Why I Stayed and Then Why I Left

We’re back! I’m hoping my last two posts (here and here) were an eye opener into some of the craziness that young teachers experience, especially in poorly funded districts. This last post will hopefully be a good representation of the challenges of underfunded districts and the students who have to pay the price.

My second year as a teacher was the BEST year at that first school. I knew more of what I was doing, I already had curriculums written, and I even already had assignments created. My work load went down significantly, although I was still getting to school at 6:45, leaving around 4:15, and working a couple hours each night to prep for the next day. My roommates and I also moved into a much bigger house. We finally each had our own room, so I felt like I was really living that young professional life.

I already knew my students and it was awesome that as the only English teacher, I was able to continue watching my students grow in their writing ability. I made some curriculum edits and taught AP Language instead of AP Literature, but for the most part I was teaching what I had already taught. So this was the year that I started getting more invested in what students needed outside of English class. 

My classroom also moved. Now the entire secondary school, 6-12 was in one hallway. This meant that I got to spend more time with my friends on the middle school team. This also meant that we kicked off a form of “data teams” and “PLCs”. 

I’ve seen schools where data teams and PLCs (professional learning communities) are run really well–my school was not one of those. My data team was made up of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. A big part of data teams is using common assessments so teachers can come together and figure out which teaching strategies are working best for student learning. It is a great concept that really benefits students–but that’s when your data team is a group of all of your English 9 teachers. We were all “singletons’ so the whole figuring out “common assessments” thing was kind of tricky/impossible. As for PLCs, those were just secondary staff meetings that we called PLCs. The full PLC model was a lot closer aligned to what we were attempting in data teams. 

Beyond all the meetings (2-3 every week), I was able to really work with students. My second year I:

  • Ran NHS
  • Worked with the counselor to plan homecoming, a Valentine’s dance, and prom
  • Planned a retreat for all of secondary students in which juniors and seniors spent the night at camp
  • Ran a couple volleyball open gyms
  • Began inviting colleges to come talk to my students
  • Took my juniors and the 8th grade class to the Holocaust museum
  • Ran graduation
  • Designed t shirts with students for spirit weeks
  • Organized spirit weeks
  • Ran school-wide pep assemblies
  • Started an SAT club
  • Ran fundraisers
  • Got pied in the face at a number of those fundraisers
  • Had my iphone 6 stolen
  • Taught homebound students (including holding one of my student’s newborns while trying to explain algebra. That was an unexpected teaching moment)
  • Became a YoungLife leader for camp and took kids to YL camp
  • Helped my coworker who planned a camping trip for a group of our junior and senior boys

Honestly, I think there were more things I did, but I just can’t remember it all. There was just so much to do to try to give students a great high school experience. It kind of came down to if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. I hated to think that these amazing students whom I had come to really care for would miss out on opportunities. So I just worked harder to try to make those things possible for my kids. Oh, and they became my kids too. I became a fierce advocate for my students. They began to trust me and many of their experiences–the good, the bad, and the ugly–came out in their writing. When I learned about problems my students were facing, I did my best to try to support them. For one thing, as I realized that a number of my students did not speak much English or were at least bilingual, I also started to pursue a Master’s in TESOL. I figured I needed better strategies to teach my students, so in all of my free time (haha), I started taking Master’s classes.

My third year is when things started to really go downhill. The summer before that last year I worked there, the school counselor had been hired as the principal of a different charter school. It was a great opportunity for him, but as soon as I heard the news, my heart dropped to my stomach. Everything that I had been doing–all of the spirit weeks, the retreats, the homecomings and proms–everything had been done with the support and the help of him. Without him, it would be up to me to get other teachers behind my ideas and plans. I knew it was going to be way more work on me. 

That year, my students called me their teacher, their school mom, their counselor, their principal, their RTA, a sister, a friend, and a mentor. My third year, I did everything I had done my second year, I just also:

  • Planned a rising senior retreat
  • Planned another (different) fall retreat
  • Arrived to school earlier than ever before (6:15ish) so I could squeeze in some work before leaving school and driving to pick up two students from their home to drive them to school each morning. On mornings when I couldn’t be there, I organized other teachers to be their ride (we had no bussing system and couldn’t offer free bus passes unless a student was homeless. That did not solve many of our students’ transportation issues. And what else would we say? If it was snowing and a student didn’t want to walk the hour to school, she would just miss weeks of school? So we did what we had to do).
  • Donated, found, and delivered mattresses and furniture to students who were in need
  • Organized and planned curriculum for our new advisory course
  • Connected with Jostens for all things graduation
  • Took photos of school events
  • Created the yearbook for the entire K-12 school, submitted our order, and picked up our books
  • Registered students to retake the SAT and drove them to the test
  • Took over the school’s social media presence
  • Coached Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer. I was the head coach with one of my coworker friends as the assistant coach (it was just a title, we did the same amount of work and were compensated equally), but I also knew no soccer rules, only ‘no manos’.
  • Was undefeated in both Varsity and Middle School Boys soccer–the only year that happened up until then and since. I still claimed it was all due to my coaching skills. And then my students laughed.
  • Planned YL events and took almost 20 students to a YL retreat weekend.
  • Provided apples, bananas, and granola bars each week for my students to grab when they were hungry.
  • Taught parents and students during an after school evening program
  • Oversaw E2020 credit recovery courses while teaching my other classes or during my prep (mostly just opening up tests for students)
  • Was the RTC whenever our RTA’s took a sick or personal day. What I mean by that is I was actually teaching an English class while answering phone calls from other teachers, and then having misbehaving students come sit in my class as punishment–while my class was still happening.
  • Was the keeper of bathroom keys on days we didn’t have an RTA (it was a school policy that all our doors had to be locked. So whenever a student needed the restroom, the teacher had to call to see if the key was available. Again, I would be teaching English classes and answering phones for bathroom use).
  • Ran PLC meetings
  • Ran Data team meetings
  • Continued my Master’s classes
  • Organized a college and career fair at our school, inviting community partners in and organizing tables and incentives for students
  • Took all students 9-12 to Ferris State University for a tour; took (drove) students to Kendall College for a our, took students to GRCC for a tour, took students to GVSU for a tour
  • Planned staff versus student soccer and basketball games

Again, I am pretty confident there were more things I was trying to pack into my day, I just can’t remember everything. These weren’t things that my principal asked me to do–well, not all of them. Some of these things people definitely asked me to do because they knew that I would. But these were mostly just things that would not have happened otherwise. And without these things, I felt that my students were missing out on valuable experiences, and that is just unfair.

This is the problem in our underfunded, smaller schools. There are too few people trying to wear too many hats. And it’s just not sustainable. I cried so many times that year, mostly because I was so upset about how unfair the world was for my students. I thought it was unfair that they only had the limited resources our school could offer. Learning about the bullying, rape, abuse, racism, hatred, and neglect that my students experienced broke my heart.

I also knew I was burning out. I knew that a year or two more at the school would burn me out on teaching completely. I knew that if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to stay in education. But I also knew that I couldn’t leave my kids.

This is when I turned to prayer. For the start of Lent (I was giving up coffee that year), I also decided to try the Daniel Fast for the first 21 days. I had never tried it, but people at my church had mentioned it often. I looked it up and decided to give it a go.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Daniel Fast comes from a passage in the book of Daniel, and is essentially being vegan while also giving up bread/pasta/sugar/salt. It’s super limiting, mostly just a lot of fruits and vegetables–quinoa and beans–that kind of thing. The great thing about this fast is that it required me to be so intentional with how I was grocery shopping and cooking. Any time I thought about food, I was reminded of why I was fasting, which reminded me to pray. I was looking for God’s guidance. Do I try another year at the school I was working at? Or should I try to see what other jobs were out there?

It was a challenging fast, both physically and spiritually. When I began the fast, I was hoping that God would speak clearly to me and tell me exactly what I should do next. But He didn’t. At the end of the fast, I didn’t have an answer, but I did have a sense of peace about my decision. 

If you’re facing a difficult decision in your own life right now and you don’t know what to do, of course I’d recommend turning to prayer. But if it’s a really big decision like mine was, look into fasting. It really helped me focus on God and His will. Ultimately I realized that there wasn’t a wrong decision that I could make. God was going to work through me no matter where I was. So I updated my resume and started looking for jobs again.

It wasn’t a panicked search. It also wasn’t a very wide search. If I was going to leave my school and my kids, I was only going to do so if it was for a school in West Michigan. I felt at peace. I knew that if there wasn’t a job out there that wanted me, I had a great job at my old school. And if there was a job that wanted me (and I intended to be picky), then that was good too.

Shortly after my search began, I was offered a job in a larger public school. Reading through the agreement, I was shocked at the guarantees that teachers in that district had. Their time was protected and their extra efforts were compensated. The requirements they had were so few compared with what I was used to. I also took a significant raise, even though my new district was starting me on step one rather than honoring my three years of teaching experience. I read through the entire contract word for word because I was so shocked at the luxuries guaranteed to traditional public school teachers. 

Again, this is where I see an issue. Students who need the greatest support from their schools because they might not find it at home, are far too often in schools that are more underfunded, with teachers who are stretched too thinly. It isn’t equitable. And I fear, especially with the recent pandemic, that our achievement gaps are going to only continue widening.

So back to my story. After telling my principal, the first people I told were my juniors. These were the kids who had been the rambunctious freshmen my first year who destroyed my classroom 6th hour every day. They also were the kids I had seen the most growth in, and the ones I wouldn’t be able to walk through their senior year with. These were much more mature students; the ones who laughed and owned it when I started to find gray hairs and told them their freshman year was the thing to blame. The conversation with them was the hardest to have. I couldn’t explain to them how everything I was doing at school was burning me out. It just wasn’t something they could understand, nor did I want to try to explain. I focused on telling them how much I loved them all and how proud I was of how much they’d grown.

It was a very difficult decision. But it was the healthiest decision for me as a teacher. Since joining my current district, I’ve been given opportunities to really focus on teaching without scrambling to run every extra curricular that I could. I’ve also been able to learn how to find a balance between work and my life at home. I’ve told J a couple times that if we’d met while I worked at that first school, I never would have been able to invest in dating and getting to know him. 

Another great thing I have found is that working in my first school has made me a very efficient worker. I got so used to having not enough time to get everything done, so now that I have more time, I’m just in the habit of speeding through work efficiently.

I started this string of posts by pointing out that I would never change the experiences I had in my first district. But I also want to repeat that I am so glad I never have to repeat those years. They formed me into the teacher I am today, but there is a reason that 44% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. The job is grueling, and many districts have poor systems in place that can lead to villainizing and overworking teachers.

If that’s the boat you’re in, and you’re reading this, know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Prioritize your students, but be self-aware enough to know when to look for another job. Your mental health needs to be taken care of and protected before you can support students with their own mental health.

Education is a challenging and incredible career. God bless those who choose to become teachers. The struggle is real, but the reward is great.