Should I stay or should I go? One teacher’s constant question.

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It’s the time of year when I start to wonder if going back to school is the right decision. People who know me would say it’s a constant question in my life. They’re not wrong. I’m starting year fifteen in the profession, and I’ll admit the days of big-eyed, naivety, “rise to greet the challenges of society” enthusiasm have long left. The caritutures of the burnt out, barely caring, 60 year old teacher aren’t completely wrong. This is a profession that slowly wears you down, and for some teachers, destroys a bit of who you were.

For the past few years I’ve been putting serious thought (and sometimes effort) into leaving teaching.

I have experienced great years that vaguely resemble those stupid teacher movies Hollywood loves to make once a generation. (You know the ones: the teacher gives up family, friends and maybe health, in order to help a group of students beat the odds. I hate those movies because they normalize all that is wrong with both the profession and the system. No one ever notices the footnote at the end of the movie where the teacher left the profession soon after this grand “win for the children.” That’s a telling fact.)

But I have experienced hard and demoralizing years as well. Those are the years that tip the scale. Years where no matter how hard I try to be a great educator I’m apparently “ruining everyone’s future” or keeping students from living their dream. It doesn’t matter if the student or parent has not accepted any of the help I have offered, both in and out of the school day. There have been years where I have been so mentally distressed at the workload, emotional giving and physicality of the job that I have wished to die. (It’s a thought more teachers have then you might be comfortable knowing.) There have been day long locked downs when bomb and shooting threats have been made. I’ve had students confess things to me that no person, let alone a teenager, should have to go through and had to help find a safe alternative and solution. The toll these years have taken on my mental, emotional and physical health is well documented by my physicians.

This often gets worse when there is a community, state or country wide crisis. Admit it or not, schools have become the underfunded, understaffed answer to all of society’s problems. It says more than I ever could that the reason for keeping schools open isn’t to actually educate but to feed, clothe and medicate the students. (Plus, prevent them from being exposed to violence in the home – although we can’t protect them from violence at the schools themselves.) It’s at these times when it seems society wants to put all the blame for all it’s problems on schools and the people in them who are not “doing enough” to fix all of the above mentioned social ills. Seeing so much anger coming at you and your profession is incredibly taxing on the mind, body and spirit.

Before you come at me with suggestions like “Well, just leave then,” believe me there have been years I have tried: switching counties to see if it’s just the current environment (it’s not), lessing my commitments in and out of the work day, applied to other jobs to get out altogether. These haven’t panned out in the past. And in the end I’m always glad.

Because here is the twisted and sick secret all of us longtime teachers share: I love my students and the job of teaching. You have to in order to stay in this profession for 15 years. The classroom is full of happy, fun, enlightening memories. I walk the halls and I still chuckle that I, a student who despised school and all it represented, would spend the rest of my life in one. The challenge of taking a complex idea and breaking it down into something students can understand and, just maybe appreciate is one I never grow tired of tackling. I like making my classroom a safe and stress free place for my students, no matter who they are. Each year they teach me so much more than I probably teach them: about humility, sacrifice and even the actual classroom subjects. I like seeing them smile and laugh about their weekends, and brag about their wins in life.

I teach high school, so you tend to hear from students quite a bit when they first graduate. They shoot you an email or see you in social media and drop you a quick line. I love hearing about their new colleges, jobs, spouses/partners, children, travel. Those are the moments I love and remember that all the sacrifice was with it.

At this point in my career, I’ve taught about 1,400 students, taken 80 students on trips overseas, planned and chaperoned 50 school night ski trips (for 200 students each time). I have run four clubs, coached two different academic teams for multiple years, and one year of a varsity sport. I have written countless letters of recommendations, given five job references, and helped three former students land internships at big institutions. I have been at more funerals than I care to count, both to say goodbye to a student, and to be there for the others left behind.  I have also been invited to one wedding and was honored to appear as a bridesmaid in one other. I have three former students, from my very first year teaching, choose to still have me actively in their life. One of which is also a teacher. 

As you can see, as a teacher you’re putting a lot of your own time, money, emotion and thought into people from which you will get little in return. You do this job to help educate and raise the children of others so they can be as successful as possible when they leave your classroom. This is an honor and a privilege. You don’t stay in this profession for any other reason.

For those of you thinking ignorant statements like, “For someone who says they don’t want recognition you have sure have the numbers,” may I remind you that our whole profession has been made into data sets. Of course I have the numbers you dumb fucks. We need numbers to keep our programs running, to try and buy new equipment for our classrooms, and to keep teaching positions in our buildings. We need the numbers of our out of school impacts to get funding or grants in order to continue running after school programs. Our entire life is keeping track of what we have given so we can keep giving. And that is all I have done, give. I have given my time, money, energy, tears, laughs, health, nights, mornings and weekends. I could never make anyone outside this profession understand all that I have given to the students in my care each year and beyond. And still everyone wants more.

Once again, I’m starting the school year wondering if I should stay or go. I thought I would go when the only way I could afford to pay my bills and fund my classroom was by working additional jobs, I thought I would go when my profession took my health. I thought I’d go when it became the expectation that I would take a bullet for another’s child. I thought I’d go now that the country had decided I am disposable, giving myself and others little choice in how to keep ourselves healthy.

But I’m still here, and so are many others. In the end there is nowhere else for me to be – I belong in the classroom teaching and caring for other people’s children. I chose to go back every year, no matter how much harder it has become to do so. I believe in the students I teach and I refuse to quit on them. For how long can I actually do it? I don’t honestly know.

I guess we’ll all see at the end of this school year. We’ll see how many teachers check the retirement box throughout the year or at the end of it. Or how many have to quit when it becomes too much physically, mentally and emotionally to handle. We’ll count how many young teachers choose a different profession after the summer of 2021. We’ll see how many actually do die.

Personally, I do know a few teachers and administrators who over the years have actually died because of this profession. I’m starting to wonder if I will be one of them. 

The article, Should I stay or should I go? A Teacher’s Dilemma. was written by Elizabeth Schap and first appeared on just B more.

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