Why I Quit Teaching

Viktor James
Dec 15, 2018 · 12 min read

Trust Me. It’s Not the Typical Laundry List of Problems You’re Accustomed to Hearing (kinda)

Most people who want to teach grow up wanting to be teachers. I was a late bloomer. I made the decision when I was 19. By 30, I was finished. Quitting teaching isn’t as easy as refreshing your LinkedIn and looking for a new gig. It’s giving up on a dream. That’s why it’s so shocking when it happens.

I worked as a 9th and 10th grade English teacher at a small, at-risk district in north Denver for 4 years. My last year had been surreal and was the best year of my career. Yet, I still quit.

This duck has nothing to do with the topic. But then again, much of what teachers have to do has nothing to do with actual teaching. Quack.

Teaching had stood at the center of my life for over a decade. But burnout didn’t push me out of the classroom. Quite the opposite. For you to understand why I quit, we first need to talk about what makes teaching horrible.

This is no short list.

The Pay Really Does Suck

Make no mistake: a teacher’s salary is awful, especially in Colorado. My first year teaching in 2012, I earned a little over $23,000. During that year, I cashed out my retirement to pay off credit card debt, went back into credit card debt that took years to get out of, and had to borrow money from my mom for groceries. Luckily, I ended up landing a great job waiting tables.

Every teacher needs a side hustle to keep the lights on.

Of the 4 years I worked as a teacher, I waited tables for all but six months.

By the time I quit in 2016, my projected pay would have been just above $40,000 for the first time since I started. I chuckled to myself because that had always been my goal, to get to 40K. Had I stayed, I would have finally made it.

You Don’t Get Summers Off

A lot of new teachers get sold on this. When you’re starting, there’s that idea that, “at least I get summers off.” But, in truth, you don’t. You either spend them planning so you’re not drowning throughout the entire next year, or you’re picking up a side hustle: summer school, teaching at a local college, hospitality, anything you can do to squirrel a few nuts away for the winter.

The expectation for summers… (at least this pineapple isn’t on a pizza)

Maybe you get access to summers later on in your teaching career. After 4 years, I hadn’t. What’s worse is that even if you do get summers off, your friends and family don’t. No one is up for a Wednesday night out when they have to be in the office at 8 am for a company meeting.

This is a more accurate view of a teacher’s summer.

The result is that summers are often filled with doing the things you can’t do during the year, certain chores or errands. That and sleeping (a lot of sleeping). And maybe rocking back and forth in the corner with a half-empty box of wine, muttering stuff to yourself as you watch the light dip slowly down the horizon, burning away another day of freedom…

Too dark?

Everyone Thinks You Get Summers Off

If you do ever complain about your salary, you get the, “at least you get summers off” rebuke. Except, what people don’t realize is that as a teacher, you’re often at school before you need to be, there long after you have to be, and you work through your lunches, evenings, and weekends.

Having “summers off” doesn’t begin to tip that scale.

Teachers need to grade, go to meetings, and do plenty of paperwork (more on this later). They don’t have an off switch. Teachers are always on. Always going. One of my good friends (a mentor and previous co-teacher) equated it to being a trial lawyer. Except…without the pay or prestige.

This is the best way to grade papers.

There’s Little Prestige in It These Days

I’ll never forget walking up to a table with my notepad in hand on a Saturday, working a brunch shift at my side gig restaurant in Denver. I had heard them talking about teaching and when I approached, pen in hand and ready to take their orders, their conversation paused. Excited, I blurted out, “Oh, are you all teachers?” To which the guy who was leading the conversation quickly retorted, “Definitely not. We have real jobs.”

People do care about teachers, for sure. But it seems more and more these days; teachers get blamed for problems far out of their control. Secondary teachers in particular only have their kids for 45 mins a day, maybe an hour and a half if it’s block schedule. There’s only so much you can do during that time.

The guy on the right was probably a teacher.

But hey, it’s easier to blame the teachers even though homework is now mostly seen as an archaic practice similar to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition. How dare you take away that much needed time on Fortnite, Musical.ly, and Snapchat!?

Testing Never Stops

From the hearing tests during the first days of school until what feels like the final bell, you’re mostly sitting through one long testing session with short breaks when you’re allowed to teach. Maybe.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this. We had something called MAP testing that took 3 days and drained our kids mentally. It happened 3 times a year. Then there was the test for English Language Learners. There was also PSAT prep. SAT prep. And finally, there was our end of the year benchmark tests that lasted long enough.

Sisyphus. The Greek God of Standardized Tests

Blood was the only thing they didn’t test. But hey, I’ve not been a teacher for over 2 years, so maybe that’s changed.

Proctoring sucks. You sit there, watching kids grow frustrated with the exams. You see some rush through the tests. Others space out. Others roll their pencils around on the desks or fall asleep.

You can’t blame the kids.

They don’t know which test is which most of the time. They can’t keep track. And they don’t know why they need to take them or what the scores mean.

(Most of the teachers don’t even know how the tests work. I know I didn’t).

MAP testing was awful because while the kids weren’t graded on it, the teachers were. It was one of the measures of success for our evaluations. This put teachers in a bind.

“Ugh. Another test? I just want to eat seals,” — Bored Coca-Cola Bear

The result was wasting a lot of time convincing them that those tests mater.

(Spoiler: they don’t).

You’re Playing the Long-Game

The moments of true appreciation are few and far between. There are moments when a kid comes to tell you how much of an impact you’ve made in their lives, but it isn’t usually until further down the road.

When those inspirational moments arrive, everything about teaching makes sense. It’s a truly incredible feeling. It lights a fire in you and gives you the energy you need to get through the really tough times.

“O Captain! my Captain!”

But those moments are few and far between. Often, they’re occluded by anger, frustrations, and blame for being the orchestrator behind every minute instance of their eternal teenage suffering.

You know, because teachers force students to write worthless essays

Snakeoil Salesmen and Their “New Ideas”

Nothing is more cringe than starting the year with some “great new idea” for education. At first, when I was new, I was open to all the 21st century learning ideas.

I wanted to be the best teacher. I built a curriculum from scratch. I dumped nearly $7,000 of my own money into my classroom to make sure I had enough books and materials to teach. I was open to any advice that would put me on a path to success.

Is a post about teaching really a post about teaching if it doesn’t have a pic of someone climbing a mountain?

I had grit. I wanted to be a model teacher for the district, so I worked hard to make sure my lessons were incredible. But then, I would have an evaluation and be docked because I didn’t, “clearly display the learning objective on the board,” or, some other weird nuance quickly mentioned at the end of a teacher meeting.

Districts bought these “new ideas” from someone I imagine as a dark, shady figure already on his way out the door before the thump of his “new” book echoed out of the room.

Older teachers told me, “just wait a few months. They’ll forget about it.” They were the veterans. They had survived countless reiterations of “revamping.”

Keeping track of every new trend in education is so nauseating that they should offer barf bags during each teaching training.

“Buy my book. I swear this is going revolutionize education. For real this time.”

Teacher Evaluations Are Ridiculous

What you need to do to be an “A+ teacher” is insane. The rubric is full of categories that range from normal stuff like calling parents and knowing your content to things like taking college classes outside of work hours or going out into the community and leading lasting change.

It’s pretty full on.

It’s Mentally Exhausting

In my first year as a teacher, the Sandy Hook shooting happened. The assistant principal came into my class, pulled me out, and let me know. I went back to my desk and fought the tears as I read the news. It was unbelievable.

That same year, I had a kid whose mother died of cancer. Another kid lost his father to a sudden heart attack. 3 or 4 kids got pregnant. 1 of which had a miscarriage. Then there was a kid who pulled me outside at the beginning of class to tell me she had tried to kill herself the night before…

“Mister, I took a bunch of my brother’s pills last night. I didn’t want to wake up, but I did. And now I can’t stop shaking.”

Yeah. That really happened.

Every day you come into class with a profile on each kid in the back of your mind. You juggle how to approach them, how to work with them, what to say or not say, all so you can be effective.

Even teachers have their limits.

When you’re not interacting with them, you’re thinking of lessons. Whether you’re staring down the shower drain or driving to work, you’re thinking of projects, plans, grading.

You never (read: NEVER) stop being a teacher.

It’s Extremely Isolating

Who would have thought being surrounded by people would make you feel so alone. Being a teacher often feels like being a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines. It feels like at any point the horde could take you out, Lord of the Flies style.

“It be like that sometimes.”

Often, you’ll say a funny joke, and there’s no one around that gets your references. The kids look back at you like you’ve lost your mind. Nothing. Points missed. Punchlines ignored.

You end each day craving adult contact to erase the memory of someone arguing, “Like totally, OMG, literally, I can’t even, like no way, ugh, can you like believe this? Her selfie got more likes. Literally. W-T-F. For real.”

Paperwork

The amount of paperwork you have to do as a teacher is fucking ridiculous. There are endless grades to give, folders to pack, boxes to check, reports to fill out. And most that stuff only exists to protect the school from lawsuits.

Bald and drowning in paperwork? Definitely a teacher.

Right now, there are undoubtedly throngs of teachers reaching papercut, blistered hands into the sky, buried beneath a barrage of purposeless paperwork, hoping to finish before the holidays.

Cutthroat Politics

We’re talking Game of Thrones politics here. From the safety of my classroom, I watched a fellow teacher (my mentor and friend) get pushed out because of politics. In this regard, teachers may be their own worst enemies.

This is probably pretty traumatic.

It’s easy to forget what battle you’re fighting when you’re in the trenches with the sun in your eyes, fighting on all sides, day in and day out.

You see things: shocking hires, power plays, endless nepotism, idiotic decisions that only serve to make a few people’s lives easier instead of benefitting the kids. It’s weird. Bizarre in a Twilight Zone kind of way. You wouldn’t think that behavior existed in teaching, but it’s there.

“Politics? Looks like you played yourself, kid.”

Seeing people in power talk about how much they cared about kids and then turn around and intentionally jeopardize the interests of those same kids to serve themselves was like watching surgeons kill patients for job security.

Despite All This, I Was Set for the Long Haul Until…

When you’re a teacher, you quickly discover what you’re up against. My first 3 years of teaching could only be described as a slog. And by my fourth year, I was on point. I knew what I was doing. I developed the ever elusive “it” that teachers always talked about.

I had a rocky start, but then something just “clicked.”

There really is a moment when you just “get it” as a teacher. Except, it’s more like a wooden beam hitting you in the face than a light switch turning on…but still.

People always think I quit because of the kids. I often hear, “I don’t know how you taught 14 and 15-year-olds, I couldn’t do that.”

The truth is that kids are great.

You don’t become a teacher if you hate kids.

When I started at the school, I taught 8th and 9th grade English. When I left, I had taught 9th and 10th. As a result, I taught the same kids from 8th until 10th grade.

Each year they would roll their eyes when they walked into my class with this, “Are you for real?” look on their faces. Sometimes it was real, other times feigned. I would shrug as if to say, “It’s not my fault.”

For 3 years, I had the same kids.

I was beginning to grow into the school and the community. I saw a future there. I saw myself teaching their younger brothers and their cousins. I imagined how the parents would smile recognition when they saw me at conferences. It started to feel like home.

Then something changed.

I was looking out at a great group of kids that I had spent 3 years helping grow. I had a connection with them. It was amazing. They had changed so much. I could look at each and every one of them and see the little adult they would become. It was powerful.

But it was also why I had to leave.

I knew that no matter how long I taught, no matter who I taught, no matter where I taught, that I would never, ever have another group like that again.

It was my best year.

My lessons were successful; my scores went through the roof; my classroom management was on point. The NHS program I had brought back to life the previous year had spread like wildfire throughout the school. The movie club and the tutoring club had been successful as well. Kids loved my class. They had fun. They laughed.

Everything worked.

And that’s why I had to leave.

Teaching is chaos. Pure, unadulterated insanity. I had no idea what to expect going in. I almost quit. A few times. I almost threw my dream in the trash and walked away like that guy at the end of The Breakfast Club. But I’m a stubborn bastard. I wanted to succeed. And so for 4 years, I gave teaching everything.

It paid off.

Sometimes, you gotta leave when it’s time to leave.

But I also knew that it was only temporary. I knew that next year there would be new kids, and the struggle would continue. The cycle would start again.

I decided to leave, instead. I wanted my final memories of teaching to be incredible, positive, lasting. I wanted to leave on the highest note possible.

So, I turned in my keys and walked away. It hasn’t been an easy transition. But it was necessary.

Do I miss it?

Yes.

And that’s how I know I did the right thing.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Viktor James

Written by

Former high school English teacher. Satirist. Author of Teaching Frankenstein: A Cautionary Tale. MA: English — UCL. http://www.viktorjames.com/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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