I’ve written this essay over a dozen times since I first sat down to write it in May of 2020. I keep waiting for enough time to pass that my words aren’t clouded by emotion, but time keeps passing and the feelings are still there. As another school year begins, I am now entering my second year since leaving the classroom and things haven’t gotten any easier for teachers. However, this isn’t an article about what all teachers go through. There will be a time for me to write about teaching in a more objective way that maybe more people will care about, but today isn’t that day. Today, I simply want to share my story, the story of why after only five years of teaching I vowed to never set foot in a classroom again, at least not as a teacher.
By March of 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic began, my husband Brad and I had already decided not to resume our positions as teachers at the small, private Christian school where we had met and established our careers. There were so many reasons for our decision to leave, some of which are intrinsic to the profession as a whole, others which were unique to the institution where we were teaching, but ultimately the deciding factors for why we left were personal. My husband had gotten a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering but had not yet had the opportunity to pursue it as a career, and I was pregnant with our first child and wanted to stay home with him when he was born.
It’s been almost a year and a half and on our nightly walks, Brad and I still return to things that happened when we were teachers trying to make sense of what it was we were a part of, and for me at least, so much still feels unresolved in my mind. Some of the hardest things to make sense of in life are the spaces and people who simultaneously gave so much to your life and yet who also disrupted your life and sense of calm in so many ways.
Each of my five years of teaching was a battle, and ultimately I think they were a battle in which almost everyone on all sides lost. My first two years of teaching were at a public school in the inner city, first as an English teacher and then as a pre-Emergent/Emergent ESL teacher. As an English teacher, I had enormous personal success in the relationships I managed to form with many of my students. Like so many students who lack structural support at home, they flailed in their studies, and as a brand-new teacher, I was still discovering how best to help them. But if nothing else, I knew my students felt safe and loved in my classroom, and I hope that the sense of self-worth I tried to impart to them has stuck.
I was hopeless as an ESL teacher. I had no real training in the subject area and no preparation for what I was going to encounter with the students I was teaching. Most of my students were undocumented migrants from Mexico and Guatemala who lacked the skills and support to navigate the American classroom. They were lost, largely alone, and ignored, and I had no idea how to help them. They were also a revolving door. By January of that year, I had less than a third of the students with whom I had started the year. There were so frequent absences and widely varying abilities from student to student that there was no sense of continuity in the classroom. I essentially gave up and when I couldn’t get a position back in the English department the following year, I left the school.
That year I had also become a Christian and was elated when I managed to get a position at a small, private Christian school for the following year. I thought that I would experience a sense of belonging and purpose teaching in a place with like-minded people. The Christianity I knew up to that point was the simple Gospel, the Gospel of the sinner saved by grace, and I wasn’t prepared for all of the ways that I would end up butting up against the culture of American Christianity that I didn’t yet understand. Nor was I prepared for how I would butt against the culture of suburban education that I had as yet only experienced as a student. More than anything, I wasn’t prepared to be, actually, a very good teacher who was hated by so many of my students, and their parents.
What’s striking when I reflect on those three years is the simultaneous and opposite-running parallels of my life during the time. On the one hand, I met my husband at the school during year one, we got married during year two, and I got pregnant during year three, and I couldn’t have been happier. And many of our coworkers, students, and their families shared in and supported (both emotionally and financially) those joys. But on the other hand, I was professionally suffocated.
I’d made some missteps early on. I had a couple of moments where I had tried to be affable by joking with my students and inadvertently hurt their feelings, and I had to correct my tone and adjust how I interacted with them. That change was challenging and I felt embarrassed by it, but the changes I made ultimately made me a better teacher. Unfortunately, what I thought of as a better teacher didn’t always line up with what some of my students or their parents did. I had high expectations for my students and I was tough, but I was also fair, encouraging, and truly wanted to help them learn and find success. Many of my students rose to meet the bar, but many of the ones who didn’t, or who didn’t want to, looked for ways to undermine my personal and professional credibility and were actually aided by their parents in doing so.
What no one knows about those three years is how exhausted I truly was in trying to outrun the tidal wave of opposition I faced daily. I was building a curriculum from scratch, planning out my lessons down to the minute, and on top of that I was also planning out in my head all of the ways that what I might say or do could in any way be used against me and how I would defend myself if I was asked to. Every time I received an e-mail from the principal or vice-principal my stomach caught in my chest and I started to panic, doubly so if they asked me to stop by their office. I would make the walk up to the front office trying to remember to breathe and running through in my head every interaction I had had with a student in the past month that could possibly have made someone upset. Most of the time, I was just called up to answer a quick question about NHS or AP enrollment, sometimes I was even called up because a parent had called to thank me for what I was doing, but other times, it was because someone was upset with me, usually because they felt my class was too hard, sometimes because I was being accused of saying/doing something I hadn’t said or done, and I was called in to make an account for myself. Regardless of the situation, the emotional toll the constant mental warfare took on me was crushing.
I ghost-taught my classes for the last month of 2020 after I was canceled over a comment I made on a teacher’s blog about teaching during the pandemic. When we went online, many of my students fell off the map. I had been excited about the online move. Though it would certainly be a challenge, I had taken almost a third of my undergraduate courses and two-thirds of my master’s degree courses online, so I knew how important being able to navigate the online learning environment was for success in college. Because I taught seniors, I thought this would be a great opportunity to really help them prepare for college and get them a solid jump-start on their freshman year. But that’s not what a lot of people wanted. As a school, we were all trying to scramble to figure out what online learning would look like and the policies kept changing a lot, often not lining up with what I thought was best for my students, but I tried to acquiesce to the constant changes as best as I could. But no matter how far we lowered the bar, some students still couldn’t meet it. I was afraid that like had so often happened in the past, it was all going to come back on me and be my fault somehow, so I put in extra hours tracking down MIA students, e-mailing parents and administrators, checking all my boxes to keep myself out of the cross-fires if it came down to it. But it was exhausting, and I was seven months pregnant and we were in the middle of a pandemic and it was all just, hard. I was scared and frustrated and resentment started to build up.
So when I saw a post on a teacher’s blog about what teaching during the pandemic had been like for people so far, I responded and talked about what I was experiencing and vented about my frustrations with the school’s policies and with how some of my students were handling the changes. I didn’t identify what school I was working at or anything specific about any students, and I honestly didn’t think anyone I knew would ever see what I had said, but a parent at the school did, and they sent it not only to the principal but to other parents, and a couple of days later I was the school pariah again and parents called for me to be fired.
There were a lot of ways that I think I was treated unfairly over the years by school administrators, but this wasn’t one of them. We only had three weeks left of school, so rather than firing me, the principal allowed me to quietly finish the year as planned so I could keep my health insurance, which I desperately needed being seven months pregnant. I still taught all my classes as normal, I just didn’t interact with any of my students or their parents directly. I had to send all my email communications through my department chair, I wasn’t allowed to attend any school events, and I was no longer an official representative of the school. If anything, the decision made my life easier. I think it probably negatively affected the students more than anyone because I was less available.
On graduation day, which I watched online because I wasn’t allowed to attend, the class president remarked in her speech that this year’s senior class was the only one lucky enough to both start and end their English education having Mr. Skeeter* for a teacher. Her comment stung because it was untrue in both a general sense and a specific one (she was enrolled in a different teacher’s English class anyway), but also because she was one of the few students who we had allowed to attend and serve at our wedding a year and a half prior. Teaching is choosing not to take personally things that often feel very personal.
What lingers most about my time as a teacher is how misunderstood I felt much of the time. I had spent so much time and energy trying to be perfect that I exhausted myself and ended up putting the nail in my own coffin. Though I was leaving anyway, the final curtain of my career as an educator left a bitter note that I’m still trying to get over. When I talk to my friends and family about my teaching, they highlight the group of girls who I spent three years mentoring in Bible study, the students who would spend hours of their free time in my classroom just to hang out, the 50% of my AP students who passed their AP tests, the struggling students who went off to college and came back and thanked me for how much they learned in my classroom, etc. that they see as successes I should feel proud of. But though I see the successes of my career I am not comforted by them. I have witnessed firsthand and believe to my core in the value of education and I wanted so badly to give that gift to children, but so many refused to take it. It’s the great tragedy of my career that I was so unsuccessful in trying to impart this understanding of my heart to the people I wanted to help.
Education was a wave that swallowed me whole and I’ve spent most of the last year and a half quietly licking my wounds. I’ll never go back, at least not full-time. I still love children and believe in education as an institution, but I’m not built for the life of a teacher. I can only hope that the thousands of dollars and hours I invested over the years I was one left something better in the memories of some of my students than it has in mine. My mentor teacher’s first lesson when I started my student teaching was this: he said that teaching is like trying to free wolves from traps. You’re trying to free the wolf because you love it, but the wolf can’t see that you’re trying to help, it can only feel the pain of the trap. Sooner or later, if you work with wolves for long enough, you’re going to get bit, and then you have to decide if you love the wolves enough to risk getting bit again. I thought I loved the wolves enough, but I just got tired of getting bit. Over a year later and this last bite still stings.
*Name has been changed