Hi, I’m Leslie. I used to be a middle school teacher. I quit after only three years of full-time teaching, and I haven’t returned. Even though I’m coming up on my three-year anniversary of when I left my teaching career, this is something about which I still feel embarrassment and, for some reason, shame. Teaching is a hard profession, and the term “hard” is multifaceted here. One of the reasons it’s hard is that, here in the U.S., the general social expectation is that teachers will give up everything to teach kids for laughably low salaries and be happy about it. So…when someone like me comes along and realizes that it’s just all too much and decides to leave…there’s a kind of judgment. This post is all about why I think I failed as a teacher and why it’s still hard for me to talk about.
These reasons that I think I failed as a teacher are listed in order of my perceived influence on my decision to leave my career. You may resonate with them, and you may not…and either one is fine. This is my story, but it’s also the launch of my new project that I’m calling the Honest Educator Series. I don’t think there’s really a space where teachers can go to vent their frustrations in a productive way and to find solutions to their problems, and I don’t think there’s really a space that unabashedly talks about these hard truths of teaching. These are the topics of conversation that are swept under the rug or that become the elephant in the room. I hope that by addressing them head-on, I can create a community of educators (not just teachers) who crave a space where they can talk freely about their struggles but also brainstorm solutions, who want to get support but also give support, and who aren’t afraid to face the realities of their career and, well, to be braver than I was.
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#1) I was overwhelmed.
Ooooh, boy, this is probably an understatement. But, yes, I was incredibly overwhelmed. There is so much to do when you’re a teacher. So. Much. Curriculum mapping, unit planning, lesson planning, grading, documentation, accommodations for students with disabilities, parent communication, staff meetings, classroom decorating, classroom environment, classroom cleaning and organizing…oh, and teaching. You know, the actual lesson delivery. There’s more, and this doesn’t even go into the list of many, many hats that teachers wear (including but not limited to teacher, role model, parent figure, therapist, mentor, and advocate).
It’s not unique or unheard of for teachers to be overwhelmed, so this experience wasn’t isolated. I did try to stay on top of things as much as I could by doing things like getting in early and making copies for the next few days, trying to get my lesson plans organized at least a week ahead of time, and making grading shortcuts for myself. But there’s just so much to do, and with some of the other factors below playing, too, that generally speaking…I was overwhelmed.
#2) I usually lacked support, and I was usually in tough teaching environments.
Does this one sound familiar, too? Oh, wait, they probably all sound familiar. 😉 It just so happened that my Master of Education program at Ohio State partnered with Columbus City Schools, because they wanted students to have “urban teaching experience,” since those are so often the schools in dire need of great teachers. Prior to that, I actually worked in an after-school tutoring program in an elementary school in that same district. I thought that inner-city schools were the ones I wanted to teach in, until I got there as a full-time teacher, without a mentor teacher to support me. I was in inner-city charter schools two years of my professional (read: after grad school) teaching career, and both years were really, really hard.
The first charter school was also my first year of teaching. There were four administrators, but only one of them really consistently and genuinely ever tried to help teachers with disciplinary issues, and the poor guy was run ragged by the end of the school year. I felt so lucky that his office was across the hall from my classroom, but he couldn’t be there for me all the time. As for the other administrators…two of them were really zero help, and the third sort of helped. So, there I was with a ton of hyper 6th graders, many of whom were immigrants from a few different African countries and were, therefore, English Language Learners. I also had the inclusion class, and thankfully, one of the special education teachers co-taught one of their class periods with me, which was a huge help, but she was also a first-year teacher. When a teaching position at a private school presented itself to me in July after that school year, I took it and ran (not that I need to say it, but smaller class sizes, higher salary, more support, and a prestigious school to add to my résumé).
The second charter school did a better job of supporting me, but when you only have three administrators for a school with something like 400 students and four grade levels, they can only do so much. The problem here was that our 7th grade class had experienced a lot of teacher turnover, including during the school year (not just after the year ended), so they were really hard on new-to-them teachers. We had a substitute come in to replace a teacher on my team while she took maternity leave, and she’d taught in this charter network in another city and was already familiar with the lingo and expectations, so the students had a lot more respect for her and knew they couldn’t get away with as much. But for those of us who were totally new to the network, trying to learn everything on the fly? Many of the students took advantage. I developed pretty bad anxiety this school year, and it was ultimately at the end of it that I chose to leave teaching entirely.
#3) I struggled with classroom management.
Maybe this one should have been higher on my list, but I think that if I hadn’t been so overwhelmed with all of the things teachers have to do, and if I’d had better support from my administration, then I might not have struggled so much with classroom management. It was weird (to me) because I usually had a lot of skill with building rapport with students. It was something for which my mentor teacher in my full-time student teaching position praised me. But, for whatever reason, I still struggled with classroom management. I tried everything I could think of, and I tried everything administrators (mainly my assistant principal, for 7th and 8th grade) suggested to me, and a lot of it didn’t work. I was at a loss, a lot of the time, and continued to attempt to employ techniques that at least sort of worked. I did try having an administrator sub in my class one day while I gave a test so I could go observe another teacher on my team, but he’d been at the school for years. The kids came into 7th grade knowing him, so he had a leg up on me from the start. I tried some of the techniques he employed but didn’t get the same results.
#4) I was sexually harassed by three male students.
This…is a hard one to write, but this was a large reason I struggled at that last charter school I taught in. In fact, I’m not sure anyone in my personal life, except my husband, knows that this happened to me. Perhaps it should be higher on this list…I don’t know.
First, to clarify, I taught 7th grade reading when this happened. Fairly early in the year – definitely before winter break – the school social worker asked me for a meeting. When I got to her office, our principal was also there, so, of course, I was immediately nervous, thinking I was about to be disciplined for something or possibly even let go. As it turned out, they wanted to gently and privately let me know that a female student in one of my classes had gone to the school social worker and told her that three boys in that class were making sexual gestures behind my back during my class and that it had been going on for a while. For starters, it’s just wildly embarrassing to have 12- and 13-year-old students doing that to you, but I was also deeply embarrassed because I didn’t catch them myself. I never once saw any of them doing these things.
And then, the absolute worst part was that even though the social worker and principal told me they’d support me in addressing that class…I didn’t do it. I am so ashamed of myself for that to this day, because I continued to struggle with classroom management with that class literally until the last days of school. Those three boys were suspended, and all of them had different reactions. One of them hated me for the rest of the year, as if it was my fault that he did what he did and then that he got suspended for it. One of them apologized to me, along with his mother, who was crying she was so mortified. I had to work fairly closely with him as best I could, because he had (I think) unidentified learning disabilities and really struggled, but he also didn’t care about school. The third alarmed me most of all, because he just looked several years older than he really was. I don’t think he or his mother ever apologized to me, and I trusted him the least. For the first couple of weeks after they came back to school, an administrator sat in my classroom while I taught that class, and from that point forward, I was super careful to walk around the perimeter of the room where I could have my eyes on the class.
But, ultimately, I think my cowardice in not addressing the class while the boys were suspended was my downfall in terms of…classroom management, anxiety, mild panic attacks, and general success at that school. Maybe, if I’d had the courage to address the class about how I felt about the incident, the rest of the year would have gone more smoothly. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so anxious by the end of the school year that I was having mild panic attacks on Sundays over the thought of going into work on Mondays. Maybe I’d still be teaching today.
In this new era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I wish I had said something back then. I wish I had been braver back then. However, at least I can be brave now by sharing this story and, I hope, empowering anyone else who has suffered through something like this to address it in the moment. It’s hard. It’s the hardest shit, I know, but you deserve to be in control of your own life.
#5) I am an Obliger (from Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies*).
If you’re not familiar with The Four Tendencies, it’s Gretchen Rubin’s work with personality types. She has studied this topic and narrowed it down to four personality types that everyone falls into: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel. You can get the book (or you can take the free online quiz here to get basic information) to learn more about your own Tendency. For me, however, I learned that I am an Obliger, which means that I almost always prioritize other people’s expectations for me above my expectations for myself. If you know me personally and happen to be reading this right now, then…you probably aren’t surprised. 🙂
What’s more important than simply recognizing that I put external expectations above internal expectations is something Ms. Rubin has termed “Obliger-Rebellion.” Basically, this is when you accept external expectations that you dislike, find monotonous or boring, etc. over and over until…you break, essentially. You decide that you’ve had enough, you can’t take it anymore, and you need out. This is what happens when Obligers unexpectedly quit jobs, leave marriages, and make other sudden and drastic life changes.
Sound familiar? This is, like, pretty much exactly what happened to me. I was overwhelmed and overworked, and I was unhappy…so I gave notice of my resignation, with the intention of not returning to teaching. But I didn’t know all of this back then; I only learned this within the last few months. I left teaching in 2015.
If you think (or know) that you’re an Obliger like me, Ms. Rubin does discuss ways to prevent Obliger-Rebellion from happening to you – once you understand why you do this. You can kind of safeguard yourself against it, and you can build a little community of support with your loved ones to help support you to try to prevent it from happening.
#6) I never got practice doing some aspects of the job that were hardest, most delicate, or most serious.
You learn a lot in teaching licensure programs, but usually, you learn a lot about teaching the actual content and how to deliver that content. You don’t learn much about classroom management, parent communication, colleague interactions, and other things of that nature. I got a little bit of actual practice with classroom management in my classes, but not much in the grand scheme of things. I also got some practice during my part-time and full-time student teaching, but that was with a mentor teacher in the classroom with me…and sometimes (especially in my part-time student teaching placement), the mentor teacher just handled it. (Although I still have VERY clear memories of a day in my full-time student teaching placement when my students got SUPER loud, and I didn’t know how to bring them back in. They were, from what I can recall, actually doing what I assigned them, but it was a small group activity, and they were just all talking over one another. I looked to my mentor teacher for help, and he looked back at me and shrugged!!! Like, “Figure it out yourself!” I survived, obviously, but it was rough.)
Basically, what I’m getting at is that I was never explicitly taught and given practice in communicating with parents and guardians – because as I learned in my first year of teaching, sometimes even good news isn’t easy to communicate, in communicating to parents and guardians when a child is failing, in handling students who have suffered different forms of abuse, and the list goes on. I recently finished reading The Power of Moments*, and there’s a section in there where they share a story of a rabbi who realizes he needs to give his seminary students more realistic practice in dealing with difficult and delicate situations with congregants, such as a death in the family. He hired actors to come in and role play with the students, who were then much more effective and courageous in handling tragic situations when they’re on their own. I feel that this type of practice (although it would have embarrassed me greatly because role play makes me super uncomfortable and awkward-feeling) would be really beneficial to pre-service teachers.
#7) I sometimes worked with people who created toxic work environments.
Have you ever had a colleague who hid outside of classrooms and eavesdropped on the conversations happening inside? And, worse yet, then went and told the principal what she overheard? (It’s unclear if this was requested or offered freely.) Have you had colleagues spy on you for the principal because said principal thinks you’re “too loyal” to another colleague whom she’s ousting? Have you ever had a wildly manipulative principal who targets a couple of staff members and makes their lives hell? Have you had administrators who simply ignored the many and various behavior problems in the school? Have you ever witnessed a teacher freak out on a colleague, accusing her of talking about her behind her back in A BAR, in the doorway of the classroom when students were right there and clearly able to hear the whole conversation?
I’m more than willing to bet that you can answer yes to at least one of those questions – and they all happened to me at different points during my teaching career (and even before it professionally started). And, really, I’m sure I could come up with many more. I loved working with kids, as most teachers do, but working with the adults… It’s hard in the education field. There’s something about working in schools, around kids and teens all day, that makes some of the adult employees behave like the kids. There is no shortage of gossiping, rumor mongering, and bad behavior in education, which obviously creates a really toxic work environment.
Maybe if I had lucked out one year and didn’t have to deal with this – if I had been able to witness and work in a truly functional work environment, where everyone respects each other – it would have been different. The closest I got was my second year of teaching, and I really didn’t want to leave that school – but I did admittedly feel that my job was in some degree of jeopardy because of the aforementioned loyalty issue. It’s also when we decided to move halfway across the country, so…there was that. As it stands, though, every year brought either a lot of stress due to the work load or a toxic work environment or…both.
#8) I have an autoimmune thyroid disease, which has symptoms that made such a stressful career choice harder to bear.
I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or Hashimoto’s disease. It’s…a nuisance for me, but it’s much worse for others. Hashimoto’s can swing back and forth between hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), but I think it tends toward the hypothyroid side – or at least it does for me. Some of the more common and persistent symptoms I deal with include difficulty losing or maintaining weight (but gaining weight – no problem!), fatigue and lethargy, brain fog, concentration issues, and cold hands and feet (no matter how warm it is outside). However, two issues that are also caused or influenced by hypothyroidism are depression and anxiety.
Autoimmune disease aside, mental health is really important. But in my case, my autoimmune disease was influencing – negatively – my mental health. Because I had a harder time dealing with the anxiety caused by my career, I was just constantly overwhelmed and stressed out. In short, teaching was harder for me personally to bear because I had a pre-existing health issue that impacted how I handled stress.
Wow. It is hard to put all of this out there. Perhaps I was too candid, but I believe more conversations like this need to happen in order for educators to better operate within their career. We all need to know and believe that there are other people out there who have been where we are, who have faced the same struggles we have, who have been in the trenches, and who possibly feel they have failed as a teacher, too. If nothing else, it helps boost morale. So, I hope that by sharing my story, I help another educator – maybe you – feel less alone and more understood. Your struggles are valid. Your feelings are valid. Don’t let anyone else – or yourself – make you think otherwise.
Because I don’t want to end this post on a completely somber or negative note, I want to acknowledge that I had many successes, big and small, throughout my teaching career. I didn’t make it as a teacher, but I did have a positive impact on many students’ lives, and although I was overwhelmed, I was on top of things and worked ahead most of the time. Although I struggle with continuing to feel embarrassed and ashamed of my decision to leave the career, I have many fond memories from my time as a teacher.
P.S. I’ve had this post in the back of my mind since I had my “new” headshots taken for my website, which was back in the fall of 2016. It’s now April 2018, and I’m just now writing and publishing the post. I’ve literally been wanting to use this specific photo for the graphics in this post since then. Baring your soul is a heavy feat.
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This post was most recently updated in March 2019.