Thursday, September 4, 2014

Leaving Education Behind

A short while ago, I wrote a blog about slowing down my life, and I mentioned in that blog that I had made the decision to leave education. I also mentioned that there were many reasons that ultimately I decided to make that choice. I never got around to writing about why I ultimately decided to leave the education field, but with school returning in the DC metro area last week and this week, I've been seeing a lot of links to articles about teachers. More importantly about good teachers and bad teachers and who is responsible for students' learning, and why we are failing our students. A lot of fingers are pointed at the teachers, and it is very frustrating to me. I would challenge anyone to step into the life of a teacher even for just one day before they start blaming them for the evils of the world. Teachers have so many things on their plates, that many people don't even realize how difficult it is to be a teacher. Instead it's just so much easier to blame them for everything that goes wrong with our schools, regardless of the fact that so much is out of their hands. I got so incensed by some of what I read, especially some of the comments, that I felt that it was time to blog about why I left. I know I don't have many readers, but if my ramblings can help people have a better understanding of what it's like to be in a school, and what it's like to go through this on a daily basis, then the time it takes me to write this will be well spent.  Perhaps it will even help to shed a little light on things like teacher retention, and why it's so hard to keep people in this profession. There are many reasons that I left teaching, and if I listed every single one, this blog would be pages long. I'll try to give probably the most compelling reasons (at least for me).

Reason #1- Carrying the load
I know this may sound like an odd way to explain why I left teaching, but it's the honest to goodness truth. I could not carry the load that I was carrying any longer. I don't mean physically carrying my bag and papers to the car, I mean the emotional load. If you think that when teachers leave at the end of the day, they stop thinking about teaching, you are very, very, very wrong. It got the point in my life where I was constantly thinking, talking, and worrying about my kids and how I was going to reach them. I couldn't go a weekend, or a weeknight, without texting a fellow teacher and asking them about a lesson to help so and so get this hard concept, or a plan to get so and so more focused in class. As teachers, we carry the emotional burdens of our students as well. We know that our kids don't always have everything at home, and so even when we are taking the time to do things in our lives that we need to do, ie groceries or a Target run, we are thinking about our kids. We're picking up the little extras, notebooks, crayons, snack bars etc for the kids we know need it. We're staring at a sale rack of items, wondering if we buy these, if it will help so and so learn better. We often put the needs of our kids ahead of ourselves, or our families. We so badly want to help them and reach them that they take the front seat, while everything else takes the back seat. If you've ever been a caregiver, you know how it feels to constantly put others first. It is exhausting. As teachers we worry about the types of home lives our kids have, and when we know certain things about our students, we try to help, and we worry. We worry about the bruises, or the uncle who seems just a bit off, or we worry about the cleanliness of our students when we see them in the same clothes for the third day in a row. We want to help them all and we try. We know when there are divorces and we open our ears and our hearts, and when we hear stories of parents and siblings who are dying, we take their pain and make it our own. We are teachers but we are friends, and sometimes ears, and sometimes we are more parents than we ought to be, but we do it because we care. But caring and carrying others burdens has a price. And after 9 years, I simply could not pay it anymore.

Reason #2- Pass that test!
I'm sure that no one is surprised that I mentioned standardized testing. Truthfully, I never minded the implementation of state standards. The state could certainly tell me what to teach, but they never told me HOW to teach it. It was up to me and my creative brain to accomplish that. And truthfully, I think that this is something I was good at, being creative. But at the end of the day, they wanted to measure what I taught, and here is where we butt heads. I understand the reasoning for the testing, however, expecting the pass rates that they do, is simply absurd. Time and time again I was told I needed better pass rates. Time and time again I was told to "help them get over the hump" but no one ever stops to think that not all of these students came to me with the same set of skills. Last year for example, only 34% of my students had PASSED the math test the year before. So according to the state only 34% of my kids were ready for 4th grade math, but yet, by the end of the year, 100% were expected to have mastered 4th grade math. So those students who were not proficient in 3rd grade math, are now somehow supposed to be proficient in 4th grade math? How does that work? How do you fix all of the issues from the previous year, and KEEP GOING? How does that work? In addition, the school that I was a part of was a focus school in the state of Virginia. This means we were being closely monitored due to our low standardized testing scores. We were subject to county and state walk throughs on a regular basis. We were constantly giving more and more and more assessments to gauge the progress of our students. The county and state scrutinized test scores on everything from county benchmarks to end of unit math assessments. Time and time again I was asked to explain my low pass rates. Why weren't more of my students doing well? It was terrifying, it was exhausting, and it was stressful. Stressful to the point where I would wake up at 2:30-3:00 in the morning because of the anxiety about the test scores. I began to see my students, not as people anymore, but as numbers. Pass rates, and fail rates, and it saddened me. At 32 years old, I felt as if I was headed for a full scale heart attack. To put it simply, my life was worth more than those test scores.

Reason #3- 100+ hour work weeks
I hear people say all the time, that teachers are so lucky because they're done at 3:00 and walk out the door without a care in the world. I want to set the record straight, NO ONE, not even the worst teachers out there, are capable of actually doing this. Why? Because quite frankly there just simply is not any time during the day to do half of the things that you are required to do. There is no way to return calls, answer emails, make copies, write lessons, cut out lesson materials, hunt down books and resources, make new resources, collaborate, desagregate data, hold meetings, grade papers, update websites, attend professional developments, read to continue educating yourself, and teach a class of 25+ students in a 7.5 hour work day. Teachers literally put in hundreds of hours worth of overtime in a year. It's almost as if it's an expected part of the profession. It's expected that they will arrive early, stay late, meet at any given moment, work weekends on lesson plans, and take any work that doesn't get done in the classroom home to work on at night. My contract hours never officially started until 8:40, however, I was in the building by 7:00, if not earlier, almost every day. Most days, unless I had an appointment or had to go to my other job, I was in the building until well past 6:00. And yes, I logged time at home, and on the weekends as well. Even on breaks, it was hard for me to go a day without picking up my school work. In the end, the number of hours that teachers put in is insane, and I just couldn't do it anymore.

Reason #4- Finances
A lot of people talk about the median salary of teachers, and talk about how it's so awesome, and how it's pretty sweet that we get summers off too. I am someone who put myself through school, paid for my first car, apartment, move to Virginia, etc. Because of this, and also a few other poor decisions upon moving to VA, I am in debt up to my eyeballs, and quite frankly, my salary didn't cut it, especially after it was frozen for consecutive years. I've worked a second job for years, trying to get ahead. But in truth, the second job actually hurts me because I wind up owing in thousands of dollars in taxes each year. It's kind of crazy. I need the second job, but yet, the second job puts me even further in debt. One might say that I should change the second job, but, the second job provides the finances that I need in the what do I do? In the summer months, I worked even more at the second job so that I would have money to open my classroom in the fall. Teaching is a profession where it's customary, nay, almost expected, that teachers will buy their own supplies and materials. I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars worth of materials I purchased and put back into my own classroom over the years. Everything from arts and crafts supplies, books, games, puzzles, furniture, carpets, software, movies, and even bulletin board supplies. It's crazy to think that the salary I did receive was expected to then be spent on things for my job. How many other professions out there buy their own supplies? Do secretaries buy their own pens and paper? Do doctors buy their MRI machines? No, their employers do, and then they use them. Why in the world do schools expect teachers to foot the bill for so many things? Fiscally speaking, I just couldn't do it anymore.

Reason #5- Being a personal punching bag
If I had to recount every time I took a verbal lashing from a parent, I'm not sure that I could truthfully recount every incidence. I understand that parents are very protective of their children. I can only imagine how I would be if I had any of my own, but I think that truthfully parents sometimes forget that teachers are human beings as well. I can't tell you how many times students went home and told half truths about things that happened at school, which then prompted angry emails and phone calls from parents. They couldn't believe how oblivious I could be to things going on in the classroom or in the lunchroom, and they couldn't understand how I could be such a horrific person. They accused me of being unfeeling and not caring about their children, they accused me of being mean to and not liking their children, and they said that I wasn't doing what I could to meet the needs of their children. I can't tell you how terrible it feels to work almost 12 hours everyday, and feel like you are doing so much to try to help your students, and then to receive emails like these. It feels like no matter what you do, you simply can't do enough. It hurts when you feel like you are making creative lessons and doing everything you can, only to basically be told you are worthless and a terrible person for doing what you are doing. I can think of no job where people have as much free reign to harass employees as in the teaching profession. If you try to step to a server, or bartender, or a nurse or a doctor and tell them they are a horrible person, someone else will get involved. A manager, a supervisor, SOMEONE. But with education, it's perfectly acceptable for parents to belittle and berate teachers as they see fit. Emotionally, it's very hard to deal with this type of thing all the time. I carried those emails with me, when I left the building, when I was in the building, and when I tried to sleep at night. I will never forget, so long as I live, the email from a parent saying they wanted to sue me because another child had made a racial comment to his son. At the time, I was not present in the classroom because I had been pulled for a special education meeting, so I had to try to investigate the situation. When I returned, his son was pulled for early dismissal before I could investigate. He emailed me that evening threatening to sue me because no action had been taken. Nevermind the fact that I couldn't take any action because I couldn't investigate what had happened because his child wasn't in school. I cried that night, and did not sleep after that email came through. I worried about it for two days until the situation was resolved. I was a terrible wreck. Emotionally speaking, I could not be the punching bag for people anymore.

Reason #6- Love and Life
Since moving to Virginia 9 years ago, teaching has been my life. I don't mean that in a figurative sense, I mean that literally. It has been the focal point of everything I do, and it has dictated my life. I would go to school early and stay late. I worked my second job because teaching didn't pay enough to pay the bills and have anything left over. I worked in the summers to try to save up money and try to get out of debt. I went to the gym at 0515 so I could stay late at school and have time at night to work. But mostly, if it didn't have anything to do with teaching, the gym, or my second job, I largely ignored it. That means family, friends, hobbies, and also love weren't really anywhere in the picture. At the heart of the heart of me, I am a hopeless romantic. I am a one and done type of girl, and I want love and a happy marriage at some point in my life. For the past 9 years, I have dated people only when it's fit into my schedule. I've had long distance relationships with the wrong people because it fit into the schedule. I could call or text when I had time, see them when I had time, and truthfully it didn't really interfere with my day to day operations. That type of relationship is never going to end the way I want. Working every minute of every day and focusing on nothing but teaching and students and money is NEVER going to make me truly happy. At the end of the day, my emotional needs are important, and it took me a very long time to realize that. Not having anything in my life except work will never fully satisfy me and will only lead to resentment and regret for opportunities missed later on down the line.

I think that in my time, I was at least a decent teacher. Some would say I was good. In my opinion, I never had the pass rates to consider myself good, and I know in my last year of teaching, my stress level was so high that I was a lot harder on my kids than I should have been. But regardless, I think I was decent, and there was a period of time where I really did enjoy my work, but that time is not now. Now I need to focus on me. I don't think that I'm alone in how I feel about teaching right now. I've seen many people leave the profession and move on to other things. Happiness and health, those things are important to have in life. Unfortunately, teaching can take those things away from you without you realizing it has happened. I'm glad I realized it before it was too late and made the choice to move on. In a few years, my mind may change. I may be more financially stable and able to have a less stressful teaching career. Maybe I'll be married and I won't feel like teaching is keeping me from finding a piece of me that's missing. Who knows.... but I know for now, this is the path I'm on, and these are the reasons that quite simply I cannot continue to do what I have always done. I hope that if you are friends with, or know, a teacher, you take the time to really understand what they do instead of making blind statements. In all of these reasons above, there is a lot of self-sacrifice. I can't make those sacrifices anymore. They still are. So be kind, and let them know they are valued and appreciated.