Confessions of a Quitter: Why I Am Walking Away From Teaching (For Real This Time)
I didn’t always want to be a teacher. Contrary to popular belief, most of us aren’t born thinking that teaching is the only thing we could ever do. Sure, there are those teachers who always wanted to be teachers and never imagined themselves in any other professional role, but for every one of those, there are at least ten Mr. Hollands (whose dreams slowly fall by the wayside as they teach out of necessity).
Many teachers fall into this profession to monetize their passion for their content area or because they wanted a job that allowed for a certain level of autonomy and creativity. Yes, I said job — not career, and that’s an important distinction. Others still came into the field because they wanted to be mothers (or fathers) who had time to enjoy their families over holidays and summer. They believed that teaching would allow them to balance their responsibilities — to put bread on the table and still be around for the little people they imagined would politely ask to pass the butter.
We are a romantic, slightly delusional lot of misfits. And that idealism didn’t stop there. You see, it turns out that even though most of us didn’t have that sense that teaching was our only love in this life, we caught on fire anyway. Whether it was a student we couldn’t stand to see slip through the cracks, or the realization that we had inadvertently made a difference in someone’s life, many of us saw our role as transformative. If education is the answer to what ails our society, if it can equalize economic opportunity, rid the world of -isms and smash apart the kyriarchy of oppressions, then we had fallen into one of the most powerful positions in our society. We could change the world. It’s not a wrong place to be if you were hoping to stave off existential crises through a purpose-driven life.
Yet, after 21 years of useless “purpose” following increasingly cookie-cutter curricula and uneventful accolades like the free Chick-fil-A coupon in our mailboxes for National Teacher’s Day, today will be my last day “in front of” a group of students as their teacher. I am walking away, and although I have done this dance before, this time, I am determined to stick the landing into another profession altogether. I filled my official resignation letter to the brim with b.s. — most of which was copy and paste or modeled after a resignation letter template aimed at not burning bridges. Still, since hitting send on that atrocity, I have been stewing in dissonance. My most profound value is my authenticity; simply put, I don’t do bullshit, not well anyway. So with no further ado, here are my 13 reasons why I 🦆’ ing quit.
13. Teachers are required to be experts, but our opinions are not welcome. This little factoid might have been the first of the ways that I felt disillusioned as a teacher way back at the beginning of my career, and despite changing districts and teaching contexts multiple times, it has always held. As teachers, we are asked to continually pour our money and our time into being life-long learners. We are expected to belong to professional organizations, attend conferences, pursue advanced degrees, and stay ahead of the game when it comes to the ever-moving target of being tech-savvy. Yet, when the administration advocates a policy or procedure that is not best practice in our view, we are expected to sit quietly, nod in agreement, and do as we are told. In fact, in many districts, professional development for teachers has started to be restricted under the guise of budget constraints. Still, in practice, it’s used to limit the ideas that teachers are exposed — to get and keep everyone on the same page. It ensures that everyone drinks the particular brand of kool-aid that’s been sanctioned by the powers at be. Dissenting opinions — which in functional environments serve to strengthen and improve reforms — are not welcome. Lest you think that belonging to a learned profession entitles you to have professional opinions, think again. Outside of pre-service teacher education, thinking about what’s best for the kids in your care is above your pay grade.
12. Sameness is preferable to awesomeness. Even though some educators have figured out how never to sleep and have developed million-dollar brands on Teachers Pay Teachers, the goal of brandless uniformity is ascribed in the SMART goals that govern our fake ass, quasi corporate existence. While uniformity might not sound like a bad thing, it means those quirky goofball teachers that you remember for their unique shticks nowadays would likely be told that we are on page 65 today and that if they want to continue to have a job, they need to stick to the script. A teacher’s brand can only be present if it is, in fact, in lockstep with all the other teachers of that grade-level or department. Any distinguishing and unique factors are to be discouraged in the name of the crusade to create a world in which all students get the same, standardized education. Even when collaborating, teachers are required to reduce to the least common denominator and (what’s worse?) to abandon efforts to teach anything outside of the preapproved, canned curriculum. Superhero greatness comes only when we are allowed to use our individual strengths. When we use them in collaboration with others using their different strengths, we become a dream team of superheroes.
Can you imagine how boring and easily defeated the Avengers would be if they were only allowed to use the strengths they all had in common and weren’t allowed to shine as individual superheroes? What good is a Hulk that can’t smash, an Iron Man that can’t invent and use gadgets, or a Spiderman that can’t shoot webbing? Well, that’s precisely the bullshit rule that we force on teachers all too often. You say you want greatness, but I don’t believe you.
11. Censorship. In my last teaching contract, there was a morality clause, and it included online behavior. Last year I went to a training at a teachers’ association office, and we were advised not to be present on social media in any way. When I asked about my blogging, they said to avoid writing about anything controversial or personal (aka interesting) and consider writing under a pen name. It seems that having an opinion or shred of private life is a fireable offense. So good riddance to that hypocrisy! The leader of the free world can give hush money to porn stars, tweet incessantly, and make disparaging remarks about the majority of Americans. Still, Ms. Nelson better make sure that the picture of her trick-or-treating as a sexy anything with what may or may not have been a jello-shot in her hand never sees the light of day. If it shows up on IG, we will tell her the obvious truth: she is no longer qualified to explain fractions to first-graders.
10. Parent/Community Facebook Groups. So Ms. Nelson is not allowed to comment on social media, but if you or someone else has a bone to pick with her, it’s likely to be plastered all over the web. The general public seems to have little understanding that teachers are human beings with feelings and livelihoods to protect. I don’t think I need to say much more here other than “Shut up, Karen.”
9. Lack of Vision from Leadership. Perhaps another universal in education is that the people at the helm, regardless of the school district, cannot commit to any studied, strategic plan. Instead, their leadership is haphazard. They jump on whatever the flavor of the week is. They bastardize educational research by divorcing statistics from their methodologies and misapply conclusions about best practices. Moreover, they change the course of action, abandoning work before it is complete and divert teachers’ attention away from the students they serve, requiring that teachers write reports testifying to the success of these initiatives. Never mind that the initiatives probably weren’t all that successful because they were ill-conceived and disjointed from the get-go.
Just remember to save your reports. I strongly recommend a good naming convention. In a few years, you might be able to send in the same report with a few tweaks when they inevitably repackage that idea under another name and try to tell you that it is something brand new. They still won’t implement it effectively, but don’t worry, they won’t stay the course long enough to matter. Sure they could do better, but they have no idea how they wish to lead or where they wish to take you. They just know that they make more money than you do, and that’s what matters.
8. -Isms Are Real and So Is the Lack of Classroom Experience of Leadership. Perhaps one of the reasons why leadership is so haphazard about their vision is that many leaders cannot grasp the big picture of education because their own teaching experience may have been limited. Even those with significant teaching experience are unlikely to understand a classroom teacher’s challenges even a few years after shirking those responsibilities. Additionally, while most teachers are women, and many recognize that teachers are not racially and ethnically representative of their students, administrators are overwhelmingly male and white. Many of these men seem to be fast-tracked into administration, spending less time in the classroom than their female counterparts before being promoted to assistant principal and less time as assistant principals before being promoted to principals. When women are promoted, they tend to be moved into elementary school roles where stickers and hugs are primary skills. The lack of people of color as leaders correlates with problems with recruiting and retaining teachers of color. The lack of women at the helm in secondary education gives preference to male-styles of leadership in departments. It makes it more difficult for women to be upfront about what they may need to maintain a healthy work-life balance as outside work; family responsibilities still have significant gender disparities. Moreover, the boys club still exists, and it goes out for drinks after work. I can name the go-getters’ watering-hole in every district that I have ever worked. Getting ahead has unannounced try-outs, and the process reeks of nepotism. Simply put, what is demanded of teachers and would-be teacher leaders is impractical for myriad reasons.
7. All the Money is at the Top. Okay, I admit it, this post is critical of administrators, but honestly, they are only middle management, and it all runs downhill. I have yet to be in a district with enough hands on deck in the roles that directly serve students. Still, in every district I have been in, there have been people at the top who have enough time to have meetings about having meetings. They can regularly leave the building for lunch. They have money allotted to them to fly to conferences, stay in nice hotels, and eat in posh restaurants on the taxpayer dime, all while “earning” six-figure salaries. Meanwhile, I was denied money to replace a broken stapler and pencil sharpener, and teachers spent an average of $745 on school supplies during the 2019/2020 school year. Now, I am not saying that all of what the central office people do is unimportant. I am saying that when the going gets tough, the jobs cut aren’t theirs. Instead, the people who lose their positions are in innovative student-facing roles; they are paraprofessionals and specialists. They teach art or music. They are librarians, language teachers, or otherwise, people who fill a void deeply noticed by students but not acknowledged by the top people.
6. You Don’t Have Our Backs. You are confused, and you aren’t sure what the rules should be. Some of you think that some kiddos are both disadvantaged and traumatized, so “coming down on them” for inappropriate behavior is wrong. And some of you feel that kiddos who don’t behave perfectly should be thrown out of class so that “those who want to learn can.” The truth is that you are all wrong. Kids need boundaries, AND they want to learn — all of them. Often the ones that act up the most need the boundaries the most. They are usually just looking for love, and it comes out funny. You see, teachers are in loco parentis in the absence of actual parents and guardians, and that’s more than just legal ease. Kids look to their teachers to set expectations. There is a preferable parenting style psychologically speaking. If a parent/teacher is authoritarian, says it’s their way or the highway, or is otherwise too strict, kids will rebel and feel unloved. If a parent/teacher is overly permissive, kids will also make bad choices because they will continuously search for a line that isn’t there. They will also feel unloved because a lack of boundaries comes across as if that parent/teacher was saying, “I don’t care what you do.” In a child’s mind, that perceived statement equates to “I don’t care about you.” It’s the authoritative parents/teachers who have things right.
They have the balance and common-sense perspective that the others lack. These figures tow a consistent line and are mostly concerned with maintaining a safe, positive learning environment. They know where their boundaries are, and they set the expectations. When a kiddo crosses a line, they let them know. Consequences are fair and aimed at restoring that safe, positive learning environment for all. There are rules, and there are consequences. They are appropriate; they are just and restorative. In actuality, though, teachers are often left powerless in their classrooms — they lack enough authority to be authoritative.
In many cases, schools had gone from zero-tolerance policies to everything goes. They used to not make exceptions for situations when kids were having difficulty; they now make the exceptions the rules. Administrators have lowered the bar so much on classroom behavior; it is a wonder any learning happens at all. When parents want to know how such behaviors could be allowed to continue or how any learning takes place, there are no answers that teachers can provide without exposing the hopelessness of their situation.
5. Fear Reigns Supreme. Like many a dysfunctional work environment, schools are places where failure is frowned upon. Any sign of trouble is unwelcome. Pointing out a flaw in the system is quickly called incompetence by those who would rather believe that the school or district they run is immune to problems. So when something goes wrong, most teachers learn quickly to keep their mouths shut about it. People tend to value providing for their families and being in good standing at work over bothersome qualities like honesty and integrity. I know that doesn’t sound good, but self-preservation is human nature. So, when the class is crazy, rather than teach all the students, the teacher is inclined just to teach the ones that will listen.
Pre-COVID, I knew teachers who recorded their lesson on video without students in the room and posted it on Google Classroom so that the kids could watch it at home because the room never actually got quiet enough for them to teach. Most kids didn’t watch the lessons, and they didn’t do well on the assessments. Teachers at a loss of what to do and maintain their jobs just kept going.
They lowered their expectations for behavior and academics, and they did what they could to get through the day without yelling or crying or otherwise appearing on the radar. Subs come into the building work one day and never come back, but somehow teachers know that if they expose the problem, they will be eliminated, not for being the problem, but for delivering an inconvenient truth.
4. You Aren’t Sure How to Quantify Our Work. On the one hand, you expect us to be professionals and put in whatever time we need to get the job done; on the other hand, you’re concerned that we get snow days. You expect us to respond immediately to emails as if we should be available 24/7, but you are concerned if we leave the building before a full eight hours have elapsed. You’re worried about what’s fair when one teacher has conferences booked all night, and another has none. You expect them both to stay in the building even though the walls have nothing to do with the work. Even during COVID, you’ve required teachers to report to buildings to conduct fully online classes.
I have worked in facilities where bells were rung for teachers as if they were in a factory, a bell to start the day, and a bell to end it. You forget that the factory worker gets to leave the widgets in the plant. You are worried about our seat time, yet we aren’t allowed to sit down. I’ve missed soccer goals while correcting papers on the sideline, and I’ve entered grades through the entire Thanksgiving weekend. I have even taken personal days to have a sub to teach my classes while I caught up on paperwork. Even in my sleep, I am trying to work out solutions to problems I am having in the classroom; yet, you worry that you pay us for the time we aren’t working.
You need to decide whether we are the type of employees who punch a clock or salaried. If it’s the former, then you had better be prepared to pay overtime or give me my life back. If it’s the latter, I would like to reserve the right to come and go as I see fit so long as I have covered my classes and met my responsibilities.
3. You Glorify Unsustainable, Unhealthy Behaviors. Since you’ve read this far, I probably don’t need to add much clarification for this one. At a certain point in my career, I was quite enamored with movies and TV Shows about teachers. I wanted to be some sort of Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writing, Ms. Frizzle with Coolio and L.V. laying down a soundtrack in the background. I am sure someone out there just tried to cancel me over whatever craziness they deduce from that last sentence’s unpacking. What can I say? In my twenties, I thought saving the world sounded like a good thing to do on a Tuesday, but at forty-three, I realize that the teachers’ stories promoted by Hollywood aren’t real.
When they don’t require a supernatural school bus and crazy liability insurance, they aren’t the full story. The glorified are those who didn’t teach that long and/or destroyed their personal lives in the name of being “great teachers.” Jaime Escalante stayed at Garfield High for incredible twenty years, but his department dismissed him as chair because of tensions he created and his neglect of administrative responsibilities. His familial relationships suffered because he devoted all of his time to his students. There was no room in his life for anything else. In the end, his sacrifice was irreplicable and unstainable. When he left, the program crumbled. Other teachers were unwilling to make teaching their only love the way that he did. Louanne Johnson only taught for four years before cashing in on her experience and leaving. Erin Gruwell taught for four years and got divorced in the process.
Honestly, if I choose between a happy marriage and a teacher movie about me staring Hillary Swank, I am going with a happy marriage.
2. You Don’t Practice What You Preach. You either don’t know what you want from us or don’t know how to model it. The disconnect between what’s asked of us and what is done to us always seems to expose hypocrisy (to the point of maniacal laughter). I have sat through lectures on kinesthetic learning. I have spent the morning learning about being trauma-sensitive and the afternoon being peppered with rubber bullets. In Wisconsin, all science and social studies teachers have to take a class in environmental education before being licensed. In some districts in this state, teachers are effectively banned from saying “Climate Change” in their classrooms. As teachers, we know to focus on honing students’ strengths rather than identifying their weaknesses but come evaluation time, we are asked to identify our weakest points as a teacher and write SMART goals to address them. I have been asked if I had any questions and then had my loyalty called into question for daring to ask one.
1.Your Lack of Courage Has Made Us Complicit in Perpetuating All of the Wrongs We Set Out to Right When We Became Teachers. What is the worst part of having been in education for twenty-one years? Back in 1999, college hippie me thought multicultural education was the answer. G.I Joe said that knowing was half the battle. I felt that we could rid the world of racism and every ism by just getting real. I thought we were authentic, honest about our history (and herstory) that we could will into existence a world where every person’s humanity would be seen as real and valid. I thought it would be easy to teach indisputable facts. I felt that educational research drove decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. I believed that civics, social studies, humanities, story, and science were valued parts of our education system, but I was wrong. You cut those subjects. You doubled the minutes for reading and math to teach to standardized tests, and you prioritized non-fiction over the narrative. You systematically ensured that millions would fall out of love with learning. You deadened their curiosity; you murdered their creativity, and you created a society of people collectively incapable of separating fact from opinion. Empathy was plucked from the curriculum. Multicultural education was controversial and only meant for “multicultural students.” You refused to challenge the myths that serve as pillars for white supremacy in our world, and you even allowed popular opinion sway which science concepts students are allowed to hear. You have no spine.
There is no integrity to what we teach or why we teach it when you decide it by the political process. Maybe I wasn’t going to save the world, but I wanted to make it better. It might be hard to fathom how teaching verb conjugation put blood on my hands, but while was drilling and killing vocabulary, there were babies in cages. I am supposed to teach for cultural understanding, but you gagged me. You made me a cog in a machine that made America uglier. The machine doesn’t stop Kyle; it made him, and I don’t want any part of that.
A few weeks ago, I was at half-price books, and someone saw me looking at books about teaching and asked me if I was a teacher. I said yes, and they said, “thank you for your service.” Ironically, that was the exact moment when I decided I needed to put in my notice and call it quits. I’m done. I don’t have it in me to be a martyr, at least not without saving the world first, and it’s evident that education is not the answer. At least it’s not the answer in the way that it exists now. So there you have it. I quit. Take your job and shove it — cue country music. There’s got to be something more.
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