Former High School English Teacher
“How long do you stay unhappy in a place before something bad happens?”
Ms B was part of a program that carefully selects and prepares teachers for teaching in urban schools. The training is rigorous. Their training lasts a full year under the guidance of a mentor teacher before candidates get their own classroom. They sign on for a five-year commitment.
She tells me about how her powerful commitment to teaching and her drive for perfection ultimately damaged her health and forced the difficult decision to leave classroom teaching.
I think the first time I really considered [becoming a teacher] was at my dad’s retirement party at his school. They had created video essays about each retiring teacher: what you learned from your career, any regrets kind-of-a-thing. I was just looking at these all people, and none of them regretted what they did. Every single one of them said they couldn’t imagine spending their life doing something different. I was like, this seems like a good way to spend your life, you know? I knew education was good. I knew that teachers, most teachers, were very satisfied and happy with what they were doing every day, which was cool. Not a lot of people are.
Social justice is important, too. It didn’t make sense to me that some kids had so much opportunity and other kids’ lives were set for them. It seemed like education, if not getting them to college, at least could be helping them become critical thinkers, could help them be able to navigate their world better. I don’t know. But I was naïve in the sense that — well, in a lot of senses — but in the sense of this abstract idea: I knew I was going to be on the good guys’ side; I knew this was good. Which becomes a lot more complicated. After a while, I wasn’t so sure that what we were doing was good.
When I started, it was exciting. We definitely felt a sense of a mission. It was to become great teachers in areas where great teachers were needed. There was an incredible focus on becoming better every day and never being satisfied, which I was really drawn to. I always strive for excellence, and I like that about the program. They had very high standards. You couldn’t just sit at your desk, you know?
I think my skill set was really good for teaching. I’m really good with people. I have good instincts in terms of how kids are feeling, what works with them, what doesn’t. I can usually find something that they’re willing to work for. I’m very creative. Also, personality wise, I can be organized. I’m a planner. So I definitely, all of those things were working in my favor. If I wasn’t a good teacher, I was going to figure out how to become one for sure. It seemed to fulfill the sort of greater need for me to try and push back on some of the unfairness going on.
What were some of the things you struggled with during the student teaching?
Working too much. (Chuckles) Yeah, I mean, at one point my mentor was like, what you need to do tonight is go home and have a beer. You know? I think I just wanted everything to be so perfect. I’m a perfectionist. That was very hard for me. Teaching can’t be perfect; there are all these little people, things are going to happen, it’s going to change the plan.
How does it affect you when it doesn’t work out the way you want it to?
Oh, I think about it the rest of the night. If I had a planning period between classes, I would be rewriting the lesson plan until the next class period. I’m very reflective. Why didn’t that go well, how could I make that better? Trying to figure it out. I have that curiosity about me. Why didn’t that go well? How could I make it better?
By the end of the second year, things weren’t going well at the school. The kids that we didn’t want to set the tone for the school culture were setting the tone. I don’t think it’s as simple as it being hard to work in an environment like that. There’s got to be a way to make schools like ours healthier, happier places for teachers, a place to celebrate instead of… Teachers were scared a lot. Scared of administration, rubrics, being judged, being blamed. It was way more top down than we thought it would be. Teachers didn’t feel like they were being listened to. There was this tone of, this is what a good teacher is. If you’re not doing these things, we’re going to try and help you, but if you’re against these things, then find another place to work. I mean, it was an us-versus-them atmosphere. In the beginning, we were so a team, and I so wanted a family atmosphere. The principal [he was in his third year], had been a teacher for a long time; he really wanted to work with us.
But I think what bothered me more and more was that I didn’t feel like I was meeting the needs of the kids in my classroom. So that started to really bother me. I knew kids that had graduated at that point, and they weren’t going to college and their life wasn’t transformed. It was frustrating, because I was working 12, 13, 14 hours a day. All weekend. I still didn’t feel like I had the tools.
I think I looked to administration to know better. I felt like we had really good teachers that were trying really hard. Kids are going to take every inch, and they want to have fun. They’re going to resist things that are hard, and a lot of the curriculum was very new to them. They had never had homework every night. So that felt very normal for them to push back. I felt bad that some kids couldn’t write a sentence, couldn’t read a sentence, and they were in my class with 20 other kids. That was infuriating. But I had also chosen to work with them in the public system, you know?
I think when things get bad, people start blaming each other and start fighting. They started focusing on the really, really bad teachers, but they would send the message to the entire group. So we would all get berated about something, I don’t know, coming in late, not turning in lesson plans on time, scores wouldn’t have risen. But it would be directed to the whole group. Teachers like me were real reflective. I took that to heart. I was part of this group, and if we weren’t doing a good job, then I was part of that.
Another thing: We always had a lot of attendance problems. We felt like it wasn’t being addressed. Sometimes there were literally only like seven and eight kids present in my class. Then I was being held accountable for failing kids, and we were supposed to call home, but sometimes our home numbers didn’t work. I felt like they [the administration] had no sense of what was really going on, and I also felt like attendance [as they presented it to the public] was wrong. My reality was so different from what the PowerPoints were saying and what the program was touting and that bothered me. Ethically that bothered me.
I had a conversation with one of my friends who worked there. She just had a bad feeling. She just was feeling really awful. Whereas I was more optimistic always, she would say things are not working, and she would feel like the principal is like he’s not our guy. She was just more sure that things were bad.
I’m an eternal optimist. I think I wanted her to stay, and I wanted her to be okay. At the end of that second year, she and I had sent out a survey to the faculty. We wanted to figure out what were the biggest obstacles to learning in teachers’ classrooms. We just felt like that wasn’t being talked about. So we had compiled all this data, and we started this group we called the Solutions Group. People would complain and complain, but we wanted to be a part of the solutions. At that point, I don’t think the administration could ask for our advice on everything; they were just treading water. So I was excited about this group. It’s my third year and I was going to try and actively work to be a part of positive change in the school. And if that didn’t work, then it was time to move on. Because I was really unhappy. I think it was the first time I’d allowed myself to say, if I can’t make this work, if I can’t be happy in this place, and I’ve tried all these things, how long do you stay unhappy in a place before something bad happens?
How did you answer that question?
I was still very connected to the school and to the kids. But I felt like, I’m 26, this was the first thing I did out of college. I always have felt that you can’t really do the work that you’re meant to do unless you’re happy and healthy. Life’s too short, you know?
You left halfway through the year, correct?
Yeah. I don’t know when it started. I think I have the type of personality where until something is solved, I can’t stop. So certainly my perfectionism played into it. I can control how the lesson’s going to go, so I was rewriting the lesson, creating new worksheets, when my first one was probably fine. People were telling me I was doing a good job, but it didn’t seem like enough.
I started to develop an insane amount of anxiety, and I think it was more from, certainly philosophically part of it was, I stopped believing in what we were doing. Which I think affected me hugely, but day to day… I was having all these physical signs of a serious anxiety problem. It had kind of come to a head. I’d obsess over lessons; I would stay in on the weekends. I would wake up three, four in the morning, trouble breathing, just sort of a heaviness. A lot of the symptoms of depression. Thoughts sort of racing into one another, thinking about this detail and that detail, this detail and that detail, and I’d end up finally getting out of bed and going to school like two and a half hours early. I was the first person there every day. Once I was there, I could get my classroom ready, I could feel a sense of control.
And I mean, I felt like we were hurting the kids. Jeff, [her husband who teaches at a military academy] he calls himself a realist. I call him a pessimist. He looks at a situation like mine and is much more prone to say, “Well, what are you going to do, you know?” Whereas, I felt and my colleagues felt like we really could transform urban education, we can do these things. So he wanted me out of there for sure. But he also, he felt like I owed something to the kids, and I felt like I owed something to the kids. So he didn’t want me to cut and run.
I had never had mental health problems. But now they diagnosed me with a panic disorder. I was at the point where the doctor prescribed me Xanax for the panic attacks. Immediately felt relief from the drugs. Then that next day I was kind of in a fog, because I was hopped up on all this Xanax. Feeling better, but sort of going through the motions. I was asking, do I want to continue to teach by way of drugs?
What happened to your optimism?
I don’t know. I just felt like it got beat out of me. I certainly at this point don’t think that there’s no hope, I never was there, but I got to a point where I didn’t feel like I could be successful in the way that I viewed success. Within the construct that was there. Although I really didn’t know what success was either. One of the things that was really hard for me was that I didn’t know what was success as a teacher. To the school it was dramatic gains in test scores. My students’ scores usually did raise a little, but I didn’t believe in the tests, you know? It was like, that didn’t make me feel super, that didn’t make me feel like I was doing a good job.
I’m writing about this right now ‘cause I’m trying to understand how I became one of these statistics. I don’t think I ever knew, what did I want? Did I want my kids to have the childhood that I had? Did I want them to go to college, did I want them to just be happy? That might have been one of my goals, I just wanted them to be happy, and that was really hard, because you come in after the weekend. You ask them how was your weekend? “Terrible.” I think that wore on me too. So, I went on medical leave because I knew I can’t go back. I knew I was so unhealthy. I couldn’t continue to feel the anxiety anymore.
Was that tough?
Did it feel like defeat?
I just felt guilty.
About your kids?
[Cries] Sorry. I wrote a letter. At first, I was like, you know, me being crazy it was like, I’ll write each one of them their own letter. But I ended up writing one, and I asked Crystal [the teacher who took her place] to read it to them. She said that they were totally quiet, which is hard for kids. Like totally quiet, really listening while she read it. [Cries] I felt really bad that I couldn’t even go there and say goodbye. A few of them wrote to me. Certain kids that I was really close with, I’d email. It was hard because I didn’t have closure, but then I ended up going to graduation. Which was good, yeah. It was so hard.
Looking back, does it feel like you did the right thing?
Yeah, I’m very confident. Yeah. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Certain students I still talk to. I sent a care package yesterday to one of my kids who went to college. One of my kids’ brothers was shot and killed; I was texting with him. It’s not the relationship that I want, but it’s still there a little bit, which is good. I feel like the ones who I was close with, they know that I’m still here. A lot of people leave our kids, you know? I couldn’t believe that I was one of them.