Why I Quit Teaching

I’m not a teacher anymore.

I can’t believe those words are my reality, but here we are. I guess I should say I am not a teacher in the traditional sense. My classroom is now my basement office, all school-related decorations confined to a few tri-fold boards I trade in and out as needed based on the online class I’m teaching.

I have left the brick and mortar school and taken on the life of stay at home mom, contract teacher, blogger, and student. Student because I am returning to school to be an accountant. I’m six months from turning 30 and I’m completely starting over career-wise.

I have given a lot of feeble excuses for leaving teaching.
I’ve said I quit teaching to spend more time with my babies.

This is true, but still only part of the larger story.  I am so blessed to have this time with them. They are the absolute best and fill my heart with indescribable joy. I love being at home with them. But honestly, being a SAHM is just icing on the cake at this point. I would probably have left teaching anyway after last year. Having the boys at home only made it easier.

I’ve said “it turns out, teaching isn’t for me.”

If you know me at all, you know I am lying when I say this. I am passionate about teaching and public education. I’ve worked with some remarkable educators and I have the utmost respect for them. Teaching is and always has been so much more than a job to me. It has been my investment in the future of society, my way of making the world a better place. It has been my calling. I have loved it from day one. All of it: planning, teaching, grading, coaching, laughing with kids, exploring emotions, learning life lessons, celebrating successes–both in the classroom and later in the students’ lives. There is nothing like receiving Facebook messages and emails from former students updating me on their successes and thanking me for helping them achieve their goals.

I’ve said that I’m just burnt out.

But this is another lie. I’ve said, along these same lines, that after I returned from maternity leave I didn’t love teaching anymore. Again, a lie. The truth is I wasn’t happy teaching for the school I was in anymore, but I still love teaching. I still have the same passion and excitement for my students and my content as I did my very first year. I say I’m not sure what changed. Another lie. I know exactly what changed.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that changed me–that changed my heart.

First, a little background.

I know I’m going to sound like I have no humility at all, but I’m being honest: I am a damn good teacher. So I made the choice to commit to teaching in Title I schools, which are low-income and usually high minority. There is probably low parent involvement. Many of the kids feel trapped in a cycle of generational poverty and wholeheartedly believe they are not capable of or worth any better.

All the odds are stacked against teachers in Title I schools. Sometimes I say teachers in non-Title-I schools get twice the results for half the effort, and I’m only sort of kidding. I decided if I was going to teach, I was going to give the best I could to kids who usually got the scraps. If you are interested in reading a little more about what it’s like to teach in a Title I school, you should check out this post on the Love, Teach Blog.

My first school

My first school was unique, even for a Title I school. 96% of students received free or reduced lunch (the 4% who didn’t were administrators’ kids) and roughly 80% of the population was homeless. The whole community had been affected by rampant drug use, transience, and dwindling economic opportunity. I loved the kids so much, but the community was difficult to adjust to. The little town the school served was in the middle of nowhere–a small rural community–but many of the kids (and their parents) seemed to think we were all in inner-city Chicago.

There were days at this school that it was difficult to feel safe. Once when the principal was out of the building we had to go on lock down because a student’s father, who was not to have contact with the student, informed her mother he was coming to school to take her. The door to my classroom hadn’t locked in months and no matter how many times I brought it up, no one had fixed it. The student in question was sitting in my room. Luckily, the police apprehended the father before he made it on campus, but that’s when I knew I needed to move on to a new school.

My second school

I moved to a new county, a new district, a new school. The first couple of years were so wonderful that I described it as teaching at Disney Land. As time passed my perception changed. I don’t know if the school itself changed or if I was just finally seeing problems I had been blind to before.  Regardless, I wasn’t happy there anymore. I was seriously considering moving to a different school but I guess I was letting a few things hold me back. My coworkers were amazing. I had made some of the most wonderful friends of my life and I didn’t want to have to move to a new school and figure out new people. I’m not really a social butterfly.

This school was a typical Title I school. It had its problems, but a lot of talented and dedicated teachers work really hard to make it a great place for students to learn. There was no real reason for me to leave.

When I returned to work in January after maternity leave, emotions were running high.

I have no idea what happened in the building the 12 weeks I was out but many people  said “You should be so glad you weren’t here last semester.” Some of these were people who never complained about anything ever. No one ever explained what happened, but there was no denying a very clear shift in the climate and culture of the building.

In addition to a less than happy work environment, there were external factors weighing on the building. Our governor was doing everything in his power to take away teacher’s pensions and school funding in the name of balancing the state budget, all while vilifying teachers. Some of his remarks were just outright disgusting. In addition to that, there were two school shootings. One in Western Kentucky at Marshall County High School in January and another in Parkland, Florida in February. Whenever this happens, it leaves every teacher in the nation on edge, wondering if next time it will be his/her building.

Real talk: all teachers know that it could be our school next.

The reality of this set in with me when, in the aftermath of the recent shootings, someone made a threat against my building. It was days after the Parkland incident and a person stated he was going to shoot up the school. Emotions were running high, but the superintendent and principal took the threat very seriously and dealt with it swiftly. Authorities alerted the administration the night before, who communicated the news with the staff as soon as possible.

I was walking into a building that was already on lock down, the police were already there and prepared.

I hugged my babies and kissed my wife and promised that if anything happened I wouldn’t play the hero–I’d come home to them. And I did. I came home safely that day, and the following work day I got up and went back. Despite knowing it could be our building next, teachers operate like we feel safe and secure, like it’s not going to happen to us.

All of these things–the school culture, the nastiness of our elected officials, and the school shootings–were weighing on everyone in the building. We were all on edge, we were all dealing with unhappiness to a certain degree, but I still didn’t want to stop teaching. I still believed I needed to teach.

The day I was done being a teacher was March 28.

I remember because it was my birthday.

My 6/7 block class threw a surprise birthday party for me. My plan was 5th period. While I was out of my room, they decorated with balloons and streamers. They brought in cupcakes and sodas and cups and napkins and gifts.

I don’t know how they knew pink carnations are my favorite flower, but there was a bouquet sitting on my desk in a pretty little glass vase. I don’t know how they knew M&Ms are my favorite candy, but there was a cute little apple jar full of them next to the flowers.

They wrote me some of the sweetest letters I have ever read in my life. Tears of gratitude stung my eyes as I turned on music and started organizing a party game. After going through all that work I wasn’t going to make them do classwork the entire period. We’d celebrate my birthday for a little while and then begin class.

Lock down

Just as celebrations were beginning there was an announcement for a medical lock down. That’s no big deal. It just means students are not allowed to leave the room because, most likely, someone had thrown up or something in the hall.

Within seconds there was an announcement for a full lock down, meaning there was a threat. We had to turn off all sounds, turn off all lights, lock all doors, cover all windows, and sit silently on the floor as hidden as possible.

It wasn’t a drill. It wasn’t planned. There was no warning. We were just on lock down.

My students assumed it was a drill at first. But minutes passed and no one released us from lock down and the kids started growing suspicious.

“What’s going on? Are we safe? Is this a real lock down?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I am sure we are safe. We have followed all the procedures exactly. This is why we practice.” I kept my voice steady and calm and reassuring. They settled back into silence.

Time continued to pass and I could see the strain on the students’ faces.

Text messages from friends and siblings at the high school started rolling in and the strain gave way to all out panic.

We shared a campus with the high school. A small parking lot separated our buildings. A man had shot and killed his wife and then come to the high school to pick up their son. The man had a gun and was on school property. (He never made it into the building, but we didn’t know that yet.)

“What if he comes over here?” asked a sweet girl. I turned to where she was sitting with her besties–the little group of birthday party planners. There was fear and panic on their faces. It was obvious it was taking serious restraint for them to not cry or scream or run.

I smiled at her and said, “I’ve been in almost this exact situation at my old school-and my classroom door didn’t even lock then. Every single one of my students made it out just fine. I assure you we are safe. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you.”

The kid and all her friends relaxed. I watched as relief and comfort replaced the worry and fear on their faces. All because of my words–because of a promise I made that I would die trying to keep–but there was no guarantee I could actually keep it.

And that was it.

That was the moment I knew I could not continue to be a teacher. I can’t explain why, I don’t even know why, but that moment affected me more than any other. There was something about giving those kids a false sense of security that has messed with me to my core.

It’s been six months, and I still see their scared faces in my dreams. I don’t exactly know what to call the emotion I felt when I realized I was being dishonest, but I still feel it every time I remember the fear in that girl’s eyes when she asked me “What if?” and how it shifted to comfort and relaxation when I promised safety.

I stood in my classroom and heard gunshots.

My small-town-America classroom. Not my middle-of-a-war-torn-country classroom.

The man forced the police to shoot and kill him.

My classroom was on the opposite side of the building of the altercation, so the gunshots were not loud. You had to know what you were listening for, and you had to be actively listening. I don’t think any of the students noticed it at all.

I had taught the man’s son when he was in middle school. I’d met the man a few times, too. He had come in for a meeting once. I saw the son and his father at the animal shelter a few months after he started high school. He was so excited and proud to tell me he had joined ROTC and was doing really well in school. His dad stood behind him and beamed with pride.

Steph asked me once what my take was on the father when I met him. He seemed to me like a good dad. He was rough around the edges and uneducated, but he wanted what was best for his son.

My heart aches for the kid. He woke up one morning for a typical day of school and by the end of the school day he was an orphan.

These things aren’t supposed to happen.

Teachers aren’t supposed to tell their babies goodbye in the morning and wonder if they are going to come home to them in the afternoon.

Students aren’t supposed to start a normal school day and wind up an orphan before the final bell.

Children are not supposed to feel unsafe at school.

I can’t fix these problems. There’s nothing I can do about it. That’s not me admitting defeat, that is just me being matter of fact. It’s me facing reality.

But I also cannot continue operating in a system like this. I cannot continue willingly placing myself in a situation where I might have to choose between staying alive for my own babies, or risking my life for someone else’s children.

And I can’t continue lying to children about their safety. Not when they trust me so much.

I can’t.

I am not a teacher anymore.

 

 

 

Coming to a place where I am comfortable with changing careers and leaving a career I truly loved required a lot of reflection and introspection. Click below to receive a copy of my 28-day reflective journal so you can practice self-care through reflection.

Inspirational Dream Journal

12 Replies to “Why I Quit Teaching”

  1. Wow. You are a true storyteller Sarah! I’m happy you finally started a blog! I only wish I was half the writer that you are!! Keep it up! I’ll be reading! ♥️

    1. Lolo, you are always so encouraging! I know we have both always wanted to be a writer. I am so glad we have this opportunity to support one another. 🙂

  2. I would like to follow your Blog. Teaching might not be up your alley right now but writing certainly is compassionate and caring. My Dad was a College Professor who didn’t really like to teach so he worked in administration and searched for the best teachers he could find. Impressive I thought as he planned a Jazz workshop and Louie Armstrong agreed to be a guest. He was an excellent teacher as a father I thought….. teaching in different ways. You will be fine and teach those beautiful boys about life and how we live in it ! Look forward to your blog.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Pam. It sounds like your dad was a very intuitive man who knew how to surround himself with talented people. I am sure he was an excellent educator, both professionally and at home. I truly appreciate your encouragement. Thank you for following my blog.

  3. This made me tear up. As educators, we know these things. As educators, we get to hear everyone who doesn’t know these things criticize and critique. That was a scary time for a lot of schools in our state and many others.
    I’m loving your blog, Sarah! 🙂

    1. You are so right. People who have no idea what it’s like are the ones trying to “solve” the problems. I hope it gets better before the boys start school. Thank you so much! 🙂

  4. Sarah,
    I am just now getting to read this. All I can say is , “Wow…” You nailed it. I’m struggling with feeling burnt out and feeling guilty for feeling that way. You are an amazing teacher and person. I’m blessed to know you.

    1. You, of all people, should not feel guilty for feeling burnt out. You have the absolute most difficult and most demanding job education has to offer, and you are awesome at it. I am blessed to know you.

  5. Well great, now I’m in tears. I am grateful for your honesty. Others who have commented before me are correct, you have a story telling gift that helps the reader “feel” the story. I’m hooked, you keep writing and I’ll keep coming back for a good read.

  6. Oh wow! This is such an eye opener! You never think about those issues with some as a teacher… but in the world today.. no one, unfortunately, is to escape the violence…such a sad thought 🙁 please… keep writing. I am so enjoying how you bring life to the words!!

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