A few days ago, I had the idea of conducting a Q&A with people in my professional and personal circles to ask them about their life’s work. As a career coach, I talk about this topic with individuals across diverse industries. Based on this idea of the Life’s Work series, I created ten questions and sent them to multiple individuals.
The first person to respond to me is Becky Hopkinson, who is my friend and one of my former teammates at Laspau, a nonprofit affiliate of Harvard University focused on connecting higher education across the Americas. Join me in learning about Becky’s journey to discovering her life’s work.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about yourself.
I am a high school Spanish teacher in her mid-thirties. This is my 93845928340980934th career as I have had a lot of opportunities (and challenges) come my way. I am happy to say I think I have finally landed in a career I hope to continue in for the long haul.
I love to be outdoors in nature, and I currently live in a pretty rural town in Southern New Hampshire. I’ve lived in very rural places for most of my life (save for my childhood and a brief stint in Boston and São Paulo, Brazil).
I’ve self-identified as bisexual since high school, but only began to publicly embrace that part of my identity in my adult years.
I am a survivor of intimate partner violence and I also have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, both of which have a huge impact on who I am today. While I would have preferred to have avoided them, I am quite grateful for the awareness they have brought me.
I now help produce a TV show called Kelly’s Quest, which highlights the story of transgender individuals in the United States. It’s something I am really proud of and wish I had more time to dedicate to it.
I am divorced and recently remarried. We have a pretty comfortable life with our zoo of animals (two dogs, two cats, and seven chickens), and I now have quite the vegetable garden growing.
I am an avid hiker and prefer lakes and mountains to oceans and beaches. I am an introvert and prefer to be alone for extended periods of time. I could easily go a few weeks without actually interacting with another person, and that would be just fine and dandy by my standards. I read a lot of historical fiction and prefer to read books set in places I have actually been. I am very musical and once thought I would pursue a life in a pit orchestra on Broadway. I now play the guitar.
My educational background is in International Studies and Spanish. My minors in college were Anthropology and Latin American Studies. After graduation, I completed a graduate program in Latin American Studies.
What does the term life‘s work mean to you?
To me, this term gets at the core of what drives you to get up in the morning. It is the thread that ties your personal, professional, and spiritual life together. For me, my life’s work is to do what I can to provide access to others.
Do you have something or some things you consider your life‘s work?
In going through boxes of old photos my mother had sent to me, I found hundreds of albums from my Girl Scout days.
The founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, famously said, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate, you have not wasted your time but have done your best.” His work in organizing the Boy Scouts inspired Juliette Gordon Low to organize the Girl Guides, now known as the Girl Scouts.
Ever since I was a little girl, I was engaged in community cleanups, toy drives, and benefit concerts. I continued to be incredibly engaged in the organization until I finally graduated high school. The experience I had in Girl Scouts truly helped me become the person I am today. While the organization is wrought with issues (Aren’t they all?), I found a place where I felt free to be my goofy self and was able to take on leadership roles from a young age. I loved leading younger campers on hikes, creating memorable experiences for them, and helping them to feel more confident as young girls and women.
My career choices have always involved some aspect of educating, coaching, and supporting others as they prepare for the next journey in their lives. Helping them to learn a new language so they could study abroad, providing support as students applied to their dream graduate programs, and developing curriculum to train mentors and support them in building authentic relationships with their mentees. Ultimately, I found my niche working with students with anxiety disorders as a summer camp counselor.
How has your life impacted your work?
I would say there were four big influences.
- My mother worked tirelessly to provide me with as many real experiences as possible so that I could have the chance to truly discover who I was as a person. While I do recall being completely exhausted rushing from school to art class, to clarinet lessons, to drama club, to youth group, to gymnastics and soccer practice and basketball games, swim classes and Girl Scout Camp, she pushed me to ask questions of the people around me to learn about different career paths and never pushed me in any direction–except college.
- My grandmother was a huge influence in my life as well because she was so darn politically active. My grandmother protested as a hobby. She wrote her representatives, read and discussed tough issues until she had a full understanding of their implications, joined the board of directors for organizations she cared about and dedicated her life to service. She was a devout Methodist and was driving for Meals on Wheels and working at the local food pantry up until a few weeks before she passed away.
- My now finally diagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): My anxiety disorder has been both crippling as well as motivating. After suffering a complete meltdown in the Spring of 2017, I quit what I saw as the path to my dream job at Mentor Collective, took a few months off to work on getting healthy and drove Lyft for a few hours a day to pay the bills. I now have presented at multiple conferences, both state, regional, and national, helping teachers learn strategies to support their students with social and emotional challenges such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and ADHD. My pursuit to better understand myself has helped me to create a classroom environment where all students feel comfortable, relaxed, supported, and seen. From my most recent students’ end of the year reflections, I can tell my hard work is truly paying off and I am so incredibly proud of that.
- Living abroad: My first extended experience abroad was in Puebla, Mexico, but my second extended experience was in a small village, where I completed an ethnographic field school program. I lived with a woman and her two young children and a college classmate. We spent weeks observing, journaling, interviewing, compiling data, making connections, and documenting our findings. The purpose of my study was to look at educational attainment among the residents of the village as well as that of their families that resided either seasonally or permanently in and around Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. After graduate school, I moved to a remote area of Brazil (chasing a man of all things), where I lived for a number of years. These experiences of being an outsider with little to no understanding of the customs or culture, equipped with a very rudimentary ability to communicate, gave me the incredible opportunity to escape the rat race in the United States and sloooooooooowwww doooowwwwwnnnnn. I learned to appreciate spending hours drinking tereré (iced mate tea) while connecting on a deeper level with friends old and new. I had the opportunity to start my first business, write my first textbook and realize that I am capable.
How has your work impacted your life?
First and foremost, my work has made me extremely tired. I truly miss living in Brazil, where I felt so much more work-life balance. Month-long PAID vacations. Mid-day breaks from 11:00am-2:00pm. This is unheard of in the United States, and I really wish we as a country could re-evaluate our priorities and stop spending the majority of our time working. The 40-hour work week robs us of so many things that are so much more important.
I think the fact that I decided to get back into the classroom as a full-time teacher has helped me to regain some of that balance that I felt was lost. I truly enjoy every second I get to spend with my students (either in person or virtually, given COVID-19). This past year I got to coach 120 young people along their journey of acquiring a new language with the goal of building self-confidence and helping them to set and achieve goals of their own.
It has also re-energized my focus on supporting the LGBTQ community, which I am a part of as a bisexual/queer woman. I make sure to include diverse voices and stories in my student-focused classes. The best part of working with students is that they give you immediate, unfiltered feedback. These young teenagers challenge me every day to be better. They make me laugh and also sometimes pull my hair out, but I truly love each and every one of them. By having a direct connection with the leaders of tomorrow, I am inspired to keep breaking down barriers that hold these kids back—be it their economic status, their race, their upbringing, their mental health challenges, their disabilities, their gender identity, whatever it might be.
What do you consider to be the highlights of your life‘s work?
My first successful grant in college founded a program called College Prep 101 for Latinos, which was designed to provide culturally-responsive support to first generation Latino students at my university. I co-wrote this grant with my mentor and my then partner. The program is now fully funded by the university and has morphed into a program called Caring about Latino Student Achievement, or CALSA, which supports Latino students during their college experience and also helps prepare them for graduate school.
I remember sitting down with my mentor as we wrote the budget when he asked, “So how much do you think you should get paid, and how many hours do you want to work a week?” It was at that moment that I realized that I could really be in charge of my own future, I just needed the connections … and a successful proposal.
What have you learned through your experiences?
It sounds cliché, but I am smarter and stronger than I think. I suffer from Impostor Syndrome, which basically means that I have a hard time accepting my successes as successes. To counteract that, I find that being in front of a group of students or teachers who will provide me with instant feedback (either by falling asleep during class or coming up to me after a presentation inquiring about opportunities for collaboration), I am able to make steps toward conquering my own distrust of my own abilities. By pushing myself to “put it all out there,” I am learning to trust myself, trust my gut, and truly pursue work that is fulfilling and meaningful.
What do you hope to experience in the future?
I hope to one day lead a department of language teachers and help teachers develop a more student-driven learning experience for their students in all subject areas. By putting students in control of their learning, we are able to create a space where more real learning happens. Students learn from each other. Students become experts in their area of interest. Students learn how to set goals, how to ask for help, how to identify problems, and how to propose solutions. It is so incredibly powerful, and I wish everyone would put the textbooks away and let the kids create their own!
How do you hope the workforce evolves in the future?
I truly hope that flex work is more fully embraced so that people can save time on commuting, use less fossil fuels, and spend more time at home with their families and friends.
I also truly hope that teachers feel more supported to be their authentic selves with their students. Many teachers refuse to disclose their many overlapping identities with their students for fear that they might risk their jobs. I am 100% real with my students, and I think they appreciate that.
I hope that the pay disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom is addressed. Organizations are made up of teams of individuals. While some individuals may have more responsibility than others, it does not mean that any part of that team is less important to the whole.
Pay disparity between colleagues as well needs to be addressed. We are strongly discouraged from sharing our salaries with others, and it is because we find out some ugly truths when we do. Salary transparency will help us move towards a more equitable world for all, I believe.
What action steps can you take now?
Summer is the time for teacher self-care and prep for the next academic year.
I’m spending a lot of time this summer relaxing with my two pups, two cats, and seven baby chicks. I’m reading, reflecting, and pushing myself to develop a year of learning for my students that will help them to understand that they can do anything they put their mind to. I’m going to encourage them to propose their own businesses, write their own poems, document the history that is happening around them, and be in control of the learning process, rather than cramming for a vocab test or searching for the answer keys to worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers.
Most kids hate school. It feels like glorified daycare to them where they are reminded of everything they are not good at.
In my class, I want them to realize that their worth does not come from a grade. I want them to feel successful, capable, and in control. As I routinely sing as I dance around the room whenever I hear that classic teenage groan, “SCHOOL DOES NOT HAVE TO SUCK!”