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One Year After the Classroom

June 12, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

Almost exactly a year ago, I stopped being a teacher at Brooklyn Center High School. I'd been there for two years, and during that time I'd discovered that, while I might have the potential to one day become a truly effective teacher, there was a very good chance that I'd destabilize as a person before I got there. A year later, I remain convinced that this was the right thing to do, and I am similarly convinced that we must change what it means to be a teacher if we're going to have any hope of sustaining a strong corps of teachers in the future.

I will always feel like a deserter for leaving the classroom. Those who stay are the ones who choose to make personal sacrifices – lower lifelong earnings, less time with family, more stress than most people will ever believe – because they are compelled to help children learn. To leave is to admit defeat, to say, “I couldn't do it; you're going to have to find someone to pick up my slack. The rest of you are going to have to work that much harder because I couldn't get the job done.”

I think about the successes I had with individual students, with small groups, with whole classes, and I can take some comfort in knowing that I was not a complete waste of space and time. I know that, especially in my second year, many of my students made dramatic growth as writers and students of literature. I still have a few letters from students that make me smile when I read them, validations that, yes, I had some positive impact on at least a few of these magnificent kids.

And then I think about the failures, which will always take up more of my memory. There are the big, messy failures like the eighth grade classes completely out of control during my first year. There are also the quiet, personal failures. These come with the faces of particular students who I know I let down, either because they fell behind or because my class didn't challenge them enough. It's one thing just to say, “I'm good at teaching writing, I do all right with literature skills, and I have a hard time with reading comprehension.” It's another thing entirely to remember individual high school students still struggling to read because I couldn't give them the tools they needed to improve.

Could I have become better with time? Of course. Save for a rare few naturally gifted educators, teaching is a set of skills that one gets better at with practice. Intellectually, I know and believe this. Emotionally, however, I'm now sure that I wouldn't like who I'd become if I stayed in the classroom for years.

For me, teaching was more toxic than I knew at the time. I didn't fully appreciate this until the middle of fall, four or five months after leaving the classroom. It was around then that the last of the accumulated stress finally drained out of me and I could sleep properly again. I knew teaching was going to be stressful before I began, and I was certainly aware that it was stressful while I was in the middle of it. What I didn't figure out until I'd left was just how stressful it was.

I'm not sure anyone can really understand and appreciate the toll being a teacher takes on a person today without spending at least a year or two in the classroom. Imagine having to continuously switch between being a performer, judge, diplomat, expert, and parent every day. Imagine having to be consciously engaged with everyone and everything around you, every second, for hours at a shot. Imagine doing all of that and then leaving work with hours of paperwork and grading to do at home. Imagine never having enough time or energy to do your job the way you know it should be done. All of that is the beginning of what it feels like to be a new teacher, and I suspect, an experienced one as well.

The luxury of being able to stare off into the distance at work for thirty seconds to collect your thoughts isn't an option for most teachers most of the time. A teacher has to make decision after decision, consciously and unconsciously, every moment there are students in the classroom. This weighs someone down, and soon even summer break – even without curriculum building or training or summer school – isn't enough to make up the difference.

We have allowed our schools to become places that eat professionals alive. The brave and the strong stick it out, but more and more we're relying on new teachers who give two or three years and then burn out. We need to change how this works if we're going to make it better.

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  • Jerry Von Korff says:

    June 12, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    I stopped teaching after five years.  While there were several reasons, one major reason that I was assigned in my new school to 9th graders.  I loved teaching seniors and juniors, and perhaps I would still be teaching, but for my experience with 9th graders.  I think it takes a completely different personality to teach junior high.  Many of the folks, I believe, who succeed with 8th graders, have a completely different energy level and a completely different set of teaching styles and teaching interests.  Perhaps you are really a senior high teacher at heart.

  • Audrey Kingstrom says:

    June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    In the late 1980s and early 90s I taught high school social studies for about 6 years in NYC and neighboring urban areas.  I loved what I was doing and had encouragement that I was on my way to becoming a very good teacher.  But, I gave my all and I was not able to sustain that level of engagement and effort.  During that time I started my family and got physically sick from stress. I had hoped to go back to teaching when my children got older but I gradually realized that I could never be the kind of teacher I wanted to be and give my own children the attention they needed in the evenings if I were to continue teaching.

    You are so right when you say we need to develop new constructs for education.  So many students need more support for learning than our society is willing to provide now.  And teachers need so much more support to actually be able to spend the balk of their time teaching. If we truly want to educate everyone is our society—which is an essential goal of a democracy—we definitely need some new models and new thinking. (Charter schools don’t even come close to new ways of thinking about education in my estimation.) It’s not that our educational system doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work for everybody because we aren’t making widgets. The factory model for education won’t work for the whole of society.