This year two of my friends are leaving the classroom. One just left last week. The other is considering it. Every time a colleague near or far considers leaving, it automatically shifts me into wondering about leaving myself. A truth about teachers in general: anytime one more policy trickles down and demoralizes or devalues our work, we instantly declare that this is our last year. Yes we are walking hyperboles; complete melodramas walking around. We do teach middle school after all. So when anyone tells me they are leaving or thinking about leaving, I instantly begin to wonder if I, too, should leave to find something less demanding. It’s tough to remember over and over again why I do this and that I enjoy it; especially when I don’t feel supported and am sick or exhausted.
Earlier this evening my husband and I were discussing the difference of being a salaried employee versus being paid on a patient by patient basis aka his profession. In my hyperbolic state, I instantly calculated the amount of money I would make if I got paid the same as him for the each student that I serviced. $ 4.8 million is the number per month that is! Shocking, I know. It isn’t fair, indeed, that I make a fraction of what he makes. He would argue that it’s not fair that he has the student loan debt that he has. Yet, I still think doctors in our society are seen as such professionals, while teacher aren’t. It’s frustrating to continue in a profession in which you are left to feel less than by administration, parents, and worse of all our society.
I remember five years ago when I mother-in-law made her first realization of how much extra, free, work I put in to get my job done. It was Thanksgiving Break and I had a stack of essays that I brought down early before everyone awoke. I sat at the kitchen counter and worked, while she made breakfast. She repeatedly said that she was surprised by the work. I nodded and continued trying to get my quota done for the day so that I could enjoy my break and not fall far behind.
Teaching is only sustainable if one makes a concerted effort to live her life and take care of her self completely: mind, body, and soul. My first five years, I struggled with this need for balance. I procrastinated. I binge graded everything I saw at the end of the quarter. I spent late nights planning lessons. I did it all while working through an early diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. It was hard as hell to say the least. I remember having regular breakdowns during which I felt so frustrated that I just couldn’t do it all.
Suffice to say, it’s easy to dream about leaving the profession. And I did leave. I took my break after my 5th year in the classroom. I finally thought I had enough and I wanted something more, new, easy. So I took my break and found a fun job at a kids cooking school. I taught elementary age kids to cook. It was fun and felt way less intense. I did this and continued to look for something else, something more. In the back of my mind, though, remained a thought that kept coming back. How can you work with students again in a stress free way? It was the relationships I was I after. I really missed the laughter and ridiculousness that being in the classroom offered me. After a six month break, I went back to one of my most challenging years to date. I survived though. I not only survived, but ended up truly falling for a few of those students.
Why do I stay? A question I answer several times a year. Some times when new requirements are fired at us like rapid fire. Some times when a colleague declares this is his last year. And other times when I get simply exhausted from the day-to-day grind.
Why do I stay?
I stay because when I can allow everything other than the classroom to be background noise, I am completely content. I stay because every time I try to get serious about school or my lesson or a test, there’s a 7th grader making up a song that’s a parody of my life. Every time I share a success or a challenge in the classroom, my students respond with empathy and love and kindness. I stay because it’s normal: sometimes hard, sometimes annoying, and most of the time funny. I stay because at the end of it all, we have a year of our lives that is filled with special moments that will only be ours. I stay because I get to have authentic relationships with students who surprise themselves with their growth. I stay because this job pushes me to be better not just as a teacher, but as a human being. It pushes me to seek balance, to leave work at work, to fill up my cup so that I can give without resentment.
At the end of last school year, a student of mine whom I love with all my heart gave me the best gift a student has ever given me. He called it a sentimental letter. In this letter, he quoted films and songs to write his message. It was sentimental alright, but more than that it was special. It allowed me to see that a relationship alone is more important than any skill I may teach during the school year. I may or may not have a kid like this again, but either way in the end it’s worth all the insanity for now at least…until the next new policy passes that is.