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How Going Back to School Helped me Conquer Burn-out and Write a Book

Book Cover of Dig In! Outdoor STEM Learning with Young Children with children outdoors examining sticks and a child with an insect on their finger

Sometimes, all you need to start your journey is an overwhelming sense of discontent. Everything is going fine in your chosen profession. You have been growing and changing and leading until you simply run out of steam. Some might say you’ve lost your mojo. You might be making a good living, or good enough living, but the thought of one more year at the same old same old has you feeling like you’ve made some bad life decisions. Aren’t we all supposed to be passionate about our passions forever?  Boredom sets in. I’ve dedicated my life to my passion, but now what? 

The Jealous Thought That Motivated Me

With many years of teaching young children and leading teachers under my belt, I found myself in this exact place of discontent. A co-worker announced she was going back to school to get her master’s degree. In fact, she was going to be attending Loyola University Maryland at the Columbia campus. She was much younger than me, and I admit I was jealous. The more I heard about her newfound career path, the more I wanted that for myself. Not necessarily to change careers, but to become excited about learning again. After a year or so of discontent, I confronted that jealous voice in my head. I recognized that if I was excited about the thought of returning to school, why not pursue it?  Excitement felt better than malaise. I read the online catalogue of classes at Loyola and was almost immediately drawn to Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice.

Social Justice was a concept that I knew from my years working in the Lutheran church as a preschool director. I wanted to dig into this “church topic” which to me was becoming more secular. I wanted to learn more about how social justice can inform curriculum and instruction for young people. Mostly, I wanted to discover my blind spots and figure out just what was going on in the world, and what I could do about it.

I’m an Author?

Around the same time of my quest to rid the doldrums by returning to school, I was dreaming of writing a book. I had a desire to share my knowledge and opinions about teaching young children with others. I had a friend who agreed to be my co-author, and I knew that I enjoyed writing, but I lacked confidence. What could I possibly share that hadn’t been already said?  My husband of forty years said, “Remember, there is more than one restaurant that sells hamburgers.”  In other words, even if you think it’s been done before, you can put your own spin on things and present it to the world for consumption. The writing of a book starts with a certain amount of confidence. I didn’t have much.

Gaining Confidence from Hard Work

Over the course of two years, bit by bit, I changed. I learned about civil rights history alongside discussions of current events shaping our society. I learned of the challenges of poverty. I learned what it takes to be a leader and challenge the status quo. I learned to think critically about media and the messages we hear and teach. I learned the importance of child-led learning, something I was already passionate about, but needed the theory to fully embrace the concept. I learned through studying the history of education in America that our educational system has had challenges from the start. And I also learned about the many people who came along and tried to meet the challenges. With each class, I was meeting my own struggle head on, building confidence, and adding more chapters to that book I was writing.

When I was nearing the end of the program, I was given the opportunity to research and write a chapter for my capstone project. The book now had a title, Dig In! Outdoor STEM Learning with Young Children and included a chapter about the deep thinkers (philosophers and theorists) that support outdoor child-led learning. Through my Loyola education, I realized it wasn’t enough to just discuss the history of the famous philosophers. It was important to add the influence of Indigenous Peoples into the narrative of outdoor education. My research supported the fact that Indigenous Peoples’ philosophies align with 21st century educational goals and should be included with the story of modern theorists.

My own spin on things that I needed for my book ended up being influenced by my time at Loyola. It gave me the deeper knowledge I didn’t realize I needed. It provided me with support from wonderful faculty and a structure that helped build my confidence. Most of all, it renewed my work with teachers and young children, my true passion.

About the Author

Jenny James, MA, a 2022 graduate of the CISJ program is an early childhood advocate, author, and director of a preschool in Maryland. She has served as an early childhood educator, a family counselor, a project manager for a child-care resource and referral agency, and a child-care training coordinator for the state of Maryland.

Jenny's book, Dig In! Outdoor STEM Learning with Young Children, can be found wherever books are sold.