“A student wrote me an end-of-the-year thank you letter that read in part: ‘English with you is like a roller coaster. Sometimes it is extremely enjoyable, and sometimes I want to be eaten alive by lions. But nothing’s perfect right?’ And I laughed because kids. And I also couldn’t help think how much the comparison applied to teaching for me. There were many, many days I wanted to be eaten by lions. But there were also plenty good ones too. And good people. And good students. So it was with both excitement and sadness that I emptied the last of the things in my classroom today, locked the door and turned in my key. I never went into teaching thinking I would only do it for four years. But I’m choosing to step off the roller coaster now, maybe not permanently, but at least for the foreseeable future.
It would be both easy and hard to list all the reasons why I’m jumping ship. They’re the same reasons why so many states (mine included) have seen teacher strikes, walk outs and rallies in recent weeks.
There were weekends as a first-year teacher I would take home 80 essays and spend my entire Sunday grading. There’s nothing quite like telling your mom and dad you can’t visit them for the weekend because you need to grade every research paper by Monday and the papers aren’t going to grade themselves. Then there were the times parents (and students) would make me cry, when I would get a nasty email on a Friday afternoon and it would stick with me all weekend, souring the precious hours I spent outside of school. I also get sad thinking about the times I turned down opportunities — to go out with friends or see a movie — because after taxes I made $15 an hour and my ability to make ends meet was directly proportional to the rate at which I said no to people, places and things. Most recently, I also had to start considering what I would do if a gunman were at my school. Would I protect my students? (Of course.) Should I have to make that choice? (Of course not.)
On a particularly bad day I would go home, pour myself a glass of wine and spend the evening ranting and raving to my boyfriend about how awful all my students are, how upsetting their parents are. (For the record, teachers’ significant others are saints for what they too put up with.)
In moments like these, teaching was the last thing I wanted to spend my life doing. After many a pros and cons list, I found that the rewards I was getting were just not nearly enough to make up for the exhaustion, frustration and sadness I so often felt.
But I would wake up the next day, after having slept 8 hours and thought about things, and realize that it isn’t all my students that are difficult; it’s just one or two. And it isn’t all the parents; it’s just a few. And I would head back into the classroom and do it all again.
At my very first teaching job interview, my future principal asked me, ‘What do you think is most important: relevance, rigor or relationships?’ The answer was relationships. And it’s something that has stuck with me since. It’s what was at the back of my mind every time a student ate lunch in my room, tearfully told me about her stress, or recounted his weekend on a Monday morning. Every May, when I would watch my kids walk across the stage at graduation, I couldn’t help but think of every minute, hour and day I had spent with those kids. Some days they felt almost as much mine as their parents, especially when I would have to explain to them why their first love wasn’t always their forever love and why a divorce didn’t have to be the end of their world. They may have not literally been my children, but they’re the closest I’ve come to having kids of my own in my 29 years on this planet, and on their good days they were pretty amazing humans.
That’s why I’m choosing to focus not on the bad but on the incredible people I’ve spent the last four years with. Because in the end, teaching isn’t about the test scores or the parents or the tissues that kids repeatedly put in recycling no matter how many times you tell them snotty tissues can’t be reused. It was and always has been about the relationships, with both colleagues and students. It’s about the Dylans — who are so brilliant they challenge you every step of the day. It’s about the Gabes — who make you laugh and smile and thank God you came to school that day. It’s about the Alexes — who are actually pretty enjoyable once they realize you’re not out to get them. It’s about the Sarahs — who welcome you with open arms and make you feel comfortable on a new campus. It’s the Lizs, Irenes, Heidis, Ashleys, and Deannas. The people so plenty I could list them all and still not be able to do them justice. These are the people I want to remember and appreciate. It was because of them that I stayed on the roller coaster for as long as I did.
It’s hard not to look at the last four years and feel a little bit like I’ve failed. I put so much of my heart, soul and life into teaching, and to leave so soon feels like giving up. Should I have stayed longer? More importantly, could I have?
In the end, my sophomore student – my intelligent, witty, sarcastic and sweet sophomore – was right. Nothing’s perfect, teaching especially. I’d like to think though as I leave one career and begin another that even though I may not have been a perfect teacher and my kids may not have been perfect students, and don’t even get me started on my lessons, that maybe, just maybe, I made some perfect relationships.”
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