To Stay Or Go: One Alum’s Struggle To Teach Beyond Two
“There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas or milk next week, I don’t even know how much I’ll have to pay to finish school next semester …There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.”
That was the opening statement of my letter of intent in September 2008, when I was applying for Teach For America. I wasn’t being facetious either. I had been planning on teaching high school English since I was 16. When I was placed at a charter school teaching high school English. I figured I was in this for life.
Life has a funny way of working, though, and a year and a half later, I found myself weighing the options of either staying and seeing my students (many of whom would be seniors) graduate, or combing the TFANet JOB board (which is amazing, by the way) for a new position after finishing my second year.
It was a difficult pill to swallow. Admitting that maybe, just maybe, my once-dream job was not really what I was meant to do was really humbling and terrifying.
There were a lot of reasons to stay, but there were also reasons to leave: I felt that I could make a bigger impact at the regional or national level, and I also was starting to see there were other fields I was more interested in. I wrote, at one point: “I feel like, at 23, I owe it to myself to find a job I really love.”
That’s all true, but another simple fact was that I was tired. I was so tired. The emotional strain of teaching every day was just becoming too much, and as much as I loved my students and wanted to do right by them, I wasn’t happy.
As much as the idea of leaving felt like it might be a relief, there was an enormous pit in my stomach whenever I thought about leaving. My advisory, the “Avengers,” who I had seen nearly every school day during my time as a teacher, would be graduating next year. I wanted nothing more than to see their smiling faces in June 2012 and tell them how proud I was of the work they had done while handing them their diplomas.
One night though, I was reading some article in the news about teachers, and in the comments, someone briefly recollected having one of “those teachers.” You know, the teachers people talk about who seem like they hate their lives, have given up on kids, but allegedly stayed because they didn’t want to find other work/had tenure/[insert selfish reason here].
That’s when it hit me: As desperately as I had wanted to be a teacher, I desperately wanted to avoid becoming that teacher.
I wanted to be there for my students. I wished I had it in me to buck up, and force myself to stick it out. Yet, I felt that if I stayed, I would be there-but-hating-it, I would not be an effective teacher. I wouldn’t be happy, passionate, or excited, but probably angry, checked-out and bitter.
My students deserve more than that. They deserved a teacher who could give them everything—who could inspire them to see the potential in them that I saw, who could jump in with both feet and truly commit to changing their lives. It feels horrible to say, even now, but I just wasn’t sure how much longer I could do that.
So, I made the heartbreaking choice to make my second year of teaching my last (for now). Do I regret it? Most days: no. My kids were able to have an amazing veteran teacher take over as their advisor, and I think we all ended up better for it in the long run.
There are days though, when I think about them, and my heart swells with the “what-ifs”. After taking a job in Hawaii, I had to watch “the Avengers,” graduate via camera phone. I sobbed the entire time, partially out of a guilt that haunts me, even two years later. Mostly, though, because I was so ridiculously proud of what this group of kids had done.
Look, I can’t guarantee that if you’re thinking about leaving the classroom after your second year like I was, it’s the right choice. I have never once regretted the work I did and the love I found for my students during those two years I was in the corps. I also want to make a strong stance that if you choose to leave the profession, you do it at a time that keeps your students’ and school’s best interest at heart.
At a certain point though, it is important to take a step back and include yourself in that equation, too. You deserve time to reflect on how the past two years have transformed you as a person. Maybe that means you stay in the classroom. Maybe that means you realize that, after your two years in the corps, you are better suited advocating for our students as a lawyer, doctor, politician, on staff, or supporting us from the private sector.
When I think now about the choice I made to leave and it hurts, I try and remember what Cristian, one of my “Avengers” said when I told him I was leaving the private sector to join to Teach For America staff.
“Miss, if you taught me anything, it was to follow my dreams and not give up. I hope you do that too.”