the urge to go hiking. My husband didn’t feel like going, so I decided to go solo (something that I had never done before). I loaded god only knows what into my Jansport backpack, put on a cotton t-shirt and jean shorts, and headed for the mountains. Nervous energy poured from my fingertips as I drove north and the butterflies did somersaults in my stomach as I started up the Blue Trail on a small mountain in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. It was a beautiful spring day and the trail was far from empty. I played leap-frog with other hikers and a smile was permanently etched onto my face for the entirety of the hike.
“Are you hiking alone?” I would be asked by passing hikers.
“Yes,” I would proudly respond. I was a young woman hiking alone and that was something that was less common even seven years ago. I was a solo female hiker, and I had just finished a three mile out-and-back of Mount Major. I was a solo female hiker, not just an educator, not just someone who was defined by my job. From that day forward, my job was not all there was to me anymore.
As the months went by, I continued hiking solo, summiting three 4000’ers and a handful of smaller peaks over the summer of 2015 and I discovered the niche community of thru-hikers through blog posts online. I no longer spent my free time working on curriculum, I spent it outside or reading about hiking. I challenged myself physically in ways that I never had, and for the first time in my life exercise became fun.
“I no longer spent my free time working on curriculum, I spent it outside or reading about hiking. I challenged myself physically in ways that I never had, and for the first time in my life exercise became fun.”
In late July, I received a job offer for another school district. In fact, I got the call offering me the job while I was in the middle of the woods on a hike. Although I was glad to have a job lined up, I felt a twinge of sadness because I knew that my free time would not be spent outside, it would be spent in the classroom. I was no longer just a Special Educator, I was a solo hiker, and although I continued teaching for another five years, my passion for education continued to dwindle.
I never would’ve imagined myself to be who I am today back in 2015. Losing my job as an educator set the trajectory for my entire life. Although there are days when I miss being an educator, when I would love to go back to full time teaching, having my own classroom to decorate and students to advocate for, I know that my path no longer lies within those four walls and a roof. I am more than just my job, I can no longer be contained by a building, a contract, and I refuse to allow my self-worth to be dictated by another human being who has the ability to fire me without reason.
Hiking has given me back my self-confidence, my self-worth, and has provided me with dozens of incredible opportunities that I never would’ve had if I wasn’t fired in 2015. I guess you could say I was fired into hiking.