After teaching for almost ten years, I left the profession a little over two years ago. It was a heart-wrenching and incredibly difficult decision to make. The specifics of the burnout story that led to raising the white flag are for another day. This post is about coming to the decision to leave, one of the most difficult – and necessary – things I’ve ever done.
Teaching for me was like an abusive relationship* – when it’s good, there’s nothing better in the world. When it’s bad, it’s soul crushing. One can usually depend on the highs of teaching being high enough to sustain you through those low spots. This did not hold true for me indefinitely, however.
(*Disclaimer - So as not to sully the reputation of any exes: I’ve never actually been in an abusive relationship, but I’ve seen them on T.V.)
Teaching consumes every minute of your life if you let it, and boy, did I let it! I thoroughly enjoyed planning and teaching, so I spent my evenings, weekends, and vacations working on doing it even better. I delighted in my students’ accomplishments and continued developing my own skills and strategies to help them succeed. When they struggled, I struggled, and then I worked harder to bridge the gap. I was interested in their success, but if I’m honest I was also in competition with myself. It was a puzzle to figure out how to arrange instruction to meet everyone’s needs.
My relationships suffered, but I soldiered on. I hated (still do) when people say if you touch the life of just one student, you’ve made a difference. Could you set the bar any lower? Let’s not pat ourselves on the back for a 3% success rate. When I saw teachers who didn’t take their work seriously, I judged them harshly, albeit quietly. I took pride in being good at my job. By the 2011, I had won a couple of awards, obtained a Masters degree, and felt on top of my game.
Then I was blindsided by the year from hell. This was no ordinary hard year; we have all had hard years. Teachers will joke there was something in the water the year these children were conceived. Usually, you make it through these years though it may not be as enjoyable or with as many successes as usual. But this year was different. Nothing worked. I tried all the tricks in my bag. I consulted my colleagues and asked for help. I got a new bag, filled it with new tricks, and tried and failed with those. I was given a security officer in my room for a period after lunch, but that didn’t do the trick either.
Every morning I steeled myself and tried to psych myself up for a good day. I poured everything I had into the day and was met with apathy and, in some cases, spite. I’d never experienced anything like it, and for the first time I couldn’t reach the large majority of my students. Every afternoon I sobbed on the drive home trying to get it all out before walking in the door to my battle-weary boyfriend.
It was tempting to blame the kids (and they did go through five teachers that year), but it’s such a cop out. Playing on repeat in my head all the time, “If I were good enough, I could do it. Jaime Escalante could do it, I bet.” Somehow, I had become…a bad teacher. I was torn up inside.
This went on for several weeks before I knew I couldn’t complete the year. My moment of clarity came when I caught myself daydreaming about getting a serious illness that would require a hospital stay. Everyone would then understand I had to leave and not judge me. That’s when I decided I had to seriously consider taking a leave of absence – before I inadvertently convinced my body to make me sick. Still, I wasn’t totally convinced. That only came after I considered what would be best for my students. When I objectively knew I didn’t have whatever it was my students needed, I didn’t feel it was any more right to come in and warehouse them, ride out the year and collect my check than it would be for a doctor to continue to treat a patient for a condition she didn’t understand and couldn’t affect. Frankly, beyond the ethics of it, I wasn’t interested in “working” this way anyway.
You might rightly wonder if there was an alternative to warehousing them and giving up, i.e. keep trying. This experience gave me insight into how some teachers – the ones that give us a bad name in the press – got the way they are. I believe most people get into the profession full of idealism and good intent, and I’ve always wondered about the ones who just give a bunch of busy work or boldly conduct personal business during class. Teachers are human. We expect them to be better than human, but that’s unrealistic. Shutting down is a defense mechanism. When you pour your heart and soul into trying to advance the hearts and minds of our young ones, it is crushing when they don’t respond or even mock the effort. It’s not their fault they don’t respond, but it hurts like hell all the same. And while some might judge me for leaving one quarter into a school year, I felt that staying would do more damage to my students’ academic growth and my physical and emotional health.
Since I had allowed my career to define my life, leaving teaching left me dazed and confused. Who was I if not a teacher? I’ve tried without success to find words to describe this time. The closest approximation is that I felt like Voldemort at the beginning of the Harry Potter series; a mangled, powerless shell of my former self. It took months to start to piece together a life and personality that goes beyond teacher.
Though I’m no longer in the classroom, my teaching career still defines me in many ways. My love of curriculum and lesson planning led me into Project Management, and I still enjoy creating classroom plans and occasional classroom volunteering. It’s not as good, but it’s not as bad either. It feels like a sustainable, healthy relationship. I’ll admit though, a piece of my heart will always belong to teaching because when it was good, it was really good.