The Life-Changing Magic of Not Tidying Up
It was the all-too-familiar story of a teacher who thought she had nothing left to give, and then her students gave her a reason to believe in herself one more time.
At the end of her seventh year teaching elementary school in Denver, Natasha Gulley (Colorado ’09) felt her spark going out.
After moving across the country with her husband and baby in 2016, she stopped teaching and declared, “I’m never going back.” She spent two years grasping after what to do next. In a most unexpected place, the answer appeared. Gulley told her story to One Day.
Last winter, just after having had my second child, I was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I thought it would be amazing to go through everything in my house and purge all the things I didn’t need or use anymore. The book talks about doing this all with purpose and how it opens you up in new ways—but truly, I was just doing it because I was bored.
I was getting rid of old packets of teacher-training materials and textbooks. I remember thinking I didn’t need those things anymore because I was never going back into the classroom. I have two kids now. I’m supposed to have all the fulfillment I need. I was ready to toss it all.
The book recommended leaving special things like mementos and photos for the end of the cleaning process, which I did. That’s when I found these two large Rubbermaid containers of letters and pictures from my first years in the classroom.
One note I picked up read, “I love you. You’re the best teacher ever. You’re smart and you make me feel smart.”
I had been teaching first, second, and third graders back in Denver. These notes weren’t very long or detailed, but sitting there and reading them again, I was overwhelmed by how unbelievably loving and honest kids can be. They have no reason to love you, but they choose to. And I had fallen in love with them.
Instantly, those letters renewed my sense of purpose. After reading those letters, I decided to choose those kids again the way they had chosen to love me all those years ago.
Thinking back on why I chose to leave the classroom, it was a combination of burnout and unrealistic expectations. It was hard, working in Title I schools. I’m a perfectionist and I’m very self-critical; I was mixing up my need to get everything right with the more important purpose of students making progress.
I had thought that if I wasn’t doing this perfectly, if I wasn’t meeting the bar that I imagined for myself, I should do something else. I thought about teaching yoga, becoming a doula, or solely focusing on raising my children. That box of letters reminded me there is no love like the love from your students. They hold a mirror up to you that helps you see yourself in a way you didn’t think possible. I realized I couldn’t be fulfilled unless I was giving to students in a classroom again.
I’m back at a Title I school now, teaching kindergarten. I’ve noticed how much I laugh these days, more than I ever did my first year as a teacher. I’m finding it so much easier to enjoy where I am and what I’m doing.
I just finished sending postcards to each of my students’ homes, with notes about what I think is special about them. I hope they hold onto those postcards to remind them of their gifts and talents, the way my students’ letters reminded me of my gift for teaching.