Why I Gave Up Teaching

Image by Connie Ma

Image by Connie Ma

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….


Palomar High School Commencement, 2014

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.

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  • Thanks Dennis. You just made me cry in front of the Apple people. Good work. Let your calling include being the voice of reason that stands up for all of our profession. And it will always be us- once a Panther, always a Panther.

  • YouKnowWhoIAm, #Panthers

    Dammit Dennis, another great article. You’ll always be part of the “we.” We’ll make sure of it, you can still fight the good fight from the outside. You’ve got a powerful voice and a bully pulpit, and “we” appreciate all you’ve done and continue to do on our behalf. You’re always welcomed, and truly missed. When I think of you taking this next step I feel similar to how I feel watching Seniors graduate… I’d love to have ya around, but am proud to see where your efforts have taken you. You’ve outgrown this place, but don’t forget where ya came from, we won’t.

  • Thanks, ummm, anonymous and anonymous. It means a lot to me that I’m still welcome to say “we.”

  • Thanks for expressing my feelings so well, with a few tweaks what you wrote is exactly the way I feel. I retired last Fall really due to health reasons. (Every year at the end of school yr. after the air conditioners were turned out I would oame down with a respiratory illness. Last year, I was so sick the last week of school I had to have help closing up my room. By Oct., I had exhausted all sick leave and extended sick leave from our union, and I had to retire. I will always be on oxygen 24-7 due to damage to my lungs.) I taught language arts and/or social studies 6-8 at a middle school for 25 years. The last 22 yrs. I was at a school I helped create, serving on the planning committee which chose the school’s new, and then planning curriculum committee. I was chosen to be one of teachers at the school when it opened in 1992. I miss the students and not seeing my fellow teachers daily. I am so glad I no longer have to teach under the “new” reforms which are destroying public education across our great country.

  • It was a huge decision for me to also leave teaching after 9 years. I will be leaving the classroom and my school board at the end of June. I am already dreading the last day of school as I know I will be crying big time. I love my kids and I am going to miss them so much. I’ll especially miss those ‘Aha!” moments. Like you, part of me feels like I am giving up but the other part says I have to look after my own well-being as well. I am hoping to still stay involved, just not in the classroom. Perhaps at a museum or science center doing educational outreach. Hope you are still involved with youth. There are so many opportunities to volunteer with children to help make their lives outside of the formal classroom awesome as well.

  • Thank you Dennis. You echoed my advocacy for teaching with every sentence (except the celebrity thing…lol).

  • Great article.

    It really pisses me off when people shit all over teachers based on what some dumbass TV pundit told them. I have mad respect for the people in the educational sector. They typically have more education than I do, work more hours than I do, get less pay and then have to deal with scorn from uneducated idiots.

    Congrats on your new career at wordpress.

  • Yes, I refuse to give up on teaching. What I am afraid is that some day I may give up on alternative schools. Although I am passionate about giving students who come from challenging backgrounds a second chance, it can be very stressful at times. At least I know that if I ever loose my passion, I will teach somewhere else. Thanks Dennis for reminding me why I am still in this business.

  • A lot of what you wrote resonated with me because I grew up in a household where education was incredibly important. My mom started her career working with autistic children, then moved to public schools in a (very) rough neighborhood and continued to commute there 5 days a week even after we moved the family home to an affluent suburb.

    She could have easily gotten a job in the ‘burbs with more pay and a shorter commute. But she wanted to be where she was needed most — the community where she and her children were born. Hours were long, the pay was paltry and, as you said, the politics were horrid. To her it was all about the kids and feeling like she was making a difference. That was her passion. In line with the values she taught me, I volunteered to tutor ESL students and run fundraisers, even as a kid. It’s something I still do because it’s my passion.

    My mom eventually became principal and did “little things” like make goodie bags for the entire school at Halloween and gifted every elementary school graduate with a dictionary and thesaurus, paid out of her own pocket.

    When she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2002, thousands of people of all ages came to her funeral on a Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon. Standing room only. My brother and I were totally unprepared and overwhelmed, and I still get choked up thinking back to that day.

    A year later, my brother and I found a roll of huge posters and cutouts that had been pushed into a small corner of a closet. We unrolled them to find artwork and personal messages from children. Some were of gratitude: “Thank you for helping me” “I liked the candy.” Others were confessions: “Dear Mrs. O, remember that time I told you I put the garbage in the can? I didn’t. Sorry.” As strict at school as she was at home, it also didn’t surprise me that kids were a little frightened of her: “You know that time you yelled at me. I promise I won’t do it again.” She could be scary, but everyone knew it was because she truly cared.

  • Hi Dennis, I also wanted to say that you likely haven’t lost any of your purpose. Maybe it’s shifted for the moment, as you now help a lot of people in a different way. Maybe it’s dormant, waiting to be rebooted later. Or perhaps there’s a way you can take the good parts from teaching and repurpose it, aka volunteering locally or virtually, when you’re not super busy. Lots of charitable organizations and schools are incredibly grateful for any help and kindness. Wishing you all the best 🙂

  • Enjoy browsing in your web pages and reading your essays as well of those contribute by others. A little bit of everything for everybody. Nicely done. Bill McKeen


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