Why I Gave Up Teaching
Last September, a confluence of hard work and lucky timing led to my dream job at WordPress.com. The past nine months have been nothing short of exhilarating, and part of me still can’t believe how it all happened. But, there’s another side to that story that I haven’t talked about before:
The career I left behind.
For eight years, I was a biology teacher at Palomar High School, a continuation school in Southern California. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a continuation school is where they send the kids who don’t find success at a “regular” school. At Palomar, struggling students get a second chance.
As teachers, we start to see the students as our own children. We love them, we want to help them, and we feel for them when they’re going through rough times. Then again, sometimes we just want to strangle the pimple juice out of them. (Well, okay… not literally. That would just be gross.)
Ultimately, we’re proud for them when they finally make it to graduation. And that’s why I went back for Palomar’s commencement ceremony last Friday. Sitting there in the audience, as an observer for the very first time, the memories of why I chose to teach all came back to me….At Palomar, we (yes, I still refer to the school as “we,” and I probably always will) have a tradition where the teachers form a “farewell line” as the graduates are filing out of the auditorium following the ceremony. It’s a chance for us to congratulate them and say goodbye one last time.
I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to participate, so I sat quietly in the back of the auditorium as the teachers got up to form the line. But, a few of them spotted me and insisted that I join. I’m glad I did.
Seeing the pride in the eyes of the graduates – and the genuine tears in the eyes of some of the teachers – reminded me of everything I loved about teaching. Many of these kids never thought they could graduate from high school – not them, not their parents, not anyone around them growing up. That’s why we went into teaching in the first place. Not just to help kids succeed, but also to convince them that they could succeed. Every year, this one day in June made teaching worthwhile all over again.
Yet, I left it all behind. Today, people still ask me if I miss teaching. And the sad truth is… I don’t.
So what happened?
I do miss the kids. I miss the opportunities to connect with them. I miss when former students come back years later to thank me for inspiring them to go into science. I especially miss when they come back years later and apologize for being such little assholes in my class. They know who they are.
What I don’t miss is the politics and the corruption. I don’t miss the massive budget cuts and the bureaucracy of a failing system. I don’t miss being vilified by certain elements of the media. I don’t miss being judged and told what to do by people who are absolutely not qualified to do so.
For eight years, I dedicated my life to making a difference in the kids’ lives. And each year, the difference I felt I could make became more and more miniscule. Rationally, I realized that many of these were temporary setbacks. But after eight years, I was – to put it bluntly – fucking over it.
Today, I breathe a sigh of relief that I managed to escape the teaching profession, that I managed to find a new career where I feel I can still make a difference in the world.
But then, I realize that in expressing myself this way, I’m doing a huge disservice to all the teachers out there.
You see, when I joke that I “escaped” the teaching profession, that implies that those who still teach are stuck, that they’re in a career they hate and can’t get out of.
Nothing could be further from the truth. My teacher friends devote their lives to education not because they’re incapable of doing anything else. They do it because it’s their passion.
Each year, a new batch of students passes through the teen angst- and hormone-filled hallways of Palomar High School. Each year, a new batch of problems tags along with them. And each year, the teachers tackle them headlong, even as the flaws in the system throttle every drop of inspiration out of them.
When bureaucrats with zero classroom experience enact nation-wide policy changes, they accept the disruptions to their curriculum and soldier on. When financial crises decimate entire districts, they continue to teach with the metaphorical equivalent of both hands – and feet – tied behind their backs (hey, teachers have to be flexible). When so-called pundits make sweeping, scathing attacks on the entire profession, they defend themselves when they can. And when they feel they have no voice, they accept that their value is proven not by the size of their paychecks or the public respect they command, but by the connections they make to their students.
They continue to teach because they can.
To say that I escaped the teaching profession implies that the teaching profession is a prison, that only a select few are smart enough to break out of. And that’s simply not true. If anything, it’s a voluntary imprisonment. (So… I don’t know… maybe teaching is like one of those… rehab institutes that celebrities voluntarily commit themselves to? But with way less glamour and slightly less meth?)
I didn’t escape the teaching profession. I gave up on it. The teachers who are still at it, though – they refuse to give up. And a part of me wishes I had the wherewithal they have.
Graduation was bittersweet for me. I was happy to be included. But this time, I knew I hadn’t contributed. Everyone still at Palomar did the hard work. They flipped an unwavering middle finger at the obstacles they faced and made sure their students still finished on time.
And that’s why school teachers, administrators, and support personnel will always have my utmost respect.
I may be having a great time with my new job. But I can’t help feeling that I lost some of my purpose in life when I gave up teaching.