Why I left teaching

After college I joined a branch of the New Teacher Project and skipped off to teach music in the Urban DC area. Less than three years later, I limped my way back. Many have asked me what happened… how could I – who loves kids so much and wanted to help them so badly – why did I leave teaching?

It wasn’t because I got a chair thrown at my head on my very first day.

It wasn’t because no matter how much I tried to get social services to look into one of my student’s home, they didn’t and when her stepfather finally raped her instead of just abusing her in other ways she took her mother’s ecstasy pills and came to school and then got sent to juvie on drug charges.

It wasn’t because I spent at least $200 a year on supplies out of my own pocket because the school couldn’t afford them and my students didn’t have them.

It wasn’t because I had to work a second job just to pay my student loans and rent and eat at the same time.

It wasn’t because I will wonder every day for the rest of my life if those kids, my kids, are okay.

It wasn’t because the kids cussed me out.

It wasn’t because their parents cussed me out.

It wasn’t because every once in a while we’d get get off topic in class and stumble onto a heartfelt, eye-opening conversation about race or economic class or sexual orientation and I would learn just as much from them as they learned from me.

It wasn’t because when a student conquered a problem they’d been struggling with, their eyes lit up and I knew that my congratulatory high five felt like an Olympic Gold medal.

It wasn’t because a student named Lasagna taught me more about true self esteem then I had learned in 24 years.

It wasn’t because I was expected to do worthless paperwork that took up to 25 hours a week in addition to planning, prepping, grading and actually teaching my classes.

It wasn’t because when students came to tell me that their dad was going to prison, or their brother was shot in a gang fight or their mom’s new boyfriend was scary when he drank, I held them and let them cry- even though I wasn’t supposed to.

It wasn’t because when they dared me to turn a cartwheel and I did, they cheered so loud my ‘next door neighbor’ came to tell us to pipe down.

It wasn’t because everything I thought I understood about the world was pulled to pieces and then reconstructed in a completely different way.

It wasn’t because the ‘trouble makers’ came to my room to play on the piano and calm their anger.

It wasn’t because I taught 8th graders who couldn’t read in any language. At all.

It wasn’t because I taught students who’d fled oppressive and dangerous countries to come here, who skipped whole levels of ESOL because they studied so hard over the summer, and then were told by privileged white men that they didn’t have any work ethic.

It wasn’t because twice a year they got up onto a stage and made music together for their family and friends and I got to help them do it.

It wasn’t because they taught me to unpack my privilege and acknowledge it and face it and thus become a better person.

It wasn’t because when I gave them honest answers to the questions they asked me about sex (it should be consensual and loving and safe) I knew I was risking my job, and when they got through the year without getting pregnant I knew that the risk was worth it.

It wasn’t because I secretly believed, at first, that my life was going to look like a cross between Dead Poet’s Society and Dangerous Minds.

It wasn’t because more than one of them said mine was their favorite class ever and I held in my happy tears until after they left and everything felt worth it.

It wasn’t because I regularly worked 60 hour weeks, while being told that teachers were “lazy.”

It wasn’t because the mandated curriculum was clearly written to connect with the cultural background of suburban, middle class, white kids.

It wasn’t because my students were urban, poor, and either black or Hispanic.

It wasn’t because sometimes they were absent because the baby was sick and there was no one at home to watch them.

It wasn’t because they hid from the gang leaders who pressured them to join.

It wasn’t because some of them eventually stopped hiding, or that some of them joined.

It wasn’t because the school lunches were sometimes the only food my students had all day.

It wasn’t because I came in one day to find the front windows obliterated by bullets.

It wasn’t because I drafted my own personal plan of what I would do if my classroom was threatened at gunpoint.

I left teaching because three years of being told through words and actions and policy initiatives that all of those things DIDN’T MATTER AT ALL since they didn’t fit into small, neat columns of boxes…

…just…

…broke me.

I left teaching because fat, cis/hetero white men, who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since the last day of their costly, pre-paid college education have more power than I do. Because they used that power and the privilege they wouldn’t recognize if it walked up to them and punched them in the teeth to exert control over what I did in my classroom of students who were born into the world with access to a fraction of opportunities.

I left teaching because my privileged past, educational credentials and economic status gave me the opportunity to leave – an opportunity my students never had.

I left teaching because the “assessment,” the mandatory “curriculum,” the “reforms” that didn’t acknowledge the incredible culture and life experiences of my beautiful, frustrating, amazing students became utterly impossible to bear. Because I couldn’t stand to stay in a system that told the youth I had come to love that everything about them was wrong. A system that forced them to spend a full 20% of their school days taking tests that were culturally biased, impossible to prepare for, and didn’t in any way measure how they’d grown or what they’d achieved. A system that was rigged from the beginning. An info structure that set them up to fail and then punished them for doing so.

A game carefully constructed so that the only winning move was not to play.
And people wonder why they don’t like school.

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11 thoughts on “Why I left teaching

  1. I usually don’t comment on posts, but I found myself nodding sadly with everything you wrote. I am a former teacher as well, and I agree wholeheartedly with the reasons you list for leaving the teaching profession. I loved my students. Loved them. I also worked with at-risk youth, and provided for them when their parents couldn’t, which meant that I also found myself several hundreds of dollars short each year. I could go in-depth about how each and every point you made resonates personally with my teaching history, but instead of doing that, I’ll say, I’m sorry that you went through this like so many of us do, but I’m glad that your students had you for as long as they did. One can only hope that the education system gets smarter someday.

    1. Thank you so much!! I find there are too many of us who just couldn’t take it any more. Hopefully if we all keep talking then change will come. The kids deserve so much more than the way things are right now.

  2. I could just go through your list and check off the levels of agreement, but I’ll just say thanks. I just left after 15 years because it is just all just…. too… The feelings. Woah.

  3. What a story. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that I found this page because for about the last 45 minutes I was browsing a few sites which dealt with the same issue. I am seriously considering leaving teaching( If I could leave tomorrow Id do so without any regrets);I don’t teach in the United States
    1. The growing indiscipline , disrespect and misbehaviour of students. Having repeatedly to stop a lesson to address some other issue.- one child saying something negative to another or engaging in inappropriate behaviour, This is happening more and more each year.
    2. The strain on my voice.- Repeatedly during the day I have to use my voice almost to the maximum pitch.
    3. Effects of dusty classrooms, chalk, and an overuse and underuse of technology in some cases.
    4. Not much career development. Even with the training programmes here much of what we learn is not really applicable to the classroom. It is more theory -driven.
    5. Most of the programmes which teachers attend do not convey any real of meaningful information.
    6.Too much repetition.
    7. Biased approach by the Principal. She favours some teachers more than others.
    8. No real personal development. Just empty repetition.
    9. A desire to use my skills in a different profession. I find that at my school very many of the teacher there seem unable to think of other careers other than in teaching, My nephew once told me some years ago that teaching in this country is a dead-end profession. I know of one teacher who left teaching permanently, to pursue a career in environmental studies. She has no regrets.
    The diploma and certificate programmes in education and other related fields seem nice academic qualifications but are not necessarily relevant to the school system.
    10. Daily fatigue- It places a tremendous toll on my body for the entire day. As I’m dealing with young students aged 6- 7 who need continuous attention, my lunch hours are limited, and you cant really rest for a bit during the same, because you have to be doing this or that.
    11. Not much support from the Ministry of Education here. The politicians make grand statements but no meaningful change or application is made.
    12. Continuous controversy and mutual distrust between the ministry and the teachers unions. I think this is one of the things that will destroy teaching as a whole in this country.
    13. Increasing number of learning difficulties. More and more children are been diagnosed with learning difficulties. Many of them( not necessarily these I have described in 13, are like that, but generally there are more and more disruptive students entering the system. Most have short attention spans and need continual attention..
    I can add others here. The point for me is, while I may love student s and I give of my best to help them, I would not recommend teaching to anyone, unless you have a burning desire to teach. Having given back more than 10 years to the system and in my case, to the school where I attended as a child, by God’s grace I am ready and willing to move on to a new career. The same skills, dedication and devotion I showed in teaching, I can also transfer to a new profession. I wish all teachers and former ones God’s direction and the very best of luck.

  4. Yes, all of these. Granted, I was also teaching in a cult school, so in addition to the normal teaching pressures, I was also pressured to make sure all my children converted to Christianity, regardless of the religion of their families, and the administration thought it perfectly acceptable to barge into my personal life and comment on things like whether I was tithing 10% of my wages (which they’d know since they knew how much I made and conveniently also knew how much I gave to the church).

    I loved teaching. LOVED it. I’m still in contact with some of my students. But I just couldn’t do it anymore.

    As a school librarian, I’m facing a lot of similar problems. The powers that be make rules without knowing what it’s like for these kids, and so much of the school day is spent on things that are not related to learning, like practicing the new computer-based tests so that they can take the tests when they come. And I’m still working a second job to pay off my school debts, my rent, and put gas in my car.

    Sigh. Perhaps some day I’ll be a librarian in a public library and I can be done with this broken system.

    1. Unfortunately, some of the frustrations have followed me to the public library world. We are still supposed to help support the Common Core and too many parents come in obsessed with Lexile Scores and AR lists. On the whole, however, it is so much better.
      Though, I’m having such a hard time finding a full time position in a public library I am wondering if I should have gotten my school certificate so I could apply for school library jobs. Either way I guess its a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation.

      1. Probably. My school labels me a “library/media tech” and doesn’t require an MLS for my position, so I am underpaid and overqualified. I wouldn’t mind that so much if I could keep up with my rent and school bills. I was shocked when I got to this school and discovered that the library was in a horrible state of disrepair and that there was NO budget. Apparently the previous librarian (and I use that term very loosely) spent their time sitting at the desk painting Dungeons and Dragons figurines. Yes, really.

        So I’m here until I can find that mystical full time public library position that my professors thought would be so easy to obtain after I got my degree. Sigh.

        Also, AR turns me into a raging squid of anger. It is super-frustrating to do readers’ advisory within the confines of a point system. I am so glad my school has no money for AR; the kids read more when they can read what they want, even if it’s yet another Wimpy Kid book. Sigh.

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