If you are reading this, you likely started reading my writings because of my reflections on student teaching. Some of you may have found me because of the recognition I received from Scholastic Magazine for “Best Student Teacher Blog” back in 2009. Others seem to have been sent here by teachers in education programs, possibly as part of your coursework in such a program. (If so, I’m extremely flattered that I was recommended to you, and I apologize that I left my humble blog in such disarray in my long absence.)
When I last updated this blog, I was still in my second year of teaching. I am now about to finish my fifth – and final – year of my teaching career. This is the epitaph of my time in the profession, my moment of grief for a vocation I loved and could not stay in, what happened when I told my students that I was leaving teaching, and ultimately a defense of why I am getting out now.
How I Got to This Moment
One of the questions that I have been asked frequently in the time since I have formally announced my resignation from my current position and my intention not to seek another position in education is “Why?” (Strangely – or not – very few, if any, of these people have been teachers. Teachers get why people would leave, I think, even if they don’t know the specific reasons for any given individual teacher.) So here’s something in the way of explanation. (Note: My real name is pretty well attached to this blog now, so I’m not going to do much to shy away from specifics even while I’m not going to mention names. If you want to track me down, more power to you.)
The position I am leaving is in a very small rural high school (actually, a combined junior/senior high). It is the only full-time high school English position, so I have been in the enviable position of being the chair of the department (because I’m the entire department, essentially) and thus the sole determiner of curriculum for the classes I teach. It is rare to find a teaching position with virtually 100% autonomy, and I have used that autonomy to branch out in a variety of directions. I also teach only about 65 students, even though I teach five separate courses (a record number for me). The pay is lower than many other local schools, and I live about 45 minutes away, but otherwise, the situation isn’t too bad for a young teacher. Additionally, this year I became tenured.
So why leave?
The factor that got me thinking about my position was a consolidation referendum effort between the district I work in and another slightly larger nearby district. Before the vote came up, I made the decision that if the referendum succeeded, I would hold off at least a year before changing plans in order to keep some continuity (the consolidation was planned not for the upcoming school year but the year after); if the referendum failed, on the other hand, I would start making some decisions for next year. The consolidation effort failed – only because the residents of our district failed to approve it. (The other district approved it overwhelmingly.)
When I started thinking about what would come next, though, I also went back to something that I had promised myself before I entered the profession: I would, barring any unforeseen circumstances, attempt to remain in education for at least five years. The primary motivation here was simply a matter of statistics: Between 40-50% of teachers leave in the first five years. I thought that I would show enough dedication to the field that I would try to outlast the statistics but left myself the opening to reconsider after five years. (As it turns out, this has also had a practical effect: Because I teach in a Title I school, I also qualify for teacher loan forgiveness after five years. I take that as a small parting gift.)
It was with this in mind that I started thinking about where I would be next fall…and gradually, little by little, the more I thought about it, the less I saw myself filling a teaching position in August. It would be difficult to articulate exactly why, but my suspicion is that it is a mixture of many factors. The weight of an institutional system that has consistently made it more difficult to educate. The continual frustration of not feeling like I’m being heard, let alone appreciated. The constant insecurity about my abilities as a teacher and the hopes of ever being recognized as a significant influence on any student’s life. And finally, the apathy.
The canary in the coal mine, so to speak, was my wife’s reaction when I told her that I was considering not pursuing any teaching positions. She has been very supportive of me not staying in teaching if I’m unhappy, and her response was, “It didn’t seem like your heart was in it this year.” I balked at that – Of course my heart was in it! Are you implying that I wasn’t trying this year? – but beyond that defensiveness, I have to admit that she is right. My heart hasn’t been in it, and I now feel like I am so beat down and demoralized by my experiences in the classroom that I have become ineffective. There are only two things to do with that: Fix it or get out. I don’t know that I can be mended at this point.
So on Wednesday, I handed my principal my resignation letter explaining that I would not be returning in the fall.
And on Thursday came telling students…
By and large, students were – shall we say – flabbergasted by the news that I would not be returning in the fall. A few classes (not coincidentally, the ones that have been the most challenging for me) asked, “Is it because of us?” (No.) One student said, “So you’re just quitting?” (Way to make me feel great about the decision.) One student even asked, “What can we do to make you stay?” at which point I realized that I am basically a parent telling my children that their school and I have decided to get a divorce, and we had moved from denial to bargaining. (I suspect that some students, the ones most likely to resent my leaving, were still in the anger stage.)
For the most part, though, these comments were “Don’t go” or “Why do you have to go?” not “We really liked you” or “You were our favorite” (with a few exceptions). I felt like I was just seeing resistance to change, a defense of the status quo. I might be the devil, but at least I’m the devil they know (and, let’s face it, the devil with whom they could get away with some stuff).
It was when I announced my departure on Facebook to former students that everyone hit home for me. One former student said, “I’m glad you waited until we graduated so we could have you as our teacher!” Another told me, “Mr B I just wanna say that your classes that I had with you were awesome.” And I won’t lie to you, readers – I cried. I cried in grief for what I am losing and in doubt of my decision and even a bit in joy for the kindness of these students.
I still get choked up, in no small part because I am filled with overwhelming feelings of guilt. People don’t enter education because it’s a job (even while that might be why some people stay); teaching is such an underappreciated job (both in terms of respect and of pay) that there is this palpable feeling of purpose and intentionality in deciding to be one. Not everyone can be a teacher, you tell yourself. It takes a certain kind of person to be a teacher. It’s a calling, not a career. And I entirely understand that impulse. Society says, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” And so the response is, You don’t know teaching. You step into the shoes of a teacher and see if you can.
The flip side of that, however, is what happens if you try and fail, if you invest so much in your identity as “that kind of person” that you feel like that part of you has been ripped away when you are forced to pack it in. You think, What about the students I taught but who I didn’t really help or influence? What about the students I could help if I weren’t quitting now? What about the students who need me? And you can’t help but feel like a complete failure even if your departure is a way of limiting the effects of that failure.
Then there’s the guilt of abandoning the “noble profession.” Education has been to me a driving factor in my life, both in terms of my own education and of educating others (although mostly that has been the story of me trying to educate people when it wasn’t my place). I have sought to teach and to model a wide-ranging idea of education, one that doesn’t compartmentalize subjects into neat boxes but pulls from disparate and seemingly foreign ones. In my English class, we talk history and math and foreign language and music and science and geography and ethics and philosophy, and I love that. But now I’m bailing on education altogether, and that feels like a betrayal of a deeply rooted value. (I know that this feeling is intensely irrational, but that doesn’t make it less pronounced.)
This is to say nothing of specific students that I feel like I’m letting down: students who have come to me with problems of bullying, in need of someone to talk to. And I only just this year became a Secular Safe Zone ally, so I feel like I’m letting down my non-religious and non-theistic students as well. (Even that has been something that I’ve done a poor job of explaining to students.) And again, what about the future students who could use my help and support? What about them?
But these feelings could not factor into my decision. I told one class, in what turned out to be a extended defense of my decision, that like (a badly paraphrased) Thoreau, I feel like I have more lives to live. There is truth in that, but in a way, I also do not wish to engage in the kind of regret avoidance that Thoreau says was his reason to go to Walden Pond in the first place. I can’t keep teaching because I’m afraid that I might regret not being there for students in the future. Those students don’t deserve that kind of teacher; they deserve a better one, and it isn’t me.
What’s Left Now
School ends in a little over a month. When we return from spring break, our juniors will be preparing to take the ACT and PSAE that the state of Illinois mandates. C’est la vie. Education, of a sort, continues.
I still have no idea what I will do in the fall. I’ll be spending the summer being dad for my two boys, since my wife is working full-time now, and I’ll be considering some options. The big problem is that I’m suffering from complete inadequacy about my skill set and how that will translate to jobs outside of education. I don’t even know what I could do, let alone what I would want to do. I keep telling myself (and others), “Oh, I’ve got time to work it out,” but the reality is that I have four months to panic progressively more and more about it. If nothing else materializes, I can always substitute teach at local schools, but it honestly wouldn’t be my preference. I have never done any substitute teaching before, but I have this nagging feeling that all it would do is remind me of what I left behind. But I’m bracing myself for that possibility, anyway.
This isn’t a situation I ever anticipated being in. I’ve known too many teachers for whom teaching wasn’t just a job or even a vocation: It was what they were compelled to do constantly, in excess, to virtually superhuman degrees. I thought that might be me, that maybe I’d teach high school for a while and then do Master’s-level work and teach at the collegiate level, but that notion drifts further away from me all the time. I don’t even know what my dreams hold anymore.
I don’t know if my story is worth calling a cautionary tale, but if you’re reading this blog, read my whole story. Go back and read my struggles in my preservice days, in my student teaching, in my first year of teaching. Read about my successes and failures, what I learned and what I thought I needed to learn (some of which I really never did learn, not fully). But consider also this last chapter, the one that has led me to a crossroads in the mist. This is the story of teachers everywhere, the ones who set out with great idealistic goals, only to end them in despondence and cynicism.
If you’re setting out to be a teacher, this is what you’re shipping for, as Melville’s Ahab would say. Know the beast that you’re trying to tame, and don’t forget that it can cut you to the quick, too. I don’t regret my time in teaching – indeed, I will always treasure it as an important part of my life – but keep a level head about you.
Best of luck out there. You know I’m pullin’ for ya.