Last November, three weeks before I resigned, some students in a class I was covering asked, “Why doesn’t anyone want to teach anymore, Ms. Jackson?” (they had no regular teacher and begrudgingly welcomed Substitute #4). One added, “Because of these bad kids?!”
I assured them, “teachers never quit because of kids. You are why we became teachers in the first place. A big reason is that teachers aren’t paid enough for everything they have to do.”
One student rebutted, “But teachers never made enough, so what’s different?”
Because the answer is complex, there wasn’t enough time to elaborate and complete the thoughtfully-planned lesson needed to master standards for test data to prove something is happening amidst the blaze that is public education.
While my story is not universal, my experiences and sentiments echo those of many of my colleagues and teachers across the nation.
I never planned to become a teacher. But I have always loved learning and appreciated the opportunities public education could provide a low-income student like me. This appreciation increased after taking courses exploring how systemic inequalities prevent too many Americans from accessing those same opportunities.
Lacking a clear post-graduation plan but filled with passion, I sought ways to make a difference. I returned from teaching English in Germany brimming with a strengthened desire to educate and inspire young people. So, I applied to a two-year program that places individuals in under-resourced American schools. After passing Praxis tests and completing a six-week training, I was “ready” to teach.
No amount of training can prepare anyone for the endless workload, incredible highs, and heart-rending lows of first-year teaching. Despite the immense stress and exhaustion, it was worth it. I persisted and excelled, staying well beyond my two-year commitment.
I’ve had the privilege of building relationships with hundreds of extraordinary young people. I‘ve shared their pride in succeeding when they expected failure, their anxiety about poetry slam competitions, and their joy walking across the graduation stage. It’s cliché, but there is no purer delight than witnessing a struggling student’s “lightbulb” moment. As a person who is fulfilled by positively impacting others, teaching was especially rewarding.
So why couldn’t I continue in the career I fell in love with? Why are so many of us leaving?
Perhaps it’s because the idealism of youth inevitably dulls as we learn that individual actions rarely combat deeply rooted multisystemic issues. I entered teaching keenly aware of the barriers – and motivated to dismantle them.
Unless someone has spent extended time in schools recently, it’s unlikely they are fully aware of the gravity of the situation. Bear in mind, the pandemic did not cause these problems; it merely revealed and exacerbated them.
After nine years, I felt more complicit in a failing system than I did in opposition to it. My once overflowing cup had been drained.
Because teaching is unsustainable, mentally and financially.
With more mental and emotional demands placed on teachers, compassion fatigue and burnout have spread like wildfire. Teachers are expected to know everything, see everything, and do something about everything. Then we are expected to watch passively as no one helps and nothing changes.
Society tasks schools with being the sole supplier of remedies for all its ills. Yet that same society withholds funding that would meaningfully address poverty, hunger, gang violence, human trafficking, abuse, cyberbullying, or the terrifying rise in suicide assessments.
Everyone in education is overworked and underpaid. Everyone entered education in the service of knowledge and young people. As the daily demands increase and the weak frames of the system smolder, everyone’s passion is incinerated, too.
We smelled the smoke, felt the heat on the other side of the door, and pulled the alarm. We know the system has been engulfed for a while now. Yet, some continue to place themselves in front of the flames, trying to prevent students from igniting. Day after day, educators expose their already blistered skin to the growing pyre.
This work is burning out teachers, consuming our time, our energy, and our joy.
It destroys our motivation to be effective and inspiring for the students that need it most.
The guilt over quitting was agonizing – it felt like quitting on kids. Except, teachers are tired of being gaslit into doing it “for the kids” at our own expense. Teachers are tired of conversations for change focusing solely on students as if we’re not also human beings and professionals deserving of adequate working conditions. We all deserve quality schools.
So, what could have kept me through year ten? These five actions would be incredible.
What else do teachers need?
- competitive salaries commensurate with the workload of qualified professionals.
- smaller class sizes (one person cannot provide individualized support with 37 other learners in the room).
- agency and decision-making power, both in education policy and in developing instruction and learning outcomes.
- autonomy to teach what and how we know is best.
- time to effectively perform duties and fulfill responsibilities.
- high-quality, ongoing professional development, especially culturally-responsive teaching.
- full-time support staff (nurses, counselors, social workers, mental health professionals) on campuses.
- districts to disperse concentrations of poverty and race, especially in a city where young people have the lowest chances of upward mobility.
The situation is not hopeless. However, without replenishing our joy, our energy, our time, or our bank accounts, no one can prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. No one inside this ancient, burning structure can teach.
Money isn’t a panacea for all that ails education but targeted, intentional investment is vital to douse the flames. Until then, it will continue to feel like everyone is outside watching, holding garden hoses, unable to comprehend why empty platitudes are not enough to save us from becoming ashes.