I had the weirdest experience two days ago.
It was the second-last day of school. In Australia, our school year runs from January – December, so we were looking at 5 glorious weeks of summer holidays galloping towards us. First thing in the morning I walked into our staffroom and the principal was there trying to allocate extra jobs for people. The expectation is that if you’re on the highest pay grade, (like I am), you’re expected to take on another task above your teaching ones to add more value to the school.
Our principal looked at me and her eyes lit up.
“YOU can do debating!” she said.
My reaction was immediate and completely visceral. And may have been a little bit shouty.
She looked shocked. Understandable, because my reaction probably looked a bit over-the-top.
“But why?” she asked.
My heart was beating fast. I was suddenly in a cold sweat. All I could come up with was, “I hate debating with a passion. I’d be really shit at it. You need to find someone else.”
I reminded her of what I’d already put myself down for – Junior English help – and the conversation moved on. Then we went into the staff end-of-year luncheon.
This function is bigger than Ben Hur. We have around 200 staff at the school and every year we have a full sit-down lunch, with speeches from staff who are leaving, the ‘Pineapple Awards’ for staff who have done stupid things over the year and a Christmas giveaway, where names are drawn out of a hat and you get some chocolates. This year Kevin Sheedy, a famous Aussie Rules footballer/coach, came and gave a short speech. He looked a little familiar but I don’t do sport. I had to be told who he was. Plus Essendon is my ex-husband’s team… yuck.
I was one of the lucky ones who had my name pulled out of the hat for the chocolates. Not being one to avoid the spotlight, I leapt out of my seat, punching the air and shouting, “YES! YES!”
Our principal laughed and said, “You’re paying for those chocolates by doing debating next year.”
“I quit!” I said and went back to my seat and the function moved on.
I was really upset. I felt like the rug had just been pulled out from under me. I sat back down and the people next to me laughed and said, “Did you put your hand up for debating next year?”
“When did you find out about it?”
“Just now,” I replied, and my eyes started filling up with tears.
I was the teacher in charge of debating in my first year of teaching. Admittedly, the school was in the country and I was just out of teachers college, but the experience was horrendous. The first challenge is getting enough kids to fill the teams. Then you have to organise practice runs either at lunchtime or after school. When the actual debate dates are announced, there’s always kids that can’t or won’t make it, so you have to scramble around trying to fill up the spots in the team so that the good kids who are keen to do it won’t be forced to forfeit. You are always trying to pull in favours, people start to avoid eye contact when they see you coming and there’s always someone having a tantrum or making things difficult at the last minute. I vowed and dclared I would NEVER do it again.
The debates nowadays are always at night – adding around 20 minutes extra driving time to get home. I already live a 50-minute drive from school. So I’d have really late nights and be expected to leap joyfully up and go and teach the next day.
The debates finish at around 9 or 10. But you can’t leave right away – oh no. There are always children whose parents either can’t or won’t go to the actual debate, so you have to hang around until someone comes to pick them up. (I already have this when we do our Theatre Studies rehearsals and performances, but at least that’s at school.) It’d be quicker to drop them off home, but of course you can’t drive a child anywhere without permission and honestly, perception is everything and no one wants to be letting a teenage child in their car late at night…
So after every debate, you’re hanging around for at least 30 extra minutes waiting for parents. You can’t leave kids alone to wait. Imagine if something went wrong?
This would all be ok if, as a person, you enjoy the cut and thrust of debating and you enjoy teaching these skills to students. That’s not me. A debating mentor needs to have the thrill of the debate in their blood and pass on their enthusiasm to the kids. That’s effective teaching. I know that I’d be faking it. Kids can always tell. So I was floored that I was assigned to do it.
I understood our principal’s position. The guy who’d been running it for 3 years wanted to step down from the job and it had to be filled. Fair enough. I’m the Theatre Studies teacher. It would seem to her like a perfect fit.
I sat at the table and the tears welled up. People were laughing, then when they saw I was upset they became concerned.
“What do you mean, you only heard just now? That’s terrible.”
“Go and see her after the lunch is over and sit down with her.”
“Are you ok? Surely you can do something else…?”
I got my sh*t together and sat there as the function rolled on. For the first few minutes I wallowed in self-pity, but then, for the first time, I seriously thought about FU money.
For those who’ve never heard this term before, the ‘FU’ stands for exactly what you think it does. It’s a sum of money that you save, enough so that if a boss or a job is making your life hell, you can simply say “FU” (hopefully just to yourself!) and walk away, without having to suck it up and stay in a horrible situation because you’re dependent on the pay packet to survive week-to-week. It’s a financial cushion which isn’t big enough to actually retire on, but it’s enough to give you some breathing space while you look around for other opportunities. I first saw it coined in James Clavell’s ‘Tai Pan’ and then later I saw it on JL Collins’ blog and although I thought I’d never need it, I liked the concept.
You see, I have my FU money in a bank account. I have 3 years of expenses put away. I kept it back after I did the whole geoarbitrage thing a year ago, but I earmarked it for a buffer fund in case the sharemarket tanked after I retired. I figured I’d have that money to live off so I wouldn’t have to sell my shares while they were undervalued.
But now…? I sat there, my brain whirling. I knew I hated the thought of running debating but did I hate it so much that I’d be prepared to threaten to leave my job? You can’t threaten anything unless you’re prepared to follow through…
My gut was telling me to leave. I knew it would make my life hell. But then other thoughts intruded.
My Theatre Studies class are doing my favourite play next year – ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ We just did the casting this week and I’m excited to be doing it. The people I work with – I love them. I’ll miss the banter every day. The rest of my allotment is English classes down in the junior school, which is fun and entertaining. I want to keep renovating the house, so I need cash flow to keep doing that. I really don’t want to dip into my savings for that, even though I could.
BUT… with my FU money and my teaching experience, I’m not tied to this job. The school I’m at was just ranked 2nd in the state for non-selective government schools. I’ve been there for nearly 2 decades. I could pick up a job anywhere with (insert name of school) on my resume. Heck, there’s a school at the end of my street! I could walk to work!
AND, with my FU money as a buffer, I could go part-time, or pick up short-term contracts or simply do CRT. (Casual/Relief teaching for when teachers are away. ) Doing CRT is a cool $330/day and you don’t have to attend meetings or do correction etc. Hmmm…
As I sat there, listening to the speeches and then a bit later on having lunch, behind all the conversation and joking, my mind was ticking over.
- Was I ready to fully retire? On paper, possibly YES. But being the security-valuing person that I am, probably NO.
- Am I tied to the job at (insert name of school here)? NO. I am ongoing/fully tenured, but I can get that anywhere else.
- Could I work somewhere else? YES.
- Could I support myself and the boys by working part-time or CRT if necessary? YES. (It’d probably add to my quality of life, to be honest!)
- If for some reason I couldn’t find any work, could I support myself until I could access my superannuation? YES.
- Am I prepared to go into a meeting with the principal over this debating issue and ultimately be prepared to follow through on a threat to resign?… I guess the answer is… YES. (Yikes!)
By the end of lunch, I had an empty feeling in my stomach which had nothing to do with the food. I’d realised that the only thing standing between me and being free of the spectre of debating was being fearless enough to walk away from my (up-till-now) lovely job if I had to.
The money wasn’t the issue. Security wasn’t an issue. I had those pretty well covered.
It was the fear of the unknown. The fear that, even if she turned down my offer of resignation, I’d have damaged that working relationship. Which, on the other hand, was already damaged by the debating debacle in the first place…
But as lunch came to a close and we were getting up from the table to clear our plates and go over to the gelato bar for dessert, I knew that I was going to stick to my guns and have a meeting with her. My FU money was there for a reason, after all, and I knew without a doubt that the debating assignment was a deal-breaker for me.
As I was walking back to the table, my principal walked over to me and said, “I can always rely on you to give a good reaction when you win something!”
I smiled and said, “Hey, tell me you were joking when you said that thing about me getting debating.” I crossed my fingers.
“She laughed. “Of course I was! I only said it because of what you said before!!”
I said, “Oh God I love you!!” and hugged her.
FU Fund emergency averted! I have no idea which job I’ll be allocated next year but I know it’s not the one from which clearly I carry scars from my first year of teaching.
But how interesting that whole episode was. I’m really happy where I work and I assumed that I’d be working there until I chose to leave the workforce. I hadn’t given that chunk of money in the bank a second thought once I put it in there. It was for Old Lady Frogdancer to be safe from bear markets, not for me.
But when the situation changed, having that chunk of money/FU Fund seriously changed the whole dynamic of how I thought about my quality of life. I was free to make a stand, if I needed to, about my job.
If that money wasn’t there and my principal wasn’t joking, I would have had to suck it up and be the debating organiser. I wouldn’t have much of a choice. It’s the end of the year and schools have filled their positions for next year. Either way, I couldn’t move seamlessly from one job to another. I’d have to stay and be miserable. I’d need that pay packet every fortnight.
Having an FU Fund gives the courage to be able to sidestep and walk away into a world with new pathways.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that I don’t have to have that ‘courageous conversation’ with my boss. I’m relieved that the status quo will continue. I love my school and my students and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’
But how liberating is it to know that, should the situation at work ever change to a point where I find it untenable, I’m financially free enough to walk away?
It was a half-hour misunderstanding. Absolutely nothing in the big scheme of things. But in that half an hour I was free to evaluate my life and to weigh up what was important to me. I realised that I am finally free to draw a line in the sand and say, “This far and no more.”
That’s a very precious position for a person to be in. It makes me think about my job in a whole new light. It makes me think about my LIFE in a whole new light.
The possibilities are bigger than I thought.