Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why I'm Leaving My Job as a Middle School Teacher

The other day I was driving in the car when I told Stella that I'd no longer make the long commute to my job as a middle school teacher, and that I'd be working much closer to home in a preschool and sometimes as a doula.

"But Momma, who's going to teach your kids? You love your kids," she said.

I think it's pretty telling that my own daughter, when confronted with the news that I'd spend more time with her, thought first of my kids. Not my students, mind you, my "kids."

That's because, for the past four years, my kids have lived in my heart. There wasn't one day where I left my work at work. Work came home with me, was the topic of conversation at dinner, was the insomnia at night, was the anxiety and worry because I had no control over a situation that was making the life of one of my kids hard. My mother always said I had soft heart. Well, that soft heart made it impossible for me to compartmentalize my life effectively enough to be both a good mom and a good teacher.

I loved that job. I loved looking for creative ways to teach language arts to kids who were sometimes reluctant to learn it. Watching kids who told me on the first day of school that they hated to write later slaving over a play. Helping a kid who'd never read a book before finish up the last chapter of The Hunger Games. Watching as a student bravely performed a slam poem about the abuse she suffered under someone she trusted to a class of supportive and empathetic peers.

In a world where people constantly worry about our future generation, I was only ever given hope for them.

But it took its toll. I can't tell you the awful things some kids confessed in me. Things I had to then report to those in authority. I can't tell you how many kids told me they contemplated suicide. How many kids hated their lives. How many kids had home lives that would make the best of us break.

Sometimes those kids cried with me over lunch. Sometimes they wrote their confessions to me in letters. Sometimes, I found out these things about the kids only after weeks of antagonistic and incredibly rude behavior on their part.

It wasn't easy. Facebook followers of mine probably assumed I was Robin Williams from "Dead Poets Society" from my status updates. I try to focus on the positive on social media, and I definitely brag a bit. And while I did have my student fans, I also had many, many kids who drew unflattering caricatures of me, who called me names not safe for work, who yelled in my face that they hated my guts and wanted to punch me.

I don't blame them. They were going through the toughest developmental time in the world and dealing with difficult stuff. The problem is, that soft heart my mom mentioned? It also means I have thin skin.

I no longer took their mean words to heart, but being challenged day in and day out, fighting for attention and withstanding harsh insults affected me much more than I let on. In fact, had you walked in my classroom on a given day, you'd probably think I was impervious to adolescent behavior. I was downright calm, cool, collected, and almost always positive.

But had you been in my house in the afternoon when I walked through the door with a baby and a kindergartner, struggling to make dinner and change diapers and help with school projects and clean 4,000 parts for my breast pump, you would have discovered where all the pent up frustration went. The worst days were the ones I got annoyed at my poor kids over totally normal kid behavior. The best were the ones I held it in until they were in bed, then slowly let it steam out of me as I brainlessly watched TV and comfort ate crappy, crappy food.

My babies are only babies once. And they deserve a mom who's not flustered most of the time. So, until they're older, I need to put this career on hold.

I'll work with smaller children - a job that will have its own challenges no doubt - but will also be absent of outside-of-school-hours spend planning, aligning with standards, grading, writing rationals, etc. And there will be kids for whom I'll worry, but they won't also be battling their adolescence.

And finally, this gives me space to pursue my path as a doula, and if you've read my blog at all, you know that I'd be miserable if I didn't explore this. I'm obsessed with helping women achieve healthy, respectful births that are good for them and their families, and I just didn't have the time to do the reading, research, and actual field work necessary to do that.

But, my God, am I going to miss this job. The kids, obviously, most of all. Watching them grow into self-possessed young adults with their own voices. Watching them become aware of their gifts and strengths, and watching as they overcome obstacles. Doing what I can to help them with this difficult stage of life. Laughing with them over sarcasm and fart jokes. I will seriously miss that.

I'm also going to miss my colleagues. I worked with the some of the best teachers I've ever met at this job. Some of them routinely work 10 - 12+ hour days. They are creative, passionate, compassionate, energetic. They care as much if not more about those kids than I do, and routinely go above and beyond the call of our contract to get those kids on a track to an excellent future. They do not shy away from challenges, adapt well to change (and let me tell you, in public education, change is the only constant), and push themselves to achieve greater results each year. I would be the happiest woman on earth if my kids have teachers half as wonderful as these in their lives. Those who fear teachers are mongrels trying to steal tax dollars while zipping out at 3pm and only working ten months a year would have all their illusions destroyed if they spent one day with these folks.

I will miss that school. In a time and place obsessed with standardized test scores, the principal and the teachers have delivered year after year. And yet - and I'm so darn proud of this - the school does not drill and kill, does not do that test prep crap, and it retains its physical education and artistic programs. Our kids come through that school as well-rounded, curious young adults - not disheartened youths who've been trained to bubble in stuff with a number 2 pencil.

I will miss it. It is so much harder to leave a job you love than one you hate. I've experienced both in my life, but none have been as hard to deal with as this one. I just look forward to that day, a few years from now, when I run into one of my students as he/she kicks butt at a wonderful career. That'll be cool.

No comments: