I’ve walked away from my career in education. This hasn’t been a rash decision. For many years, I wrestled with the possibility of leaving. Even before I entered the field, I had reservations about teaching. I worked in schools for over a decade. All along, I never felt the field was the best fit for me. I questioned whether or not I belonged in a school. Perhaps one without steadfast conviction should step aside. I’ve done just that. However, my reasons transcend my wavering commitment. Like many other deserters before me, I found at least as much fault as merit with a beleaguered system. Every reason to stay was countered by some reason to go. Most of these reasons were out of my control.
I won’t deny I had a great deal while teaching. Ten weeks off each summer. Unmatched health care benefits. Salary far beyond my needs. I never took any of this for granted. I would’ve done the job for less. Sometimes I felt I was getting away with something. While colleagues complained of feeling shortchanged, I treasured what seemed like a gift. The amount I earned felt out of balance with what was required of me. Much of my motivation for working so hard was the sense that I owed taxpayers for what I was getting from them. At some points I felt I owed them as much as I owed students or parents. I made certain to give much more than anyone expected.
All along I felt I gave a good-faith effort. Those around me reinforced this. Administrators lauded me. Fellow teachers praised my devotion. Even students and some parents commended my dedication (though there was no pleasing other parents). I had a perfect attendance streak of over a decade. I came to work hours early every day. I did what was necessary to give the students I taught the fairest possible chance. Yes, I felt a need to be worth what I earned, but also I believed the students deserved the best. My concept of the best wasn’t just the best I could give them. It was the best anyone could give them. It was whatever they needed. I tried to give that to them. I kept this as my goal. I worked in my room as though a camera was broadcasting what happened to the entire world. At the end of most days, even if I couldn’t say the students really got what they needed, I went home feeling I’d made my best effort to give it to them.
Why did I leave such a seemingly solid and meaningful gig? To begin, it wasn’t that solid. I spent my career teaching in struggling urban school districts. The rise of charter schools undermined the scant stability in these districts. Shuttered schools and staff reductions made stability a memory. I watched many talented and dedicated teachers lose their positions simply because they lacked the seniority to weather cuts. Urban districts perennially threatened to reduce salaries or increase the cost of benefits. They always seemed to be threatening cuts. I could’ve endured any of this, but many of my former colleagues couldn’t. I’ll admit, I would’ve felt somewhat slighted to lose anything while knowing budget issues weren’t because of me. I left rather than staying and worrying about it.
Finding meaning was difficult. As a high school-level special education teacher, I rarely saw worthwhile progress in students. Granted, gauging my effectiveness with this population was somewhat difficult. I managed to instill some isolated skills in a handful, even if these weren’t always part of the curriculum. This was empowering and a huge part of what kept me interested. I took pride in exposing them to new ideas. Despite all this, my salary came with the expectation I’d raise their reading levels. That generally didn’t happen. Administrators expected me to help improve student performance on standardized tests. This also didn’t happen. Each day I planned, prepared, and presented with what I considered worthy zeal. Instead of seeing progress, I saw stagnation. Sometimes I thought I could let them play video games all day and get the same results. A truly frustrating aspect was realizing I could make them appear to be progressing by tinkering with criteria. Special education always has allowed for such trickery.
Knowing the drastically bleak employment outlook for these students undermined my conviction about education being an end in itself. It made my extra efforts feel unwarranted. I witnessed some victories along the way, but relatively few. Most of the students I taught weren’t going to get jobs. Almost none went to college. For the majority of them, public entitlements were going to be their most likely source of income. These students were more expensive to educate than most students, but they had less chance of having any real independence than their non-disabled peers. I struggled with this. I tried not to reduce everything to costs. I tried to focus on successes. I suppose my cynicism got to me. Maybe that was realism.
Disappointment came from unexpected sources. I used to work closely with student teachers. Giving back in this way was rewarding and empowering. Working with them improved my craft. I felt I had to be at my best in their presence. Strangely, having student teachers in my classroom convinced me nothing I did was special. Semester after semester, I watched inexperienced young people take over my class and run it as though I wasn’t even there. True, I set the stage for them, but they could’ve done that on their own. I learned how replaceable teachers are, including me.
Being a special education teacher gave me another regrettable perspective that wasn’t clear when I started. With time, I realized special education is a service. All of public education is a service to some extent, but special education has mandated guarantees. Students receiving special education are entitled to whatever supports a team deems appropriate in the name of progress. Schools are bound to providing these supports and students must make progress. If the supports aren’t in place or a student doesn’t make progress, the school has failed. This failure comes at a price for schools, which could include compensatory education. The danger I found is that students and parents have no responsibility in this exchange. If a student is failing in some way, parents can claim the school didn’t provide appropriate support. Sometimes they can claim this even if the support they think was needed wasn’t part of the student’s plan. With the right legal team, parents often can prove this.
The service model disheartened me as I began to see parents as clients getting a free service and always wanting more from it. I saw evidence of this too often for my liking. Select parents believed they deserved a never-ending stream of support for their children. Disagreement about appropriate support was common. No matter how intense the disability, many parents wouldn’t accept limitations to what schools had to provide. This sense of limitless entitlement by the virtue of existence troubled me. Through a relatively brief career, I watched schools provide more and more for students. This extended beyond special education, as I saw schools increasingly provide for basic needs. The willingness of schools to become care centers and to cave to the whims of parents wore at me.
As I watched schools hand parents whatever they wanted, I watched teachers become chattel. I didn’t just watch this. I felt it. My reward for years of dedicated service to a school was to have the principal pick me for an administrative position overseeing the school’s compliance with special education law. I felt flattered that she picked me, because the job was demanding and she apparently felt I was qualified. Unfortunately, I knew the job had no redeeming aspects. Before starting, I knew it was going to be much busier and more contentious than running a classroom. Importantly, it wasn’t going to come with a salary increase. I’d have more responsibility for the same pay. Private sector promotions tend to not work that way. I only agreed to do it because I suspected I’d be moved into the position if I refused. I did the job for three years. Three years of telling others how to do their jobs despite having no authority over them. Three years of placating people I couldn’t stand to look in the eye. Three years of compromising my dignity. These three years eviscerated whatever remaining enthusiasm I had for the field.
I left the position to return to the classroom in another school. I’d wanted to escape special education and teach English. I had the certification, but all my experience teaching English had been with special education students. Thus, I couldn’t find that general education English position. When I started the new position, a special education team-teaching position, a different principal than the one who hired me informed me I’d be doing something I never would’ve agreed to do when interviewed. Though I don’t fault her at all, she put me in a teaching position with a built-in conflict of interest. I was going to be doing two jobs without enough resources to do one. After twelve years tirelessly serving this district and fourteen years overall, I decided this was too much of an indignity. My sense of obligation had been withering. I wasn’t going to continue feeling disillusioned and miserable each day in the name of a paycheck. I walked away rather than playing along.
I’d done this earlier in my career. After my second job, I decided I was done. After a year, I came crawling back. This time, I’m hoping not to do that. I looked for another job after this most recent departure, but I realized I’d be taking it solely for money, not because I wanted it. I came to my senses and realized I just didn’t belong in the field any longer. Every day teachers toss mantras at students about “following dreams” and “believing.” I’ve always scoffed at this rhetoric. Well, now I’m buying into it. Instead of dealing with a field in which I no longer have faith, I’ve decided to put faith in myself and try writing for a living. I don’t know that this will work for me, but I’m going to try. I already feel better about doing this than I think I ever did about teaching.
Being in urban districts and coping with special education probably warped my sense of how teaching should feel. The schools in which I worked weren’t cheerful places. Morale was low. Professionals trudged forward with a pervading sense of defeat. The constant griping of teachers probably contributed to my departure. Overall, I’d say I’ve left because I was exhausted. The field, even with its phenomenal benefits, siphoned my will. I didn’t see improvements on the horizon. Contrarily, I saw the field set to continue deteriorating. I had no interest in pushing ahead knowing what duress waited for me. I figured it wouldn’t get better if I stayed in the fight, and it wouldn’t get worse if I left. The realization that so little matters shuffled me out the door. I had to go do something else while I still had the energy to start anew. To those remaining, best of luck, or I’m sorry. I’m uncertain which is more fitting.