4 Reasons Why I Lost Interest in Traditional Grade-Level Teaching.
What I experienced during my years of teaching 10th and 12th grade English Language Arts does not resonate true for all teachers. Some teachers are at amazing schools, with amazing administrators, in these amazing school districts. But then there is the majority: educators who are burned out, stretched thin, and running on empty. That was certainly me during my last two years as a high school teacher. So, for my own sake, I had to tap out. That was a little over three years ago, and it was one of the greatest professional decisions I’ve ever made to date. But just five years before that, I was a naive college student who never would’ve thought I’d experience burnout so early, yet at all in the first place.
I took my first education class on a whim as an elective. I was not interested in becoming a teacher then, but it was that in that course, where a lot of the dots in my life connected for me. So after that semester, I changed my major from solely English to English-Secondary Education.
During my last year in college, I had an amazing mentor professor who was well known in the education circle of New York City. He taught English Language Arts in classrooms across New York, and as a retiree, he spent his time teaching future teachers. Even he would have days where he would just share with us the woes that came with the profession. What he told us then, became almost a broken record of what I would hear for the next five years by colleagues:
“Teaching is not what it used to be”
“I’m not paid enough for this”
At first, I could not see what the big deal was. How stressful could it be? But just by my first month into the profession, it all started to make sense. That became even clearer after five years.
Granted, within those first three years of teaching, I was bound to be overstrained as a graduate student and I had become a new mom. Nevertheless, those three years of teaching were not nearly as stressful as it was when I switched schools in 2015. While the first school I worked at definitely had its’ problems, teachers still had it somewhat easy when compared to other schools. There were elements of my former school that I indeed took for granted, such as smaller class sizes, curriculum autonomy, and staff camaraderie. This must have spoiled me because, after a year at the new school, I wanted to be done.
Have you ever tried to sell a product you didn’t believe in? Well, that is how I felt most days teaching there. Instruction often was persuading students into buying a product that we all knew didn’t work. It was very performative and something about this wrestled with my morality. But instead of just leaving, I did something that in hindsight, was stupid. I piled on more responsibilities for the following school year by becoming a class and club sponsor. I thought that if I connected more to students outside of the classroom, I would feel a spark again. But of course, that didn’t happen because my main concern was never the students. Even if it’s not in a classroom, I know my service will always be to Black youth, so there wasn’t a need to reignite a spark with them. There was, however, a need for me to reignite a spark with the system itself. The same spark I felt when I was a college student and had learned of all the intricate flaws of this system, yet I had high hopes for what the trajectory of American education could become. After five years and two high schools later, I recognized my inability to believe in a system that thrives on me being overworked.
I understand that there are people who are fine with what we deem as the normal but very monotonous work schedule. But as an individual who needs the time to parent, create, unwind, and socialize, teaching here was not suitable for my lifestyle. As much as I may sound like a typical millennial, it is true that time was something I didn’t have much of when working here; and because of that, I was not good to my whole self. I was tired all of the time.
At the first school I worked at, teachers had to report to the building at 8:00 am for a 9:00 am first-period class. I preferred this because that one hour in between allowed teachers time to plan, meditate, pray, eat breakfast, drink coffee, sage the room, or do whatever before a student stepped foot inside the classrooms. On the other hand, at the other school teachers had to report much earlier, but students were allowed to enter the classrooms early as well. Most times, I’d be walking into work and my students would be waiting for me at the door. This immediately would cause me to have mild anxiety that lingered the entire day. I need time in the classroom to myself before anyone else enters. I know that I could have just gotten there earlier. Yet to do so, I would have to choose between either going to bed at 9:00 pm or getting fewer hours of sleep. I’m not saying this isn’t practical because many people do it. But for me, the choice would have been made at the expense of further self-negligence.
Then there was another issue of time when it pertained to my daily schedule. Teachers are allotted one planning period per day. One class period to yourself that is not intended to relax, make the very well-needed doctor’s appointment, or to get lunch. It is made to plan, as in work; so it really isn’t a break at all. Yes, you can utilize this time to do all of those things as many teachers do already, but it is done knowing that work has to be taken home or completed during the next day’s planning period. To make matters worse, these planning periods weren’t guaranteed. Anywhere between 1–3 times per week, we had to attend many “could’ve been an email” meetings during our planning periods. This gave me less time to plan, grade, contact guardians, hang up student work, read over the story/poem that I had to teach, or complete some unnecessary mandate that the county required.
There are indeed schools that create spaces for teachers to have “time-outs”. It would be great if more schools implemented this and recognized that planning periods are not that kind of space to freely do so.
2. Academic Accountability
There seems to be a wave of schools creating policies that result in a lack of student accountability pertaining to student grades. There is much pressure from the top-down, for student success to be reflected in data, even when it is not true. This is something not just occurring where I worked, but many of my teacher colleagues from other districts and states would tell me the same. For example, there was a new policy created in this school district that prohibited students from getting a term grade that is lower than a 50 if they put in “good faith effort”. I’m actually not against this. If a student genuinely tries, I definitely can consider their effort. The problem though is that I am expected to also give this grade to students who do not show any effort. Somehow this policy turned into giving students make-up work and passing them. I’m not even talking about the students who come to class and fall asleep or goof off. I’m talking about the students who do not show up to class at all. Imagine having a student who skips all marking period. You’ve seen the student in the hallway on several occasions and spoke to them yourself. Amongst your piling amount of responsibilities, you didn’t get a chance to speak with their guardian. Now it is three days before you have to submit grades for the quarter. This same student comes to you and asks for make-up work. The administration will insist that because the parent/guardian was not informed, it is now the teacher’s fault that the student isn’t passing.
Instead of going that route, you can just compile the ten or so weeks’ worth of missing assignments for the student, find time to grade it and enter those scores before grades are due. So what do you do? Have your entire work ethic insulted by an aloof administrator or just give the students the fluff work? I find both of these options extremely unethical, yet most times, I have chosen the latter.
What bothered me the most about all of this was the lesson it was teaching our students. Were they going to go off into adulthood thinking this was how life was? Would they think they can fail their college finals and then ask the professor for makeup work? Would they think it was okay to waste tuition money on remedial courses because they were given a grade that didn’t reflect their true proficiency in the content? Would they think it was okay to not show up at work and still expect a paycheck? I wanted to help students further develop the tenacity that is needed when going after goals, rather than thinking it would be handed to them.
At this particular school, I taught 10th grade, which is a heavily tested grade level. Therefore, the natural sequence of the curriculum was often interrupted by these testing days. There was a good amount of national and statewide assessments 10th graders had to take. Besides the PSAT, these tests could last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to administer, taking up many instructional days. Most people are already familiar with why standardized tests are problematic, so that does not need to be addressed. What I do want to uncover though is the inconsistency with receiving student scores. There seems to not have been a clear process for students to receive their scores back promptly. How do we expect students to take these tests seriously when they do not even know when they’ll get their score back? Why take a test if you cannot see what areas you have grown or need improvement in? It’s difficult trying to motivate inquisitive teenagers into believing these tests are for their benefit when you don’t believe so either.
The pedagogical theories of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire are what inspired me to get into this field. I went into teaching to liberate, but this was something else.
4. Large Classroom Sizes
There’s a reason why teachers complain about large class sizes. It is close to impossible to meet the learning needs of thirty-five teenagers for 1 hour and 30 minutes, every single day. Maybe this can be achieved once a while, or maybe for a certain amount of minutes, but not consistently. Not meeting these diverse needs meant I was not able to reach every individual. So while tending to one group, I missed the students who fell asleep, the students on Instagram, the students who didn’t understand the lesson, or the students who were simply not engaged. The constant “put your cell phone away” “don’t call him that” “don’t hit her” “pick your head up” is said a lot more when there are over thirty-five students in a room. Even when implementing procedures, expectations, and other preventative measures, it wasn’t guaranteed that you would meet your students’ needs. It is not the student’s fault for being kids, but I certainly blame stakeholders in higher positions who turn a blind eye to the obvious problem with having large class sizes.
Eventually, during my last year of teaching, I decided to take the care-free route. Is this a good thing? Not really. You shouldn’t be super care-free in a profession where you must care. However, my sanity was more important, and while I cared for my students, I no longer felt bad if I was unable to “reach” all 184 of them. It was then that I knew that it was time to consider an exit strategy.
I certainly believe that teaching can be very enjoyable when you are at a school that best fits your ideologies and lifestyle. But even when this is not the case, setting workspace boundaries can prevent certain frustrations. This is something many teachers, like myself at that time, do not implement. We spend our own money on class materials, stay in the building until 7:00 pm, and we find ourselves doing other things that sacrifice our own personal matters. Why? We say we do it out of the love for our students but I think a major part of it, is adhering to the typical teaching culture that implies if you do not overextend yourself, then you aren’t a good teacher. I have seen too many of these same teachers still get fired, thrown under the bus, or either developed health conditions from being overworked.
I knew then and I know that teaching is one of my gifts, but what I did not know was that the art of teaching itself, does not have to be the traditional way we think of a teacher — in a classroom, hanging up A+ papers on the board, with an apple on their desk. Teaching is simply the act of providing information to others. With that in mind, I have been on a quest to discover how this looks for me and I know that the positions I am in now are bringing me closer to that discovery.
Wherever I am led to next on this professional journey, I intend to keep in mind that people would rather work with me when I am calm, relaxed, and rejuvenated. In a time like now, where teaching has mostly gone remote and prioritizing mental health is pretty fetch, I hope that educators and people in general, realize that those we serve are better off, when we are better to ourselves.