Win or Go Home: Why Do Teachers Quit?

Win or go home! This thought circulated in my brain while mopping an elementary classroom floor.  Since I wasn’t teaching full-time as a certified K-6 elementary teacher in North Carolina, I had accepted a long term substitute assignment at a small, rural Title I elementary school. Our students were getting sick constantly one after the other. As teachers, we decided to clean, and sterilize the room to help prevent, if possible, illnesses from continuing. I made a subconscious decision during this time to leave education after giving myself five years in the profession. I say subconscious because I still didn’t want to face the fact that I had lost the inner passion to continue. I had mentally given up hope of achieving the kind of fulfillment I’d dreamed of while in school. My personal journey had been a long one, of effort, time and money. My love for children and personal investment made me want to fight on a little more, exhausting all other teaching options before leaving the profession. But it was clear that whatever my expectations were for becoming a teacher, this wasn’t it.

“Something’s been said,” is a quote used by members of my extended, southern family. Although I was raised in the Midwest, I’d heard this phrase every time something suspicious happened within our clan. It means that there is something definitely wrong, or off-putting but no one knows how to explain it or wants to expose the real issues. Win or go home? Well, the choice was clear to me now, but I had my own reasons for continuing the charade.

Today, I have come to a place of acceptance and have embraced the choices I’ve made to become a teacher. I’ve viewed my successes and failures as learning opportunities. Since I was a young child, I always journaled my inner feelings so I had plenty of personal notes and observations about my journey to remind me about what I’d seen and felt while pursuing this career. I’m ready now to share what I’ve been through in order to shine a light and perhaps unveil some of the hidden realities that exist within our modern day educational system for new teachers.

My views are based upon my own personal experience. I decided to become a teacher much later in life after working in both the public and private sectors for over 20 years. Although I spent only 5 years in education, I had a range of past professional and life experiences that helped me to put into context my observations about the teaching profession. I always viewed teachers as noble human beings who make professional choices and huge personal sacrifices. I am the product of many culturally diverse teachers who poured both time and love into helping me to become my personal best. One does not become a teacher for accolades or to get rich. This is especially true in the south where teachers’ income is the lowest in the country.

In the summer of 2014, I made a personal commitment and enrolled for a year and a half in an accelerated educational program to acquire my teaching certification. I invested financially, studied countless hours, survived the expectations of my accomplished professors, completed my student teaching under the leadership of a dynamic co-teacher, and moved unexpectedly to North Carolina to start my teaching career, only to have my enthusiasm zapped completely.

The veil covering the education system was lifted for me. It had many hidden realities that made me question the overall teaching profession and whether I could commit to it. How did I get to this place? My teaching career included stints as a substitute teacher, 2nd grade teacher in a new charter school, and teaching online. Sleep deprivation,  along with chronic anxiety had become the norm as I tried to keep pace with the classroom and administration requirements. I’d encountered work place abuse, at least to me it was abuse, resulting in health issues. I’d experienced a particular type of hazing that can happen to new teachers in a school where one is assigned the smallest classroom with the most kids needing extra support. Originally, I thought it may have been personal, even racially motivated, but soon learned that all the teachers, whether native or transplants, experienced similar conditions. 

Was I disappointed and angry? YES, indeed! These feelings only generated countless questions. What else could I have done to succeed in being a teacher? Was I not committed enough? Why can’t I eat lunch? Why couldn’t I use the bathroom? Virtually every other profession generally allows its employees the freedom to go to the restroom. Why didn’t I feel respected as a teacher? Everyone acted like they knew how to do my job. Where was the day-to-day support? With a significant portion of special needs students, I could’ve used more support. Do parents, elected officials, board members, and administrators understand what teachers actually do on a daily basis? Why are our schools still failing? Where does all the money go? Why are teachers leaving the North Carolina school system? Why are teachers nationally protesting across the country? I had done my best yet my enthusiasm was now replaced with fear, exhaustion, and insecurity. I had given more than I imagined. I wanted relief. I wanted this experience to end.

I was taught to be accountable for one’s actions. Therefore, I mentally reviewed my flaws and shared my short-comings with my trusted tribe. But something about this experience was different, possibly even beyond my control. Inexperience could not explain everything away. It was systemic within the work environment. Teachers operate within the boundaries of their professional pedagogy, timelines, pacing, administrative, and political expectations. These expectations eventually collide with reality and one’s own humanity. Only teachers fully understand what it is really like working under these conditions. Yet, there is also a lot of lip servicing from elected officials and the general public who really do not understand what happens in the educational system from a teacher’s perspective. Something’s been said!

In addition, we should be able to retain new teachers as well as attract experienced professionals who decide to pursue careers in education as a viable option. Nationally this is not the case. To my surprise, my former elementary school lost about 90% of its original workforce within a year, and even a local school superintendent resigned their position within one school term. There are definitely many layered reasons for what we see today. My goal is to share my inside observations and views on what I experienced, and questioned during my limited teaching experience.

The following blog posts are love letters to both students and our teachers across the country. Maybe I can share what many inside the educational system don’t want to publicly share with outsiders. Now it’s time to “unveil” those things that don’t get talked about enough to gain clarity and an authentic understanding. Perhaps with a candid dialogue and assessment (teachers love assessments), we can begin to make things better for, not only students, but the servant leaders, our teachers, who’ve assume this important role. They deserve it.

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