Today marks exactly one year without teaching. To acknowledge the occasion, let me take you behind the scenes of my blog and share the number one phrase — BY FAR — that brings people to my site:
I don’t want to teach anymore.
A plethora of versions abound. Done being a teacher. Don’t want to teach. I can’t teach anymore. People punch these things into Google, and Google sends them here, because algorithms are strange, enigmatic beasts that I will never fully understand. These stressed-to-the-max, ready-to-quit educators keep finding their way to my blog, and it’s sort of weird because I’ve never written a post about that.
It’s time. It’s time to write a post about that.
In the twelve years I was a high school English teacher, I watched people leave the profession in droves. Some abandoned ship before they even boarded: a couple colleagues in my graduating class completed their student teaching, collected their college diploma, and promptly went back to school for an entirely different degree. Some hung in there for a handful of years before eventually succumbing to cynicism and fatigue. A precious few retired with a full career in their rearview — but, like Nancie Atwell, even they might advise the potential teachers of today to choose something else. The climate is different. The culture is different. The system is breaking, and educators are scattering to avoid the inevitable crushing debris when it all comes crumbling down.
I hope you will join the conversation.
I did not choose to leave — which means that maybe I didn’t have the cojones my Google searchers do, to look around and take stock of my situation and say, I’m done. To make my own decision. I let fate and a cross-country move make it for me, and there are a lot of incredible things about teaching that I really miss.
Actually, there are only two: my colleagues, and my kids.
They are the incredible things.
But everything else? I won’t go into detail about the budget cuts or the massive class sizes or the average salary, as that’s all been discussed ad nauseam. I’m not going to talk about the bone-deep exhaustion that comes from being onstage all day, or the drowning sensation that follows you home on nights and weekends when you have hundreds of papers to grade.
These are the other things — the stuff you might only understand if you have a key to the teachers’ lounge.
1. You are an “authority figure” with no real authority.
A friend once told me, “You have no idea what it’s like to have a real job — something with deadlines and adults breathing down your neck. You get to be your own boss.” The sheer ignorance of her declaration has stuck with me for years, and still needles me — mostly because that line of thinking is an extremely common misconception.
When we close our door each day and stride to the front of the classroom, it’s easy to fall prey to the illusion that we are in charge. It’s your name on that door, after all, so you must be the boss.
Reality check: you are not the boss.
Parents are the boss of you. The administration is the boss of you. Common Core is the boss of you. The students can sense it, which occasionally leads to comments like, “My parents pay your salary, you know.” Truth. And because of that truth, there is often immense pressure to compromise your integrity: to pass a child who has not demonstrated mastery, to allow an extension on a paper you assigned two months ago, to give less homework or different projects or more lenient grades, because sometimes you are expected to avoid rocking the boat.
2. Your day does not resemble that of a typical white-collar professional.
Despite my aforementioned friend’s ignorance, I’ll give her this: sometimes you are painfully aware that your “real job” does seem suspiciously different from other “real jobs” which require a college degree.
Here are the things your friends can do at work:
2. Get coffee
3. Spend fifteen minutes chatting leisurely with a colleague
4. Go out to lunch
5. Complete paperwork and other job-related tasks during the actual work day
6. Sit down occasionally
I’m pretty sure the real reason summer break exists is because the School Gods counted up all the seconds you don’t get to use the bathroom and handed them back to you in one big chunk. Twenty-five-minute lunches are not conducive to nice, relaxing meals beyond the building’s walls, and you can only relieve yourself during passing time — which, unfortunately, is the only opportunity all the OTHER teachers have to take care of business.
Because you know what else is the boss of you? The bell schedule.
3. Everyone thinks they know how to do your job. EVERYONE.
Adding to the sting of your not-in-charge-ness, many people who ARE in charge have literally never taught a day in their lives — and a lot of them are pretty sure they know how to do it better than you.
Most people have lights in their home, but that doesn’t make them electricians. My husband doesn’t know how to manage a restaurant just because we’ve gone out to eat. Can I profess to be an expert on successful lawyering because I watch Law & Order: SVU once a week?
Surely, teaching is different, though, right? At some point, just about everyone has sat in a classroom. We were students, after all. We watched our teachers — some we loved, some not so much — and because of that lengthy, multi-year observation we assume we know what they do for a living, because we sat in a classroom for years and years and years, and we watched them, and that must be enough research. Six, seven, eight hours a day, ever since preschool, everyone has seen this job, so everyone is allowed to have an opinion.
But even brand new teachers can tell: the view looks a whole lot different from behind the podium. So when your high, high, highest-ups are committees of people who only know what it’s like to be a student, it feels akin to a team of accountants trying to wire a building.
You know what’s probably going to happen? That sucker’s going up in flames.
4. You wanted to foster imagination, not slaughter it.
For a while now, teachers have been battling an increasing pressure to “teach to the test.” Despite our banshee-esque warning cries, this situation is not improving. Courses with “real-world” value (home economics, for example, or shop class) are dying a not-so-gradual death, as there is no “Foods & Nutrition” section on the SAT. Art and music programs are still in grave danger — and, in some districts, have already been slashed to ribbons.
An elementary school teacher I know — who is a part of one of the wealthiest, most reputable districts in her state — attended a recent meeting where staff members were instructed to “drastically limit or entirely eliminate” story time. “It’s not differentiated enough,” they were told, “and therefore is a waste of valuable class time.” THE KIDS ARE IN THIRD GRADE. They deserve to gather around a rocking chair and feed their imaginations. They deserve the magic of a captivating story. They deserve to learn that you can read for pleasure instead of strictly for information.
“Core” high school classes aren’t immune to the damage, either. Elsewhere, in an entirely different part of the country, a ninth-grade teacher-friend of mine was asked to abandon any educational math games and “make more of an effort to spoon-feed, please.” English teachers look on helplessly as more and more works of fiction are plucked from the curriculum and replaced by fact-driven nonfiction. Even though we’re sometimes invited to join curriculum committees (as I did) under the guise that we might have a say, it’s ultimately just a ruse: we have only as much freedom as our national and state standards allow. At the moment, there is a relentless push toward FACTS. DATA. STATISTICS.
That doesn’t leave very much room for make-believe.
But here’s the thing: discussions about fiction lead to rich discussions about life, which drives something much more important than the growth of a student — it guides the growth of a human being.
5. The technology obsession is making you CRAZY.
Our beloved works of fiction aren’t just getting elbowed aside by facts and figures. They’re also being trounced by the frenetic crush of technology. “The children must learn ALL THE TECH!” everyone shouts, flailing their arms and stampeding toward the nearest Apple store. “It is the way of the future!”
Then why are some big-shot technology CEOs sending their kids to computer-free Waldorf Schools? There’s an app — er, a reason — for that.
This one is tricky. OF COURSE, as teachers, our job is to adapt to the changing times. But I might argue that our job is also to challenge our students with something new — and, to this generation, technology is not new. In fact, it is all they know. Our kids don’t need more of it — most of them have been swiping and zooming and smartphone-ing since they were toddlers — and they continue to do it right in the middle of your (probably fact-driven) lecture about some (probably nonfiction) book, by the way. It’s incredibly frustrating when all that glorious innovation serves as more of a distraction than a learning tool.
I’m not trying to get all Yeah, well, back in MY day… on you. But, um, back in my day — look, even a decade ago — it felt a little simpler to practice using something TRULY innovative: our brains. That ability is disappearing, in large part because technology has eliminated the need to wonder.
One of my favorite lessons to teach involved a set of four philosophical questions. I typed them up and distributed them to my sophomores, who were allowed to work in groups.
2006: The students wondered about the answers, pondered the possibilities together, bounced ideas back and forth.
2015: The students said, “I’ll Google it.”
“No,” I said. “This is a Google-less assignment. You need to THINK.” They stared at me, agape, and in a mild state of panic.
They grumbled, but then they put the technology away, and they turned to their peers, and they wondered.
Though we teachers tend to stick together, I also have a group of friends and family with a wide range of careers — they run the gamut from successful marketers to mechanical engineers to human resource managers. All of them have interviewed prospective employees for over a decade, and all of them now have a similar complaint: it’s becoming close to impossible to find candidates they actually want to hire.
The three C’s people suddenly seem to be missing? Curiosity, creativity, and communication skills.
Technology is wonderful — nay, necessary — for a plethora of things, but it’s killing those beautiful C’s. And as a teacher, you don’t just witness the death, you are expected to assist in the murder. Because of standardized expectations, you must incorporate more and more tech, even when all you want to do is take a hammer to anything with a screen.
6. All the entitlement and the trophies and the apathy and whatever.
The air inside your classroom walls is probably thick with the stench of “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault,” and it sure seems like the smell is coming from the students.
Ironically, this is not their fault.
Like cigarette smoke, it gets carried in from home, rising from their backpacks, woven through the threads of their clothes and the fibers of their upbringing. Their whole lives, they have received copious awards and accolades just for playing — NOT for excelling — so it’s no wonder kids have come to expect an A “because I tried.” But sometimes a D paper is just a D, which doesn’t necessarily mean that Johnny has an evil teacher. It means that Johnny might have actually earned a D this time. It means he might not have written a perfect paper. It means he needs to stop waiting until THE VERY LAST SECOND to start an essay he’s known about for three weeks.
But Johnny doesn’t know it means all that, because what he hears at the dinner table is that his parents are UNBELIEVABLY ANGRY that his teacher had the nerve — the nerve! — to give their baby a D. (Brace yourself for the irate phone call in the morning.)
Of course, for every helicopter parent, there is a devastatingly absentee parent, as well as an equal number who are so remarkably supportive that you wonder if they’re even real. They are warm and generous and responsible. You tell them at conferences, You are REALLY doing something right, and you mean it.
I hope I will be that kind of parent.
I became a mother a few years ago, and I must shamefully admit I get it now. My children ARE special. My children DO try. I do not EVER want them to feel like they are anything less than the most important people in the world. When my daughter’s preschool note tells me she was not a good listener that day, I feel frustrated and helpless and a little bit sure the teacher is just being too demanding. When she ran her first Toddler Turkey Trot last November, the people in charge asked if I wanted to buy her a medal. “Um, obviously,” I said. “She will obviously, absolutely get a medal.” Without hesitation, I forked over my money and contributed to the Trophy Generation Fund.
As a parent, I understand.
But as a teacher, this is what you wish you could say: Stop making excuses for your kids. STOP IT. Teach them to earn things, not demand things. Hold them to a higher standard. Challenge them. That way, when I try to challenge them, they’ll know we both expect it.
They’ll know we are on the same team.
Left to their own devices, the kids will be the first to tell you: Yeah, I totally forgot about that assignment. I didn’t really try my best. I just didn’t feel like finishing the reading. Whoops — sorry, Ms. B! They’ll cringe at you with raised eyebrows and endearing self-awareness. They nod emphatically when you analyze the apropos theme of “Harrison Bergeron,” and they laugh uproariously when you pull a pretend trophy from your desk and give it a quick shine as soon as they catch themselves in the act of whining.
They know. Deep down, they know exactly what’s going on. They are smarter than that, and they are capable of more failures — and consequently, more successes — than the world is allowing them to experience.
7. There is no reliable way to assess who is ACTUALLY good at this.
If you’re a teacher worth your salt, this might be the most troubling of the bunch.
In order for people to really know how well you’re doing your job, they have to watch you do it. But when there is only one administrator for every thirty-plus teachers, adequate observation time is often a physical impossibility. Even if an administrator’s ONLY JOB was to sit in classroom after classroom, there would still be too few hours in the day — and principals and assistant principals are responsible for a lot more than staff assessments. Between the scheduling and standardized-test-organizing and discipline issues and parent phone calls and endless on- and off-campus meetings, sometimes even a ten-minute walk-through is an achievement.
Not to mention the embarrassing issue of content area expertise: how can an administrator with a history degree assess whether or not a physics teacher is delivering accurate information? How can an assistant principal with a science background critique an English teacher’s lessons about sentence structure?
Depending upon your state and your years of experience, you might be observed anywhere from once a month to once every couple of years. Who knows what magic is happening in your classroom all those other days? So in the meantime, lawmakers and district higher-ups are scrambling to figure out a way to fill in the blanks.
A popular bright idea is to examine students’ test scores. In theory, this should work — but in practice, you’ve got to be kidding. Students are not products tumbling off a cookie-cutter assembly line. They are human beings, and there are thirty-five of them per class period, and they are influenced by FAR more than yesterday’s vocabulary lesson. You are not in charge of how well they slept, or the breakup that happened last week, or if their family has enough money for breakfast — but all of those things affect test scores. So do IEPs, 504 plans, and whether or not you are teaching an AP or Honors class filled with students who might perform well with or without your help.
As more and more districts begin to adopt this nonsensical practice, who will teach the kids who are struggling? Which educators will potentially sacrifice their own careers to guide the students who work hard for a D+? Some of the very best teachers do that now, with only intrinsic motivation working to retain them.
Another method is to place the burden of proof upon the teacher. Each year, there is a different set of goals to accomplish — some you set yourself, and some that have almost nothing to do with your specific classroom environment — and it is up to you to prove you’ve met them.
So instead of spending your prep hour — or your Sunday night — creating a brilliant lesson plan or grading the ten dozen essays you just collected, you must spend that time figuring out how to meet arbitrary goals and initiatives that will become irrelevant and obsolete by the following school year. After that, you must
waste utilize class time implementing said goals and initiatives, and then you must spend more prep time and Sunday nights writing reports to prove how well you implemented them. That, combined with your students’ test scores, shall determine whether or not you are an effective educator.
Can I please just talk about Of Mice and Men instead? Can we spend that time learning why some words on a page just made us cry a little bit? That’s the important stuff. That’s what matters. Those are the things that teach us who we are.
Here are the other things that matter: Helping a group of students work through a disagreement civilly. Keeping everyone calm when someone vomits on the floor. Watching the shyest student in your class, the one who never ever spoke back in September, volunteer to read a part in The Crucible — and he’s hilarious, and he does it with an accent, and he makes two new friends because he finally let himself be vulnerable.
Your job is so much more than test scores, meaningless goals, and cyclical initiatives. It is tying shoelaces and distributing Band-Aids. It is listening to a parent cry about her crumbling marriage. It is showing teenagers how to debate thoughtfully, how to think critically, how to disagree respectfully. It is hearing from students ten years after graduation, because they just thought you should know it was your Spanish class that made them want to study abroad, your passion for science that led to a major in biochemistry, your quiet encouragement during their dark days that convinced them to keep coming to school in the first place.
Where does that fall on the “Highly Effective” checklist? How can you document that kind of delayed impact? It certainly can’t be measured by A’s and E’s, or even by weekly walk-throughs. It’s no wonder you’re getting frustrated.
It’s no wonder you don’t want to do this anymore.
But if these are the reasons you might leave, here is the reason you might stay: the kids, man. The kids. After a year without them, you might miss their unbridled school spirit during Homecoming Week, their contagious sense of humor, the way they draw pictures for you and wave joyous hellos in the hallways. You might miss their ability to make you forget about the rough start to your morning, or the looks of awe on their captivated faces when they finally learn something that matters.
If it weren’t for them, instead of Googling “I don’t want to teach anymore,” you might already be gone.