When my father’s cousin, a high school English teacher all his life, heard that I was thinking about taking up his vocation upon graduating from college, he told my father, “If I were him, I’d get as far away from public education as possible.”
A year out of my master’s program where I earned my license to teach high school, I heard from one of my old classmates that most of our cohort had already left teaching. Some were going to art school. Some were taking the LSAT. Some were babysitting.
When my family’s close friend heard that I was questioning my career choice, he said, “He still hasn’t figured out the magic letters: P-H-D.”
I discredited these kinds of comments, even as I admitted that the state of public education was eroding my passion for working with kids. Every time public education came up in conversation, I was going on rants. In a matter of six years I worked at four schools, switching whenever I decided that the structural forces were too much for me to overcome with my unwillingness to bend. When I sent my resignation letter to the Language Arts Department at the last high school I worked at, I tried to articulate precisely how we were being set up to disserve our kids by the political and social forces around us, and how our method of dealing with those forces was only making matters worse for our school. I have felt similarly about the school I currently work at, an alternative education program for criminal justice system-involved youth, which I will be leaving next month to go back to grad school.
I am not prepared or excited to teach public high school right now. Like more than half the teachers who have been working in the field as long as I have or less, I am leaving the classroom, because I do not like many of the specific, destructive tasks I must do each day as a teacher. I resent the perverse ways in which I must hold my students “accountable for learning”, and the data I must manufacture and manipulate in order to “prove” that my school is effective, while I am simultaneously excluded from any structural decision-making processes. I am tired of constantly adapting to flavor-of-the-week changes in policy, and taking the brunt of the blame for it when my students voice their natural confusion and their disillusionment, or when the policies backfire and our school is seen as “failing”. I’m tired of accommodating in my lesson planning the interests of outside entrepreneurs, consultants and corporate heads getting paid twice my salary, who have never studied pedagogy or taught children; I’m tired of complying with their programs and pretending to support their agendas while they exploit my students for private financial gain.
The field of public education has slowly become saturated with these forces. More and more now they are non-negotiables in schools, especially the ones that are dealing firsthand with the effects of racial oppression and the economic attack on low-income communities. I resent the intrusion, and the assumption that teachers can solve all of America’s social problems. On bad days I think to myself: Clearly I don’t belong here. And yet now, as I reckon with my decision to move out of the classroom, my body bristles in protest: Why should I be the one to leave? Why shouldn’t I stay, and continue to fight?
When I have these internal debates I remind myself of what some of my “non-traditional” students have told me. “School just isn’t for me.” This is the conclusion they came to, after years of being bullied by the system.
Like what happened to them, it might be more accurate to say I am being pushed out. In America, ditching school is never entirely voluntary, even though it’s generally billed as such. “Dropouts” are stigmatized by politicians and moralists, but all of the “dropouts” I know stopped going to school between the ages of thirteen and seventeen because, for them, there was no other choice. Teachers told them they were failures. Curriculum showed them they didn’t matter. Urban policymakers and business leaders, with private interests, acted as though their communities were irrelevant. Militarized authority figures beat them out of classrooms and into cells. The realities of life compelled them into the streets, in order to survive.
Similarly, I don’t seem to fit in, though unlike my students, I am white, financially stable, never targeted by police, rarely discriminated against by the people who manage me. Yet I feel like this system is alienating my mind, my truths. I don’t want to teach to the standardized test. I don’t want to discipline my students when they shout out, if my classroom is the only place they feel heard. I don’t want some out-of-state contractor to knock the building down, redevelop it for corporate profit, implement a labyrinthine enrollment process, and recast the school model as “inclusive.”
I don’t want to teach “job skills” and “career readiness” as a solution to disproportionate unemployment rates and widening systemic inequalities. As my students tell me: We don’t need that shit. We don’t need to learn how to shake hands like a white person. I want to teach in a way that pressures change from the powers that be, not from the kids who’ve been told all their lives to “get right.”
I am bitter about public education. I tell myself that I am leaving the classroom to do activist education research because I am searching for a more viable way to be involved in systemic overhaul. But sometimes it feels more like an escape than a logical step forward. I harbor the fear that there lies at the root of my decision a sense of powerlessness—that, as always, I’m acting in a way that reflects an aversion to conflict, a gut impulse to run for cover and watch the action from a distance. Am I fleeing from the noise, so that I can “engage” comfortably from the sidelines?
“The only way we are going to get any closer to justice,” my administrator told me, “is if the few people in control give up their own power, willingly or through force.” It was her way of voicing skepticism at the idea that a PhD would definitely offer me more opportunity to contribute to systemic change, but it also served as a reminder that, no matter what position we occupy, the most basic challenges do not ease up.
It occurs to me that I am almost 30 years old and I still want to change the world. There are at once no ways to do such a thing and many different and powerful ways to do it.
Of the endless and prolific myths about teachers in society, one that constantly deludes me is the idea that high school teachers are the grittiest of workers, the most ardent and noble of souls. I realize that much of what attracted to me to the profession was this kind of romanticism. To think that I am bad-ass just because I have accepted the responsibility of guiding children all day is an outrageous notion. It stems from how in general our society thinks of youth as depraved and ill-prepared for the world. It is also rooted in our complacency with the rules we ourselves were taught, and our self-satisfaction in passing those rules and those narratives down, no matter the logic, no matter how problematic the doctrine. We love to see ourselves as shepherds, especially if our flock is supposedly wayward. We’ve all been spooked by stories of classrooms full of problem kids, we’ve read the statistics about low literacy levels and graduation rates. Dangerous Minds, that soul-lifting film from the 90s, still gleams in the white American imagination.
As follows, my guilt about leaving the classroom for—somewhat ironically—the academic life seems to be based on imaginary judgments about work in America. Though some of the most courageous people I know teach, there is nothing necessarily “brave” or “admirable” or “incredibly difficult” (all descriptors that people commonly use about teaching) about being a teacher. Public schools, generally speaking, are not set up to challenge the status quo, and many dedicated teachers with their good intentions and their mastery of control are doing nothing to break the cycle.
In that same vein, researchers, professors and policymakers are not necessarily wiser or more informed than those working in direct service—another stereotype most of us insist on perpetuating. I’m entering the academy because I want time and space to think, observe, talk and write after what feels like a long time of not quite being able to let my analyses come to fruition, mostly because I’ve lacked the energy and the emotional capacity. It’s a personal decision that feels important in that it will allow me to remain bound to the work while making my own strategy more deliberate and better informed.
I rushed into teaching just a year out of college, and since I entered the classroom I’ve only had my students and my overworked colleagues to teach me about where I was working, what I was doing, what kind of country I lived in. It’s been a rocky road, and an inherently problematic one. At this point I feel I am due for a more formal education.