After teaching in a high school classroom for 9 years, I left. Not because I didn’t still love teaching, and not because I didn’t have a vibrant classroom where students wanted to be. Not because I still didn’t feel like there were 1 million things to try and 3 million lessons my students still had to teach me.
I left because I couldn’t figure out how to learn what I wanted to learn while shouldering the all-consuming mantle of “high school English teacher.”
There were lots of reasons to leave. I could rattle them off, and you will recognize them because many teachers have shared their stories of leaving and many articles have been written about why teachers leave the profession. Here are some of these reasons: consistently increased expectations with consistently less time and resources provided to meet them. Lack of teacher expertise informing educational decision-making. Repeated emphasis on the importance of professional collaboration without consistent time allotted to do so. Ridiculous hours spent filling out paperwork for compliance reporting, new accountability, and increased budgeting scrutiny. So much time wasted on standardized tests and an outdated, damaging 100 point grading system. All with the paradoxical verbal message trumpeted that learning, not grades, should be the focus.
But if I’m honest, those frustrations weren’t the real catalyst for leaving. Teaching is a (mostly) awesome profession where I had the honor of leading 110 unique souls every day. I left not out of frustration with the bad, but instead to follow a passion, to pursue a dream. I left because I want to change the system. The whole thing….I know. And I didn’t know how to do that while living up to my own expectations for guiding 110 souls every day. Some teachers have figured out how to both manage a full-time teaching load and pursue systems change. But I couldn’t. I faced a choice, and decided to take my road less traveled, throwing my undivided energy at a new dream.
So, I left my classroom to seek a new kind of education.
My current role has me neck-deep in thinking, writing, dreaming about schools, teaching, and, most importantly, learning. I work for a small nonprofit with huge, audacious goals, which is a perfect fit for me and my huge, audacious dreams. One of which is to open a school. That sounds bold, even to me. But someday I know that I will.
In this new working environment my time is no longer dictated by bells and marking periods. And without those as scapegoats, I’m learning about what truly holds me back. My own foibles and weaknesses become glaring when managing my own schedule, my own time, and often, my own work. This autonomy, as it turns out, is sometimes harder than having others manage it for you. I have to set my internal metrics of success beyond the familiar goalposts of papers graded, lessons delivered, and students engaged.
So, I left my classroom to get uncomfortable.
Since leaving, I’ve had some time and space to reflect more deeply on the systems and cultures of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who push on these systems day in, day out–asking the hard questions, and then rolling up their sleeves to propose answers. I’ve been affirmed by colleagues and supervisors as much in the past 6 months as in the previous 6 years in the classroom. I want that not to matter so much, but it does.
I’ve also had the distinct privilege to see some of the awesome teachers and schools and states taking bold steps to create the systems we need for teachers and students. For example, there are over 90 schools in this country who have self-identified as TeacherPowered. That means that teachers are making the critical decisions about budgeting, scheduling, hiring, teaching, and learning, And that’s messy, it’s hard, it flies in the face of the hundreds of thousands of traditional schools operating all around them. However these teachers and schools shine on, and I get to be a part of sharing their stories. How freakin’ awesome.
So, I left my classroom to gain new inspiration.
It has taken me six months to write this post. I was scared to share the real reason I left. In fact, I’m still scared to put my audacious goals and aspirations out into the world. I also still grieve for the classroom I surrendered and the students I’m no longer in contact with. It’s still sometimes a tug-of-war for my heart, which I swear to you is a teacher-heart through and through.
But I left. And I’m learning and I’m uncomfortable and I’m inspired. I know that this is the right path for the right reasons. As a dear friend and mentor writes in her own story of leaving: “Let’s agree to leave our guilt at the juncture where we made our choice, where we boarded one ship instead of the other. Let’s write that guilt down on paper, roll it up tightly, bottle it, then throw that bottle out to sea. Let’s realize that our impact may look different, but each part we play in education is vital. And no matter which ship we have boarded, it is where we are supposed to be.”