Last night my roommate came home after spending several hours helping her charter district schedule interviews with the many teacher applicants they have for the coming school year. She is leaving her school after four years of teaching to pursue experience as an administrator, and she knows the void that her absence will create in her building. As a result, she’s dedicating a significant amount of her limited free time to recruiting and hiring good teachers like her. She mentioned that she already feels guilt at her impending departure and that I should write about teachers who feel guilt at leaving, or in general what it feels like once you’ve left the classroom as I have. Our other roommate is also leaving her school to go to graduate school next year, so this is a particularly relevant issue in our house.
The decision to leave the classroom is never an easy one, even for those of us who did Teach For America and came into it with a probable end date in sight. I remember the end of my first day of TFA – we had spent most of the day getting acquainted with the education situation in D.C., and the already alarming national statistics about the achievement gap came into sharper focus as we learned about student achievement (or lack thereof) in D.C. and how dysfunctional the school system had been up to that point. I remember thinking, “why would I ever leave after only two years? This is just so important.”
I certainly never stopped thinking my work was important while I was teaching, but I sure did get worn down. I never slept more than six hours a night while I was teaching; I never allowed myself to sleep past 8:00 on the weekends because I just had too much work to do. Despite my diligence, I felt constantly behind on my lesson planning and rarely started the week with all of my lesson plans done. Part of this was my own doing: I didn’t like my textbook, so I wrote every single exercise my students did and created guided notes for each lesson. I was also in graduate school with the rest of my TFA cohort two nights a week, and I added coaching the swim team to my plate during the winter. It made for an experience that was 100% rewarding but also physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining. I loved the knowledge –which was reinforced every day – that I was making a difference in the lives of kids and doing something important, but I also knew that I just was not one of those people who got energy from teaching. I didn’t enjoy the act of imparting knowledge enough. My moments of rejuvenation came from the interactions I had with my kids outside of class and the relationships that I had with them. Those moments didn’t make me a better teacher. I considered staying for a third year and thought for a couple of months that I would, but ultimately I realized that teaching was just not sustainable for me; I would rather take the skills I’d already honed and apply those towards closing the achievement gap. I did that last year working for Michelle Rhee; now I’m trying to raise awareness and generate ideas by writing this blog, and next year I’m starting law school, where I’ll spend my energy learning how to be a true advocate for my kids.
This isn’t to say that I don’t miss teaching very much. I do. I really, really do. No hour goes by that I don’t think about my students; I still wake up every morning thinking about what I’d be doing at that moment if I were still teaching (I used to get to school at 6 a.m.). I stay in touch with some of my students via email, Facebook, and texting, and I’ve gone back to my school to visit several times. My experience as a teacher still impacts everything I do personally and professionally, and I talk about teaching more than anyone else probably wants to hear.
Do I feel guilty? Not really. The closest I come to feeling guilty about leaving teaching is really more a feeling of self-doubt; sometimes I wish that I were strong enough to keep fighting the good fight like so many of my fellow TFA corps members are still doing. I wonder if I shouldn’t have just kept sacrificing myself for the good of children – they’ve been disadvantaged by so many people that they need as many people to sacrifice for them as they can find. For me, it’s about balance. I didn’t want to continue teaching only to one day resent my lack of a social life or realize that the stress had taken an irreversible toll on my health. (I came very close to that several months after I left the classroom and spent four months very ill before finally being diagnosed with a bizarrely-manifesting anxiety disorder that seriously weakened my immune system.) One lesson I learned from teaching was: pick your battles, and the same goes for big life choices like this. Bad health and stress are battles I am not willing to fight if I don’t have to, and now I’m still very involved in education without having to fight them.
If you’re a teacher who’s considering leaving the classroom, the first thing you have to acknowledge is that it is okay and healthy to think about that option. We can’t help kids if we don’t take care of ourselves first, and maybe teaching just isn’t your calling.
If you know you want to leave, make sure you have a plan. If education and youth are important to you, you will go through some pretty serious withdrawal if you don’t have something lined up to transition you from working with kids every day to whatever it is you’re doing next. If you are moving into a field that is completely unrelated to education (like my current job), find an opportunity to stay involved with kids. I coach an academic team, and that allows me to be in a school at least once a week – it’s so refreshing and keeps me grounded in my passion for education. If you’re not leaving the field of education but know you won’t be working directly with kids anymore, make a plan to keep in touch with the ones you’ve already taught. They’ll continue to remind you of what you contributed, and you will still be able to influence them even though you’re not teaching them anymore.
It might be reassuring to take a moment and think about this: in English, when you are talking about a teacher from your past, you say, “my high school Spanish teacher”. You don’t say, “my former Spanish teacher” – our language implies that our positions as teachers are permanent in the minds and hearts of our students. You will always be someone’s teacher. And believe me – they’ll think about you after you’re gone. My visits to my school since I left have been by far the most validating hours of my life. The very first time I went back, which was during the second week of the school year after I left, my students swarmed me in the cafeteria, pushing each other to say “I’ve been missing you!” “I wish you were still my Spanish teacher!” “I haven’t forgotten anything!” “I was just thinking about you!”
And if you are leaving, don’t be afraid to tell your students what you’re doing next. Mine knew I wanted to be a lawyer. They kept asking me last year if I was a lawyer yet. They thought it was cool, and they knew that I wanted to be a lawyer to keep helping kids. I am 100% sure that not a single one of my 200+ students resented my leaving to pursue something that I had always wanted to do and that was still aligned with my goals as a teacher. Sometimes the best example you can set is showing that you aren’t giving up on your dreams or afraid to take risks. You can also take the time to prepare your successor – a new TFA corps member replaced me and has benefitted from my experiences and resources so that I live on in his classroom.
Last but not least: don’t beat yourself up. Whatever you do next, our society owes you its gratitude for the time, energy, and love that you put into teaching our youth. You have done the most important job there is. We need great teachers in this country, and whether you teach for two years or twenty, you’ve done an invaluable service. Take your experience and inspire others to follow you.