After teaching for six years (two in high school), I made the choice to leave secondary education. In retrospect it became emotionally similar to ending a long-term relationship…
It’s 10 p.m. and one of my best friends and I decide to compulsively go buy about thirty dollars’ worth of flowers. We did this often–impulse buying after stressful days at work. Flowers are practical. And so is that nail polish with self-imposed misogynistic names. Spontaneity kept our minds quasi-busy. The moment we sat down—the moment we stopped—that was when our minds would dwell on heartbreak and failure so seemingly ubiquitous in education.
Initially, our longer days of work hurt less because we pushed each other. We talked about what worked and what didn’t work and how we could fix things. How we could make our classes more relevant to our students. We ate seventy dollars’ worth of burger, milk shakes, and sweet potato fries after a 14-hour day, brimming with a sense of servitude and purpose to a calling we both felt. We were impassioned by what education is: a power that everyone deserves equal access to. Communication and literacy means having a voice. That is what we wanted our students to have. That was our mission. We sat and white-boarded learning goals in the summers and had coffee-induced sessions of developing curriculum; the flashes of the future baiting us ahead. We had euphoric moments of creativity by connecting our ideas to something bigger than ourselves. Our students developing empathy and becoming better citizens through reading and realizing their humanity through writing and reflection. Conferences and feedback and process and growth.
One year later however, as my roommate prepares to go into a new year at a new school, I sit and watch from the sidelines. And I am torn apart by it. By watching the other teachers prepare for the year—by seeing old pictures of my classroom and kids—a rose-colored sense of longing creeps up my spine and engrains itself in me. “I left my dream,” I tell myself. “It’s over.”
But hidden away in my memories are shattered moments. My hundreds of dollars invested in my classroom each semester on the floor as students put gum in pencil sharpeners and light bulbs, tore pages of books from the shelves, and drew penises on the artwork I thought would make the room feel less like a prison. Hidden away was almost getting punched by a student. Was getting spit on when trying to steer a student away from blatant sexism. Was sitting in a meeting listening to a councilor talk about grades and college with a student that desperately needed emotional assistance after being harassed by classmates.
When I started teaching high school, I was blindly optimistic. College instruction had set me up with an idealistic state that simply did not exist in the world of secondary education. So I charged in, painting my classroom, preparing my cellphone vacation spots, alphabetizing my classroom library, spending hundreds on school supplies before my paychecks even started coming in because I was so excited to do something I knew I was good at. Something I knew I could make a difference in—miles and miles away from my federal writing job.
At that point in time no one had told me to “save myself” from the profession. No student had threatened me. No admin ignored me. At that point I still had my autonomy as a professional and subject matter expert. My weekends were not yet dedicated to worrying about my 170 kids. My nights were not spent working on my teaching certification courses. I had not yet fought tears in front of a class of 35 students, or fallen into the arms of my department chair brimming with emotional exhaustion. I had not yet talked students down from suicide and depression. I had not yet been disrespected, sold out, and ignored as a professional by parents. I had not yet been so passionate about something that ended in resentment and apathy.
Two years later I am walking away from teaching in secondary education. I was warned by so many before. That it wasn’t worth it. That education is broken. But my nature tends to lean on optimism seasoned with a sprinkle of naivety. Teachers make a difference; I knew I wanted to teach because one of my high school English teachers inspired that drive within me. Writing and literacy makes a difference. The rhetoric of stories impact culture. Literacy builds empathy and understanding critical to humanity. I could see no other way for my busy-body self to be happy in a daily-grind job when my mind is always hell-bent on purpose. My students were that. They are still that. But my last few months in the classroom displayed the harsh juxtaposition of purpose and curriculum development and simply trying to stay afloat and survive.
When I made the decision to leave, I initially felt relief. I could have my life back again, in some capacity. I was resentful and angry both at myself and the system. My dream had failed me—but, I also gave up on my dream. I’d spent the last two months talking with companies like Amazon and Microsoft. I’d been recruited to go back to work in the federal government. The narrative in my head was something akin to a vendetta: “You see, education system? I am worth something to someone else. Someone else wants me. You lost me.” But really, it was quick rebound; at each opportunity I was filled with a false-sense of excitement. I could redefine myself. Start over. Perhaps not live paycheck to paycheck after attending college for six years. Surely, I could be happy as a technical writer. Or a corporate trainer. Or in marketing. But after each period of potential discovery, I felt guilt. I abandoned my students. I left my friends who are still at odds with the current climate. How can I stare at documents in a cubicle knowing this? What amount of money is worth that when I had the taste of being in a classroom with beautiful minds?
And then, I felt grief. I left something I always wanted. Something I trained for after mastering my subject matter. It was something I was really good at. Something I took pride in doing. When I taught college classes there were moments I looked over my students and questioned how I could possibly get paid for talking to them about rhetoric. When I took my high school students outside to read Whitman, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for my kids who, though occasionally cussed me out or put gum on my desk, were able to muster a philosophical question when they could relate to the content. They were all simply teenagers trying to navigate the world. Still a product of their upbringing.
And then bargaining….
Was it right to leave?
Was it really so bad?
Reflecting over the summer as to why I left, exploring career opportunities, and thinking of the regret and confusion I feel now, makes me realize that leaving a career you love evokes the familiar pangs of ending a long-term relationship.
The affirmation from anger.
The grief of absence.
The aimless attempt to find something else the fits that void.
The temptation of hollow rebound.
A sadness in believing that love cannot be found again.
A bargaining question.
That is always what happens with love when it becomes clouded or lost. Or when something you love takes advantage. Whether we love our careers. Friends. Family members. Partners. They are all living relationships, two-way streets, leaning ladders, that need to be cared for and considered.
But just as with an abusive love, you move on; you learn. You grow by accepting what you can and cannot take. But you still love. Always love. Always teaching. I will come back to the classroom, whether it is helping adults or college students or other educators, because the mission of education and literacy is too important to leave behind. Nothing can replace the feeling of sitting one-on-one with a student when they have a moment of realization or when they truly engage with content and reflect who they will become. Of helping a student get through a single day because high school is rough for all involved. Of talking about the things you love and sharing what you know and learning in that process. That involvement may just be in a different light now. There are other impactful paths to take in education. Technology. Curriculum design. Research and policy. Writing (always, writing). There can be such relief in the face of possibility.
Such freedom in the idea that breaking up with a love is never the end of love.