Why I Left.
I gave the first decade of my adult life to a school in the Highline District.
I left that school last year, and I also got married, bought a house, and moved to a new city. Leaving that school felt like a more profound change than all the rest of those things, put together. There isn’t a lot of time to process deep change when you’re a teacher, though. Out of necessity, I am pretty great at compartmentalizing. My school grief is in a festering compartment in my brain that I’ve mostly avoided dealing with.
But it’s a new year and the dust of my other life changes has settled and there is an article in The Atlantic that’s allowing up to 42.3 million people access to my personal triggers, so it’s probably time to try processing again.
I was one of 28 teachers who left my school at the end of the 2015–2016 school year. The district’s narrative is that we, along with the huge wave of people who exited the district’s schools en masse, left because of its bold new “no out of school suspensions” policy. The implementation of this policy was only one part of a much more complicated, less accessible, story. As a friend who stayed in the district just wrote, the real story isn’t that singular or linear.
I’ve tried writing out all of the real reasons why we left many, many times, but it’s just not going to interest you. The problem is that by picking one distinct tree in the middle of an unruly forest of reasons, the district leadership has been able to shape the narrative.
Fundamentally, this is what I want everyone who reads that article to know:
We didn’t leave because of the students. We left because of (myriad reasons that all centered around) the leadership.
When I read my former superintendent’s statement, “I would argue too that we lose some [teachers] who were not suited to work with our children,” the part that upset me the most, and continues to upset me, is the implication that Highline students are uniquely hard to work with, and that, therefore, teaching these very difficult children requires a unique set of unnamed skills that those of us who left just didn’t have.
First of all, that statement translates as “poor kids are hard to teach,” which is a commonly-held subversion of the more complicated truth, which is that teaching in a high-poverty school requires more resources than the general public is willing to provide.
But also, if that implication, that the teachers who left just weren’t “suited” to teach poor kids, were true, we wouldn’t have stuck it out through the recession and its accompanying demographic shift, which happened years before the superintendent arrived. We wouldn’t have kept working so hard, despite the community continually voting down bonds that would rebuild our unsafe school buildings. We wouldn’t have questioned the new policy decisions so ardently, despite the messaging that thinking critically about those “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” meant that we weren’t putting students first. We wouldn’t have sought out jobs in districts with similar demographics, like so many of us did.
I tried to stay positive. I endorsed those new goals (including limiting out-of-school suspension!), helped pilot projects, sat on committees, and gave up countless hours of my free time to provide the district office with “teacher input,” until I finally realized that most of that input had been ignored, that the programs I had been fighting for were being neglected or dismantled, and that my more jaded colleagues, who I had spent years trying to convince otherwise, were right to have saved their energy for their students.
The district’s leadership was going to do whatever it wanted, no matter what we said. So we left.
And now there is a Highline Diaspora full of talented, caring teachers who have brain compartments full of toxic sludge that seeps out into the Internet whenever our former boss gets more press.