Hanging Up My Sweater: Why I’m Taking A Break from the Classroom

20170614_070311

Today, as I’ve done for nearly a decade, I’m up around 4:45 and I turn on the TV to catch part of a Law & Order SVU episode.  Then, to have something a bit lighter, I watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother.  Finally, I turn to the news to get an idea of the weather for the day.  It’s starting out cool, which sounds like the perfect excuse to put on a dress coupled with my favorite teaching sweater.  For some reason, I’m all about a good teaching sweater.  After donning my sweater, I hop in my car and prepare to teach the future.  Today, this preparation includes listening to some mellow music, though other days I opt for something a bit more hype.

Going into the profession, I saw myself sitting criss-cross applesauce until retiring, or until I was no longer able to get up and down easily and had to sit in a chair on the carpet.  Either way, I planned to be in the classroom for the long haul.  Regretfully, after nearly a decade of ups and downs that will no longer be the case.

Throughout the current school year, I have gone back and forth about whether I would return to the classroom next year.  Even after the doctor ordered me to take time off from work for a few days due to stress that had manifested itself in a physical way, I was still debating.  I wanted to be there for my current and future students, but I also needed to be there for myself.  Finally, in April I declared my intent not to return.  I’d probably still be debating today (the last day of school) but we must declare our intent in April or incur a fine if we leave.

During the time where I was trying to figure out my future in the classroom, I created numerous pro-con lists, talked to friends and family who’d heard my teaching stories, and talked to a handful of colleagues that I trusted.  Some days, I felt relieved at the thought of the quality of life that I would gain by not returning.  Other days, I felt guilty at the thought of abandoning my kids – those I’d taught in past years and who visit me most mornings before going to class, and those I have yet to meet.  Yesterday, I told one of my students from last year that I wouldn’t be returning next year, she hugged me tight and said, “No, you can’t leave me.”  I felt (and still feel) like I needed to be there for my past, current, and future students, and by not being there, I’m letting them down.

I recently read an article that highlighted the problem of teachers leaving mid-year.  I became so upset reading the article and the insinuation that only ineffective teachers leave, or that when teachers leave, they’re not thinking about the students.  The misconception portrayed by the article has become my obsession.  It may be easier to believe that teachers leave because they themselves are ineffective.  It gives us a target towards which to point a finger of blame whenever something goes amiss in the classroom.  The reality, though, is that sometimes good teachers, dedicated teachers, simply cannot take it anymore.  My kids count for about 10 reasons to stay for every con that I wrote on my list.  At the end of the day, though, the cons won.

A major con was getting over the system that has become education in America.  As a teacher, there are so many things that are beyond my control.  Lack of physical resources, deliverables, professional development that’s not differentiated (which is ironic since teachers are expected to differentiate our lessons), lack of time to address social-emotional needs, just to name a few.  There’s only so much I can do since I feel that I have very little control.  Of all the things that are beyond my control, I’ve found it most difficult to meet my students’ needs while meeting district requirements.

I constantly struggle between doing what is developmentally appropriate for my students and keeping my job.  When I moved to kindergarten, I was so excited about the dramatic play materials I planned to buy.  I remember asking a colleague who’d been teaching kindergarten for nearly 30 years for recommendations and she regretfully informed me that dramatic play has disappeared from kindergarten.

When I tell people that I teach kindergarten, one of their first responses is, “Aww, how cute.” Yes, my kids are super cute, however, the art of teaching kindergarten isn’t as “cute” as one may think.  Dramatic play has been replaced by close reading, guided reading, guided math, tracking data, identifying sight words, number sentences, articulating strategies to solve word problems, accountable talk, and weekly assessments.  Anything else is not considered time-on-task or teaching with a sense of urgency.  They don’t have time to just be cute kids, particularly when I know (and am constantly reminded of) what’s at stake with their education.  Kindergarten looks more like first grade.

When I break out something exciting like blocks (which I often reserve for Fun Friday), I make sure I have an exit ticket and pray an evaluator doesn’t walk in the room.  Though it may not look like it, they’re learning through play, which is an authentic form of learning.  They’re building, problem-solving, sharing, talking – this is learning!  But like I said, due to the fear of getting a low evaluation score (which is tied to both my pay and keeping my job), activities like blocks and puzzles are reserved for Fun Friday.

All of that to say, I’m taking a break from a system where I feel like I’m contributing to the problem instead of the solution.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids are learning.  I’ve taught them to read, write, solve math problems, and to be good people, all while building genuine relationships with my students.  Unfortunately, this teaching and learning is not taking place in an ideal environment.  It’s an environment where I’m constantly afraid of who may walk into my classroom and what they’ll say or think upon leaving.

Teachers are often evaluated on rather minimal evidence of our practice.  Maybe on a 30-minute classroom observation or test scores as evidence of students’ mastery of skills and standards at the end of the year.  Some people who are charged with evaluating teachers or determining mandates have unrealistic expectations of what teaching and learning look like, sound like, and feel like.  I maintain high expectations and strive for mastery, but these expectations can take a toll on teachers.  This is especially the case in an environment where the primary focus is a specific level of mastery instead of growth.

For me, this step away from the classroom is also about self-care and preservation, which is a topic that is often overlooked when discussing teacher retention.  While advocating for my students, I find that I am also advocating for myself and my own educational philosophy.  So many times, I’ve fought to have my students’ growth recognized, which (on occasion) had a modest impact on my evaluation scores.  The constant fighting can be draining.  I’m stressed, and more importantly, the kids are stressed.  The thought of a kindergarten student being stressed and knowing that they have at least 12 years of school remaining breaks my heart.  In such a stressful environment, teaching isn’t sustainable.  I’ve realized that there’s no way I can be there for my students if I’m not first taken care of…it’s just not possible.

Usually, I play “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince to celebrate my final day of school as I’m cleaning up my classroom before leaving for the summer break.  I haven’t decided if I’ll play it today because I imagine I’ll be in a somber mood as I’m packing up my belongings for the never-ending summer.  I will try to be a little happy as I embark on a new journey.  I have always been, and am confident I will remain, passionate about helping young people.  I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do just that through my part-time work, which is also in the field of education.  In the meantime, I plan to kick off my mini-sabbatical with some travel, which is made possible by my frugal tendencies.  It’s scary, overwhelming, and exciting at the same time.  Feel free to follow me as I embark on a new journey.  I hope that this journey will rejuvenate me and that I will make my way back to the classroom at some point.

For now, I will put on my favorite teaching sweater and enjoy my last day in the classroom.  I will reflect on my teaching experience, which was filled with many lessons that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person.  It has been as much a pleasure to learn from my students as it has been to teach them.  I can only hope that the lessons I have imparted on them have a lasting impact on their academic careers, and equally important, their character.