I Quit Teaching After 8 Years. Here’s Why.
Teachers wouldn’t get a whole week of appreciation if the job was easy. Here’s why I left.
As teacher appreciation week comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit about what led me to leave a profession that was exciting enough to change careers over.
I’ve also been thinking about my educator friends who remain behind, especially as I watch them doing the best they can in this upended environment.
I wonder what schools will be like when kids and staff are able to return.
How will teachers teach, and students learn?
Kids are resilient, and I’m sure school systems will do their best to address what they’ve been through the last few months, alongside interruptions to their learning.
It’s important, too, to consider the toll this has taken on our teachers. It was a tough job to begin with, and one that for me was just not sustainable long term.
So what finally made me leave?
Quite a few things, actually.
The workday is never done, and weekends bleed into the work week.
To excel in teaching, you’re always thinking about teaching.
You lesson plan, you craft accommodations, you test, and then you test some more. In the case of a special education teacher, which was my field, you craft schedules for yourself and your aids, you write IEPs, you test your own students and you test new students. You watch them take tests they shouldn’t have to, as what’s being asked of them is way above their heads.
Sometimes you sit and think about how you’re going to reach this or that student, and wonder if they’re reachable at all. You celebrate victories, and lament setbacks.
You listen to your administrator promote a good work/life balance, bag slung over your shoulder with all of the student files and textbooks you’re bringing home with you for the weekend.
I hear things get easier at the high school level — I taught kids from preschool up to the eighth grade in the eight years I made it in the profession — but can’t attest to that. I do know that you are never finished with everything on that list, no matter how many hours you put in and how much of yourself you leave on the table.
The burden of teaching is heavy.
I would try to separate my home life from my school life, but it was impossible. It’s normal for someone to bring feelings about a bad day at work home with them, but in the case of teaching, you’re talking about kids.
You have kids who don’t have stable homes. If you’re in a middle school environment, you’re dealing with hormones and peer pressure. They’re trying to look cool, even at the expense of their relationship with you or friendships you thought were solid with their peers.
You have kids who have so much baggage that it weighs you down. There are kids struggling with their identities. As a special education teacher, I saw kids who considered themselves less than the “others,” the kids who didn’t need specialized services. Sometimes they’d take it out on me, or themselves.
Some of them harm themselves. I’ve seen kids lose family members to gang violence. Some of them are so angry they don’t even know what they’re cussing you out about. You just know that they’re dealing with something that a kid shouldn’t have to deal with.
I saw kids who I thought came from stable homes crack because they weren’t able to achieve ideals set by their parents. Problems don’t disappear in fancy school districts. They just look different.
You’re around that all day, and then you bring it home. Either that, or you bury it.
You take things personally, even when you shouldn’t.
All the books tell you not to take a student’s actions personally, but you try doing that when a kid flips you the bird. I had one seventh grader tell me once that I was the reason the school district’s performance ratings were so low.
I laugh about it now, but where did he get that from? He likely got it from his parents.
You’ll hear parents say things to you out of anger, or perhaps resentment. They’ll confide in you that their life is more difficult because of the needs of their child. I would take on that burden for them.
Did it feel good when those same kids, and less often, those parents, came back to you and thanked you for the work you did, or for putting up with their behavior?
Of course it did.
But that doesn’t mean you weren’t left a little bit less whole every time it felt like you had to pick up and start over, or wonder where the effort to be your best was going to come from the next morning. You’d have to put yourself together, because there was always so much riding on your presence and your ability to do a good job.
Parents with unreasonable expectations will overshadow the good and the kind.
When you’re spending hours each day crafting emails you hope won’t be misconstrued by parents, or calling back parents who want to know why so-and-so didn’t have his homework that day (I’m not sure why I would know that answer, by the way, as he came from your house that morning), that eats away at the time you could spend letting the goodness soak in.
For every time you feel uplifted, you’re knocked down a peg on the other end.
At their worst, parents will harass or threaten you. They’ll become passive aggressive when they don’t get their way. They’ll question your expertise, and disregard all you’ve done for their child.
At their best, they’ll bring you homemade jewelry, or give you a hug on the last day of school, telling you that you were the difference that year.
Those moments are awesome.
But it’s hard to disregard the other stuff.
Your personal relationships suffer.
If you are doing all the things you need to do to be considered an excellent teacher, there is no way the job isn’t going to take a bite out of your personal life.
I eventually left teaching entirely on a firm request from my husband. I was midway through the year at a new school site that allowed for actual prep and testing time for their special education teachers. I met some incredible people, and don’t regret trying out a new placement.
Yet I still wasn’t happy.
“You really need to quit,” he said.
I wasn’t myself. I hadn’t been myself for years. I was consumed by the job, and despite the perks of actual time throughout the day to support getting the work done, it wasn’t enough. I may have been cutting it at work, but I wasn’t cutting it at home.
Your health will suffer.
If you’re prone to feeling some anxiety, and if you do all of those unhealthy things I was doing — taking the work home with you, taking things personally — you will feel it. Your entire body will feel it.
On top of the effects of stress on your body, in special education in particular, it’s not unheard of to come home bruised. I don’t mean that figuratively. Some students will hit you. Some will bite you, or spit on you. You try to empathize because you’re the patient one, the special education teacher, but it’s rough.
You will feel selfish for not being able to hack it, even though everyone around you is alarmed by what’s going on.
No matter what you do, sometimes it’s never enough.
I’m not saying every educator out there is perfect. But the vast majority are doing their best, and care deeply about the kids in front of them.
They will cry over those students, and spend their last dime on them.
In special education in particular, it is impossible to do your job with any measure of sanity if you’re constantly worried about getting sued. I got to deal with advocates who would say one thing to me and another in front of parents and administrators. They would play one against the other, for reasons I can only speculate.
You’ll also hear constant criticism from the outside world.
What’s so hard about a job where you get summers off?
That was always a good one.
My very first year of teaching in Chicago, we went on strike. I had no savings to speak of, but I was out there every day on the lines, working for a contract that was fair to both the teachers and students. These were people I didn’t even know all that well yet, but there was already a camaraderie there. We were in this together, no matter the backlash we would read about how we were overpaid and underworked.
So why do so many teachers stay?
Basically, they’re warriors. There’s a high associated with a really good day of teaching. It can be very rewarding. I still have letters from students that touched me in some way. The tough kids were my favorite, despite the hurt they could cause and the frustrations they’d lead me to feel on the worst days.
Oh, and teachers get summers off.
To all my teacher friends, still out there doing the best they can and generally just killing it, I appreciate you more than you know. I think of you often, and wish you the best.