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Confessions of a Quitter Teacher

Posted on May 3, 2016

Every generation has its own call to adventure. My father’s generation had Uncle Sam pointing that red, white, and blue finger at them and saying “I Want You!”  JFK challenged the youth of America to ask what they could do for their country. When I was in college, then-president George Bush called upon Americans to be one of “a thousand points of light” leading the way to a better society. When I graduated from college in 1991, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: a teacher. Since I’d wanted to be nothing else since I was seven, I figured I was starting my lifetime career. I got my credential and my first teaching job a year later.

In the early nineties, the education buzzword was “student-centered-learning.” As teachers, we were supposed to be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” We  were called upon to differentiate instruction to reach each child’s individual intelligence, thoroughly understand Maslow’s Hierarchy and the idea that children must have their basic needs (food, safety, shelter) met before we could expect them to learn. We organized our classrooms to promote cooperative learning, even encouraging students to confer with each other during statewide assessments such as the California Learning Assessment System (see an excellent article from AIR on this test.) In my years as a teacher I ate, breathed, and slept teaching. My every waking moment was consumed with how to be a better teacher. It made me a great teacher—it also burned me out.

After seven years at my first job teaching at a large, established California high school, I jumped at the opportunity to start a new one. We would be doing something never attempted: creating a public International Baccalaureate high school where all students would graduate with the highly-prized IB Diploma. After one year there, I was finished. The football field had been sodded—twice—but I was still teaching drama in the parking lot. The IB program we’d been promised was obviously doomed. The town wanted a winning football team, not an internationally-recognized curriculum. I was heartbroken.

By the end of my illustrious teaching career, I had taught Literature, Writing, Drama, Social Studies, Computer Technology, and ESL to students in grades 9-12. I had taught honors students, remedial students, and students who were on the verge of getting kicked out of school unless they passed my class. I taught neglected kids who came from upper-class homes and kids who came from poor but fiercely loving migrant family homes. I taught kids who drove cars to school that cost as much as my annual salary, and kids who lived in their cars. I once held a girl’s new baby while she took her Grade 12 World Lit final (which she aced.) I oversaw homecomings, rallies, improv groups, and yearbooks. I counseled kids to stay in school, to keep a baby, to have an abortion, to not have sex, to report their abuser. I wept when they failed, and rejoiced when they succeeded. It was a helluva ride.

When I quit teaching, I was 30. I’ve had a whole other life since then, but in my heart, I will always be a teacher.

One Response to “Confessions of a Quitter Teacher”

  1. Krista O'Connell

    Greetings from a fellow “quitter teacher”! The main difference is that I left the game before my career even got off the ground. After hearing a lot of hype about looming teacher shortages, I soon met many, many substitute teachers who had been hearing the same thing—and struggling to find that elusive full-time job—for years.

    In my short time in the classroom, which included a six-month term, I came to the conclusion that teachers are simply being set up for failure. A typical classroom includes several students with learning challenges and special needs, as well as students with behavioral issues. During my education degree (2002-2004), we also learned about the multiple intelligences, and were told that we would need to differentiate instruction to target the different learning styles and varying levels of academic ability and achievement. Here in Canada, the big buzzword at the time was “inclusion,” which is a wonderful idea, but the government did not provide adequate resources to make the notion of a functioning inclusive classroom a reality. One stat I read is that 30 percent of Canadian teachers leave in the first 5 years. I can’t help but think that many of them are people who, like you, were very passionate about their profession and cared deeply about the students they taught.

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