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…
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.