Five Years Out: Why I Will Not Go Back to Teaching in Public Schools

Teacher

Teacher (Photo credit: tim ellis)

When I moved up to Canada from the United States, I had a vague plan of someday returning to my teaching career. The effort required to flip my Iowa credentials and obtain a license to teach in Alberta, while time-consuming and somewhat mindlessly strewn with the odd hoops, wasn’t onerous.

But that was nearly five years ago. Observing my daughter’s Canadian public education, I don’t see many differences between Alberta specifically, or Canada in general, in terms of the delivery mode or the education machine. The government at the provincial and federal levels are indifferent to the true purpose of public education. They treat the enterprise as an afterthought in terms of funding and seem disinclined to following the lead of truly progressive education leader countries like Finland or South Korea. Parents, by and large, look at school here the same way they do in the states. First, its cheap daycare and second, it’s fine as is. Raising taxes to provide better services, or heavens forbid, decent wages/benefits for educators is universally regarded as unnecessary. Unless the yearly budget cut axe falls on their child’s school and then it’s the fault of government for not allocating properly.

The school year is riddled with pointless days off dubbed “professional development”, but in reality are just busy work days filled with oddly planned workshops or presentations that more often than not have nothing to do with what teachers or students really need. The year has been stretched to the point where summer (which is in short supply anyway up here) has shrunk to a point that it’s in danger of disappearing completely.

There isn’t quite the widespread disdain for the teaching profession here that there is in the United States, but I have been privy to more than one acidic conversation between mothers where all the old tropes about teachers having too cushy an existence have been trotted out and sagely agreed upon.

My Iowa license expires at the end of the year. If I want to preserve it in any way, I have to do something like yesterday to make it happen.

“You don’t want to go back to teaching,” Rob pointed out when I brought up the license thing again. “There are other jobs in the world. You can do anything, you know.”

And while it’s wonderful he thinks so that’s not quite the reality. I can’t do nails, for instance, nor can I keep books or operate a forklift. Most of the growth industry up here right now surrounds the tar sands. Heavy physical labour. Specific operational skill sets. Brutal shift work. Travel.

“They have an opening at my plant,” Rob told me recently. “How do you feel about data collecting and aggregating?”

As he read me the description, I am sure he could feel my entire brain glazing over.

“Well,” he conceded, “maybe not.”

My dream job has come open once a year at the city’s small museum. I nearly applied last summer but Dee was still a bit too small to do the latch key kid thing. It will be just my luck if the job doesn’t come open this coming fall and even if it does, I know I am vastly overqualified because they are really looking for university students to fill it. It’s teaching, sort of. The museum has an educational history program for the grade four’s and five’s. The position was helping set up and train the volunteers and provide on site supervision. Curriculum, training and kid wrangling. Any one of those things I can do in my sleep after twenty years as a middle and high school teacher.

And it’s history!

I love history. I should have been a history teacher but they are a dime a dozen in the States because coaches need jobs to justify their being kept on. I can count on one hand the number of Social Studies teachers I knew who weren’t male and who didn’t coach a sport. The only other teaching position that was more coach/man heavy was physical education.

Now that I am contracting with the city to teach yoga, I have a few actual contacts, but the job needs to come up again. But that’s another post for another day.

Today is about not going back to the public school classroom. I haven’t quite been able to find the right words to explain it. Sure, there is the general teacher hate and disdain for the profession, but there is also the reality of what it means to go back and do the job.

People don’t really get what a teacher actually does and why it is such stinking hard work. A writer/blogger friend of mine recently ventured back into the classroom and wrote an excellent post explaining what I have not been able to quantify for myself:

I have been spending nine to ten hours at the school each day, not because I am being paid to do that but because that is what I needed to do to get a handle on the job, the classroom, and the curriculum.

And, like so many years ago, it makes no difference. I can wear myself out, but it doesn’t matter. I wanted things to be different but they are not.

So I will go into school later, come home earlier, and take better care of myself. This is just a job.

I want it to be more, but it’s not.

This is why I didn’t want to go back to teaching.

And of course, she is totally correct. Nothing about doing the job has changed since 1987, the year I went into the classroom for the first time. Parents are still parents. Sometimes helpful but mostly in the way. Children are still children. Whether they are ten or 13 or 17, what makes a child a child is the same as it always was. Properly raised children are still a joy to teach and badly raised ones are still mighty pains in the ass and obstructions to other children’s learning. Administrators are strong and hands off, trusting that the teacher is competent and providing whatever back up they can, or they are micro-managing brown-nosers whose main concern is the next rung up the ladder.

Sure, there is a bit of play in the grey areas. Where human nature is concerned, there is never really pitch black or snow-white. But mostly, teaching is a job and when that happens – you are done.

And I am done. My last stint was helping drop-outs retrieve credits in order to graduate. They were petty criminals, gang members and misfits. Some were pregnant and entangled with bad boy baby daddies. Some were addicted to drugs and unable to get through an entire day without slipping off to a nearby park to smoke a bit of weed. Some just didn’t fit because their strong personalities and native wit made it difficult for them to just “play the game” and get out. I battled counselors, vice-principals. my own colleagues and even the kids themselves in an effort to do my job. I did it well. But it was just a job. I resented the added work. I was tired of the games I needed to play in order to do it. It was soul killing.

“I should get a job,” I told Rob, during our most recent discussion about my going back to work.”You shouldn’t be the only one slogging off to a soul killing job everyday.”

“The difference is,” he replied, “is that I am paid handsomely to have my soul crushed.”

Teaching is not a handsome financial opportunity to be sure.

So, I will teach yoga. I will write. I will “house keep”. Maybe I will snag that sweet little museum job in the fall. But the door on public school teaching is now officially closed. I have left that building.

20 thoughts on “Five Years Out: Why I Will Not Go Back to Teaching in Public Schools

  1. I don’t know if anybody here is still reading this, but I have to get this off my chest and I don’t know anywhere else to do it. I’m a ten-year veteran and I’m seriously considering dropping out. The data-driven administration, the endless meetings, the lack of support, the increasing burdens and catering to the parents. . . it’s not about the kids anymore. I’m getting tired of spending thousands of dollars of my money for a Master’s Degree (that was not reimbursed) JUST so I could stay licensed before that license expires in five years. It’s almost been five years and I’ll have to do it again soon. I’m increasingly being told to work technology into my classroom when the hardware/software doesn’t support the lessons I’m trying to do, which have been proven effective in the past. I’m going for my PhD in education, I’m in my fifth course right now–paying for it all out of my own pocket–and I just don’t honestly know if this is worth it anymore. Our students’ standardized test scores are in the 98th percentile, but since we don’t make AYP we’re essentially punished for it. We’re being told there will be unsupervised formal classroom observations and standardized test scores will probably be used as a primary (though not sole) evaluation factor. There’s talk of merit pay. All of my friends who went in with me are getting out. I love the kids and I love teaching them, but I’m getting tired of giving so much in an environment that just keeps asking more and more with so little respect. I have no girlfriend. No wife. I get letters from kids I taught years ago, and I love them, but at a certain point it’s not enough.

    I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do, and I don’t even know if this is the place to do it, but tonight I just started to wonder if this job is even worth it anymore. I don’t know what else I’d do if I left, but tonight for the first time I started very seriously thinking about alternatives. Thanks for reading.

    1. You know, Mr. Smith, I would love to be able to dispute your observations or reassure you that things will improve in the near future, but I can’t.

      I think you are spot on about the troubles in the American education system and your fears about the future.

      Whether you get out or not is something you should think about carefully with an eye toward how such a decision will impact you in the short and long term. Can you take your degrees and skills and reapply them in another field? Or would you perhaps like to try to pursue teaching outside the US? As a native English speaker and successful educator, you’d be surprised by the opportunities there are to teach abroad (but I won’t lie to you. The US makes it difficult for American expats who choose to work outside the country, so if you go this route – make sure you understand the tax implications and reporting rules).

      There are always options. If you were closer to retirement, I’d say “gut it out” but you are young. While it’s not necessary to be happy on the job, it sure makes life more enjoyable.

      And there are many ways to teach without being a classroom teacher. I teach yoga now. You can change careers and still find a way to satisfy your inner teacher.

      The school year is winding down. It’s a good time to think about what you can do for yourself and with your skill set, education and experience. Good luck.

      1. Thanks. I guess a lot of it is that it’snot just the “being happy” as it is the exhaustion. I work hard and I work a lot of unpaid hours. Well fine, but when I’m paying for all my programs and the money I DO get is barely enough to get by (and yes, there’s a shrinking middle class and problems like this are at other jobs too) and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better I just get really depressed. I get depressed to the point where I have to look at my own livelihood. We had to pay more for benefits this year WITHOUT negotiating it and when I have parent meetings that’s time that I’m not working on my own lessons, correcting, or responding to other parents. The money is the money–I ain’t starving–but for the amount of straight-up unpaid hours I’m working I’m starting to feel the exhaustion set in. I’ll put up with a lot of crap on the job, but when I physically can’t get the work done because of the constraints put on my by the powers that be I have to get it done outside of the regular hours. When I’m not appropriately compensated for that I have a problem.

        Almost every free minute I have goes into work for school or my PhD program. I’m paying for that education so I can come out in a system that I’m not sure I even want to be a part of anymore. It’s a system that doesn’t care about the teachers and doesn’t really care about the students either.

        1. I agree that the students are almost beside the point in the education system and it is a system that treats teachers as though they were missionaries who shouldn’t be as concerned with the compensation because they are “doing good work”.

          This PhD program you are in? Is it administration oriented? Could it be a way to move up the food chain? Or a way to move laterally to higher education (though teaching at the university level is probably worse in terms of compensated hours, it’s a different kind of “nose-wiping” than teaching younger kids). Could you use your course work so far and change streams entirely?

          And don’t underestimate happiness either where employment is concerned.

      2. Hey,

        I couldn’t reply to the last comment so I’m going to here.

        The short answer is the Doctorate program I’m in is in English Language Arts & Literacy. I’ll be teaching potential English teachers how to be English teachers. When I got into it I thought I’d be able to make a difference to the system in some small but real way. I still do believe in that basic idea, but with what I’m seeing coming down the pipe I’m not sure how much difference that’s going to be. I guess it’s like all the advice, all the help I can give those potential teachers doesn’t really prepare them from the data-driven mandates, administrators and school committees out to promote themselves, and the INSANE amount of paperwork and time dedicated to you proving you’re doing your job when a kid failed because he didn’t want to do the work and the parents weren’t involved enough (and sometimes when you have parents that are working two jobs to make ends meet it’s not fair to say “the parents don’t care”, but the reality is that kid didn’t do his work and the parents aren’t involved). Whatever the case may be it’s not my fault the kid didn’t do his work, it’s not my fault the kid is out absent so much, and yet when standardized tests come the school and by proxy, teachers, are blamed.

        Now how the Hell do you sell a job like that to a new recruit? Yeah “you make a difference” and that’s great, but that’s not enough especially when you couple it with the financial situation I mentioned earlier how in good conscience do I advise someone to go in?

        I don’t know. I can’t say I was on the verge of quitting when I first posted it, but it was about 50/50. Now . . . when I came in on Monday I felt a bit more at ease. Talking to some people kind of helped me out, but now that it’s the weekend again, now that I’m not in the trenches, I don’t know. I have a bit of a more objective view, for the better and for the worse.

        It’s just that I’m barely into my thirties, I’ve given this job ten years of my life, and I feel like it’s just asking more. It’s asking more in a way I’m not sure I can keep up with in terms of finances and in terms of energy. Then again, I know I’m not alone and I think the House of Cards that is the American Educational System will collapse under its own weight within my career. I don’t know what kind of collateral damage there will be, but it can’t keep going like this. It can’t support itself.

        It’s a complicated issue. Frankly, I probably could educate others. I’m a writer and I’ve been published several times. Part of the thing of education, though, is that I like adolescents. I like helping THEM. I’m glad I could help. It’s just that after ten years I thought I’d be a little more stable. When the system changes–when I don’t think it REALLY needs to–and I’m expected to just roll with it or get out . . . well, “thems the breaks” doesn’t cut it.

        I don’t know if I’ll reply to anything else. I might. Don’t take it personal if I don’t. You’ve been helpful.

        1. There is nothing wrong with continuing on the path you have set. Someone needs to teach the future teachers about the realities and challenges they will face. Why not you?

          I never take it personally when people move on from a conversation on a post or the blog itself. This isn’t a community. Just a waystop. I am glad you found this helpful. Good luck to you.

  2. My mom has been a public school teacher for 26 years. For most of her career she loved her work and found it fulfilling and everything she had wanted it to be. In recent years, due to policy changes, new and ridiculous requirements placed on teachers, increasing student irresponsibility and parent uninvolvement, she has come to hate it. She had always had a hard time understanding what she called “paycheck teachers,” the ones who just came to work to collect a paycheck and had no investment in what they were doing; she always told herself that if she ever became like that she would quit teaching.

    Well, congratulations Dallas ISD, you have finally made her into a paycheck teacher because she no longer cares to be blamed for everything by everyone from the state government to the school board to the parents and their kids. She is retiring after this semester. While I am glad she is getting out, I wish it could have happened back when she still felt good about the job she had done and the difference she had made.

  3. While I was not a teacher, I did work for the public school system for 10 years (half of that in a school and half in the central offices). Before working in the system, I was a huge advocate for public education. The last 2 years, I felt suffocated by the bureaucracy and the knowledge nothing I did there made a difference.

    So I left.

    And decided I didn’t care what I did or how little money I made, I had to work for an organization I could believe in.

    Congratulations on your decision! I hope it was a heavy weight lifted off your shoulders to decide and move on.

    1. It’s been a long time coming. I still get the – what are you going to do for a living if something “happens” – and by “happens” ppl mean what if Rob dies (b/c a dead husband has happened to me before) or the unspoken – sure, you say you are happily married but happy marriages bite the dust all the time.

      It’s just that everyone dies and I know that and Rob and I have planned accordingly, and that happy marriages don’t just bite the dust. Ppl like to believe that’s what happens but it just isn’t so. There is, if one cares to examine it closely and many don’t – a paper trail.

      I am pretty sure I can find a way to make a living on my own if it came to that. I don’t want to be someone (cuz I was once) who hangs out in a stifling occupation b/c I fear I can’t do anything else. As you say, a pay downgrade is well worth abandoning a job that smothers you or that you secretly, or not so, don’t believe in. In teaching that’s how bad teachers are born in any case. They are people who hang in there only for the money or the retirement. I have known ppl like that and they did enormous damage even if they don’t believe they did.

  4. I agree with Sharon. And I have the greatest respect for teachers… don’t know how they manage to hold their own in the battles they face daily. (I have several friends who teach and share their battle stories.) You’re a fine writer, of course, so perhaps you can find work with that skill? And keep writing!

  5. I just found your blog and I totally relate!! I also won’t be going back to traditional teaching. Your museum job sounds perfectly awesome! I hope you get it if you decide to apply. I loved working in the library and probably should have been a librarian except that has changed too since the advent of the internet. I actually teach online now but mostly what I do is grading. I grade a lot. But it pays the bills and because I feel as you do I won’t go back to the classroom but I will covet your museum job from afar!!

    1. There is just no lure in the classroom these days. Gone is the autonomy of yore, which made it more a matter of teaching and less a matter of simply following a recipe that someone, who has never met your students, thinks might work.

  6. I am sorry to read that you won’t go back into the classroom, Ann, but I totally understand. If anyone knows what it is to be a public school teacher, you do. I envy you your other talents and motivation to follow your heart and do the things that “feed” you. Fingers crossed that the museum job opens up this fall ~

    1. If my teaching again were imperative financially, I would suck it up and do it. But it’s not. Really, for the first time in my life, working to pay the bills is not an issue. Our bills are paid. Our life is comfortable. Minus the need to sell my soul, the question becomes – what else is available.

      I’m a good teacher. I can teach nearly anything and it’s probably one of the reasons that I took to yoga teaching as I did. Once I find my feet on any given topic/skill, I can teach it to someone else.

      Teaching though is a give/give/on the rare occasion get something back enterprise.

  7. Great post! You make a compelling argument for not going back, and it sure reminds me to thank my kids’ teachers and administrators for doing a great job in increasingly awful conditions.

    1. I don’t want to give the impression that every public school district or the individual schools are cesspits. They aren’t. It varies by country and by region and even within cities/towns there can be widely varying ranges.

      Most teachers are competent or better. Many admins are good at handing off responsibility.

      But, more and more, we are taking schooling for granted. You can’t attract talented ppl into a profession that treats them as if they were wait staff at Boston Pizza or Applebee’s. You won’t keep talented ppl if you use wage freezes and pension shortfalling as a way to balance govt budgets.

      The poor neighborhoods are already seeing results of a slowly starved infrastructure and it will spread out from there.

  8. Hi,
    I have a friend whose Husband is an English Teacher in one of our schools here in Australia, and believe me it is the same here in this country as you have written in your post.

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