I debated on whether I should do a nice Thanksgiving Day post as I’ve done in the past (I still love this one.) But this year, I thought I would write a post for those of you who have barely made it through the October slump, and are so dreading the return to school next week that you can’t even enjoy your time off. The idea of going back to that place just makes you sick to your stomach. I get it. I have been in your shoes. And I’ll share with you what happened when I quit my teaching position at exactly this point in the school year almost ten years ago.
Quitting was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. My administrators were blindsided by the decision–after all, I was an experienced teacher with multiple years in urban schools, and I had a good handle on my classroom. My students were learning, and their benchmark test scores showed strong gains. The kids liked me, their parents liked me. Things seemed to be fine. But what people didn’t know was that it took EVERYTHING out of me to keep it that way.
I had just moved to the state and had no idea what to expect in my new school. I was disappointed to learn that most of my second graders were reading on a late kindergarten level, and the pressure to get them up to speed was weighing heavily on me. We had no windows in our classroom, and were not allowed to have recess or any break at all during the day (per district mandate), so I was stuck in a tiny, dark classroom with a large class of energetic seven-year-olds and zero outlet for all their energy.
Beyond our four walls, the school’s atmosphere was in total chaos. We couldn’t send students to the bathroom alone, as there had been instances of both girls and boys being raped there by other students. One of my kids found a knife on the ground on our way to lunch. An off-duty police officer and a drill sargent were hired to help control the students in the cafeteria: one of them would bend over and scream in the children’s faces while the other marched up and down the center aisle, yelling into a microphone as the kids threw food around his head.
Not exactly a fun working and learning environment.
Things were quite a bit calmer in my classroom, but student behaviors still posed a huge problem. Getting students to respond appropriately to even the smallest request took Herculean, first-day-of-school efforts from me. It was like the movie Groundhog Day. We practiced the same basic routines and procedures over and over, and three quarters of the class just wasn’t internalizing anything.
I remember the exact breaking point. I hadn’t used our social studies books yet but there was a particular passage I wanted the kids to read as an intro to our activity. I said to the class, “Okay, when you hear the magic signal, you’re going to take out your social studies books and turn to page 35.” At the mention of the word social studies, one student burst into tears and crawled under desk so he could bang his head against the floor. (Apparently this was a behavior he’d started in first grade and his previous teacher had no idea why.) Another boy murmured something under his breath, causing all the children in his vicinity to say, “Awwww! Ms. Powell! Andre called you a B word!”
Simultaneously, another child took out his social studies book but accidentally dropped it on the floor, causing the children around him to laugh. “What’chu laughin’ at, punk? Shut the F up!” and then punched the kid nearest him in the arm. The child who was punched did the same thing right back. The two of them sat there glaring at each other, and the children around them were either frozen in anticipation or egging them on to a fight.
Almost every child in the classroom was now either disrupting the lesson or distracted by the disrupters. One child had her hand up asking to go the bathroom. Another had his hand up and was pointing at the child next to him, who was gleefully ripping out pages of the social studies book. Yet another child was tapping me on my arm and asking me to repeat the page number.
As I took a deep breath and made a decision about which fire to put out first, I heard a scuffle outside the door and a voice come over the intercom. “Lockdown, code 3. Lockdown, code 3.” That meant the police were pursuing a suspect in the neighborhood, and I had to cover the small window on our door and move the class away from it.
It was in that moment that I knew my job was not worth the energy expenditure I had to put out everyday. I realized that I was up against too many obstacles, and most of them were insurmountable. Things were not going to improve significantly and I was going to go home exhausted every day for the entire year. It wasn’t that I was incapable of handling it. That day, I could have had the class back on task within a minute or two after all those interruptions. But those things happened all day long, every day. I was managing the classroom, I was maintaining some sense of order, but I wasn’t teaching.
I wanted to have deep conversations with my students about current events. I wanted to delve into books with them and watch their eyes light up when they made connections between the text and their own lives. I wanted to see them develop a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world through investigations in science. I wanted to teach. But after seven weeks of school–almost the entire first quarter–the kids still weren’t anywhere near ready for those things. And so I was still spending the entire day disciplining students and teaching them basic work habits and socio-emotional skills.
The worst part? All teachers who were new to the district were required to stay in the same school for THREE YEARS. Sticking it out until June wouldn’t have done me any good, because I would have had no choice but to return to the same situation again in the fall. And again the following fall. I was trapped in that level of stress for another two and a half years, and the thought of going in for even one more day after the long weekend passed was enough to make me physically ill.
And yet the guilt I felt over even thinking about quitting was indescribable. Was I really willing to abandon such a needy group of children in the middle of the school year? What kind of person would give up on those kids and look for an easier job just so her own life could be more comfortable? I felt selfish. I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like a failure as a teacher.
But I had to do it. My principal was shocked and furious, vowing that I’d never work in the district again (Not for a million dollars, lady!, I wanted to yell.) Even worse was the unexpected reaction of my students. Most of them barely blinked when I told them Friday would be my last day. Part of their nonchalance was because of their young age, but I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that they were so used to losing teachers and other important adults in their lives on just a moment’s notice that this was par for the course. I got hugs and letters and a few tears on the last day, but the majority of the class was so wrapped up in their own issues that they weren’t even thinking about me. Five minutes before the final bell rang, two of my toughest kids got in a physical altercation over an eraser one of them had thrown, and I was so busy dealing with them and school security that there was no opportunity to have wistful goodbyes. My time at that school ended just as chaotically as it had started.
My decision to quit in the middle of the year would have been much tougher if I’d had to leave the field altogether. I know that’s the situation for many of you who are reading this post and unable to find other teaching jobs. I quit in a year when there were far more teaching positions then qualified teachers. You’re going to groan when I tell you that within a day of making my decision, I had an interview in a neighboring county and was hired on the spot. But maybe you can relate to this part: the hope that in a different school, the love of teaching would return.
I can tell you without a doubt that it did. My new school had its problems, of course, but I felt safe there. My students were safe. And I was able to really teach again. I stayed in the classroom for another five years (and probably would have stayed longer, except I got married, moved to New York, and started doing instructional coaching). I even chose to spend my last two years as a classroom teacher in another inner city school. Urban teaching is where my heart has always been, and will always be. I know that it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. These days I work with teachers in some of the toughest areas of Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx, and I see the amazing things they’re able to do. The quality of teaching and learning in many high-poverty schools is truly exceptional and they can be fantastic places to work.
There’s no clear-cut moral to this story, I suppose. I’m hoping it’s helpful just to know you’re not the only one and someone else has been through this. But there are a few other things I want you to know if you feel like quitting teaching right now or are still feeling tremendous guilt about having quit:
1) It’s not your imagination–teaching IS getting harder. Our students are coming to school with more and more problems, and the bar for achievment is continually being raised.
2) Sometimes, the school year does not get easier with time, and that’s not necessarily your fault. Usually I’ve found that teaching becomes less stressful as the year progresses because students get the routines and make more and more academic progress. Occasionally, though, this was not true for me and it’s not true for other teachers I know. Sometimes the class is just a really difficult one and your stress level won’t improve until the following year when you have a different group. That’s very normal.
3) You are not a bad teacher just because your job feels too hard. Even the best teachers get put in situations that are physically and mentally exhausting. Feeling like you want to quit does not mean that you were not cut out for the job, or are a bad person. The position you’re in just may not be the best one for you, or you may just be having an exceptionally tough year.
4) Quitting does not equal failure. I struggled with the decision to quit long after I’d left the job, because I felt like I had abandoned the kids who needed me the most. I had to remind myself over and over: It’s not that I couldn’t do the job, it’s that I chose not to for my own mental well-being and physical health. I was not a failure, I was successful in taking care of myself. I have many other responsibilities in life in addition to being a teacher, and I was not willing to let all those other areas fall apart because of my job.
5) There are lots of ways to use your talents and gifts to help children. Many teachers who quit still have a deep desire to work with children and make a difference in their lives. There are many, many ways to do that. Your career as an educator does not have to be over simply because you don’t want to stay where you’re at.
Now, to be clear: I’m not telling you to quit your job. Quitting is not always the right decision: in fact, there were plenty of other low points in my teaching career in which I wanted to walk away but didn’t. During those times, I found that I was frustrated in the moment, but I knew in my heart that things WOULD get better, that an overbearing principal would transfer to another school (he did), that the transition to a new curriculum would be for the best (it was), or that I could make it through just a few more months with an exasperating parent or student (I did.) One of the best things about teaching is that every fall is a new start. Sometimes the best thing to do is hold on until then.
But for those of you who have emailed asking me whether to quit your job or teach on (and there have been dozens of those emails over the years), I continue to say: do what you know is best for yourself. If you’re not sure, keep teaching. Hang in there as long as you can. Read Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and other resources to help you deal with stress. If and when you hit that breaking point–your gut feeling is to go, and the reasons to leave truly outweigh the reasons to stay–you’ll know, and you shouldn’t ignore that realization if you can find another option.
You will hear many voices within the school system telling you to prioritize your work (or more accurately, your students’ test scores) but it will be far less often that you hear the message to prioritize your health and well-being. I’m telling you that today. It might mean finding another job, or it might mean staying and developing different coping strategies for stress, but my advice is to do whatever it takes to avoid complete burn out. I think as teachers we owe that to ourselves.
I’d love to read your stories on this topic. Have you ever quit mid-year? Are you thinking about doing it? What advice would you give teachers who are in that position?
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