The leaving manifesto

The realization dawned on me that I needed to leave. It’s not in a “oh my God get me out of here” way or a “I’m running as fast as I can towards something new” way. It’s just a “it’s time” way. It’s not desperate or overly negative or toxic. It just is.

I think it’s been coming to this for awhile, leaving public education. After all, I’ve done it once before. Reasons then were not what they are now. Back then I had an external force acting on my decisions, and somehow that felt really comfortable and I just ran with that for years. To be fair, I’d had an entire childhood where decision making was largely influenced by external forces. That’s what happens when you grow up in poverty and a scarcity mindset. When you have parents who have myopic views on pretty much everything. 

I’ve been dabbling in applying and even interviewing for other jobs over the past several years. No shade, but I completely fell into the job I have now. I didn’t have to work for the contract – I applied on a semi-whim and six months later heard back. In my personal life, my sense of self was a swirling sea of chaos and grief. I let the waves of fate take me out into the big blue ocean, back into an industry I’d low-key sworn I wouldn’t go back to. But I did.

As a child and teenager, school was my happy place. Well, maybe not always happy, but safe. I was good at it. Adults liked me. They praised me, took care of me. Gave me emotional support. The mostly middle-aged women with perms filled in aspects of mothering that I didn’t receive at home. Maybe they knew that, maybe they didn’t. The smell of a school smells like home whether it’s primary or secondary. There’s something about walking down iterations of hallways with lockers and doors.

If teaching were now the way it was back when I started, or even when I was in school myself, I might stick with it until retirement. As it is, I’m planning on retiring early. No matter what, I won’t even reach the requisite 25 years in my state to get full benefits. When I look down the tunnel of work life before retirement, I’m met with a minor sense of dread, and then a wave of indifference and acceptance that that’s what life will be like. I would just power through for 15-ish more years.

The teaching part is what I love. It’s exciting and unpredictable and allows for spontaneity. I love the vibe of a classroom where everyone is heard and seen and accepted. I love watching students learn. But right now, along with some pretty great colleagues, that’s about all I can rely on.

The environment of schools itself is harried and rushed and has the scent of doom all over it. Doom and gloom if you will. I think most of us are pretty exhausted trying to combat that as it is. Add on the bureaucratic bloat of testing, observations, evaluations, micromanaging, hundreds of emails a day, “yes you should” and “no you can’t” and a loss of autonomy. It used to be that I could just close my door and teach, and everything in the four walls was isolated to some extent from the outside. Now it’s not. There’s little time for deep focused work for myself or my students. I’m emotionally exhausted every day from keeping up relationships with literally hundreds of people. I’m mentally exhausted from trying to protect myself from the barrage of distractions when I’m trying to plan the necessary high-quality standards-based lessons that are praised on my evaluations.

My mind started to open up to new possibilities for a few reasons. First, my husband is a shining example of going out there and getting what you want and what you know you deserve. Throughout the process of his being recruited for the well-paid work-from-home role he has now, I was inspired and wondered why I couldn’t also be that ambitious. Another thing is that I feel that I’m hanging out at the ceiling of my job now. I’ve exhausted my creativity, because with the constraints of curriculum and scheduling and all the other things (see what I wrote about bureaucratic bloat above), there’s only so much creativity I can add into my lessons and in my teaching methods. Each observation and evaluation just feels like the same ride on the same roller coaster. Like, we’ve been here before. We know where it leads. I teach, you rate me and give me a silly thing to improve on and we do the cycle over and over again ad nauseum.

In addition, I have no desire and never have to become a school administrator. I like being in the trenches, continually sharpening my skills to deliver content and engage students. I don’t want to move into different subject areas, though I’ve thought about it and researched what it would take. I can’t stand the horribly not rigorous graduate level education courses that just rearrange skills and strategies I’ve learned (and quite honestly are common sense) with a new name. 

Going back to school is not a good option for me – for one thing, the programs I could get reimbursed have to be related to my current job. For another, I can’t decide on what I would want to do. Committing to a new program and career trajectory not related with my current skills is something I don’t want to do at this point.

So as I reflect on my tenure as an instructor in some capacity over the past 15ish years, I’ve realized a few core things about myself as not just a teacher but a professional in general:

  • I am really good at finding a creative solution to a multi-faceted problem. From start to finish, I can take a large and seemingly impossible task and break it down into steps, ask for feedback along the way, and execute an efficient solution. This comes from, for example, having to create at least two schedules per academic year that have nothing but constraints.
  • I have developed my people-ing skills to no end. I can wordsmith an email to communicate my message, I can get my colleagues on board with new ideas, I am really good at interpersonal relationships and then building on those.
  • I can see big tasks or problems from a systems lens. I can see the intricacies of something complex and find a way to make it more simple or tease it apart. This includes juggling multiple tasks with different deadlines and doing it well.
  • I am way more creative than I give myself credit for. This goes beyond coming up with solutions or creating visually appealing presentations. This speaks to the fact that I’ve had my personal blog for over a decade and also have gone out on a limb to try new things like creating a podcast and using technology I’ve used maybe once sometime back in grad school (Audacity). 
  • I am really good at figuring out new technology and how to apply it. Give an example and timeline, I can create something and then figure out how to show someone else pretty quickly.

So for all those personal realizations, I’ve decided to find a new path that’s adjacent to what I’m doing now, maybe even something that addresses the systemic problems from the outside. I thought the cognitive dissonance of public education policy/practice would go away, but it hasn’t. It’s only been magnified since COVID. I was hopeful in the beginning, that people would finally see that there are better ways to do things. Having one day a week of virtual teaching and learning for staff and students was life changing, and helped me stay longer than maybe I would have. Eh, let’s be real, I had no idea what else I was going to do.

And that’s the huge takeaway I have from all of this reflection, is that public education will make you think that that’s all there is. Your skills are defined such that they go into this tiny little box that’s checked off on a Danielson rubric, and that’s it. But there’s a whole world out there.

I think the final realization I had was that if I were going to be asked to host a student teacher, I would have to decline based on my own conscience. There is no way that with the state of public ed the way it is I can conceivably invite, mentor, and encourage a college student to commit to this profession. An unwilling or jaded mentor is no mentor at all, and that’s the last thing I’d want to be. In any profession we have to continue teaching others so that the profession lives on, but I realized that I cannot do that at this point in time.

I always said getting into teaching, that if I ever became that crotchety old miser who hates her life and does nothing but bitch about the bad things and decry the good, it’s time for me to leave. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d rather move on while I’m feeling optimistic and hopeful and before I get desperate.

At the end of this year I will most likely say goodbye to a lot – my students, my colleagues, my classroom. Oh finally my own classroom! I know the school district is doing what it can to retain teachers (at a board meeting earlier this year they voted to give us 5 half days of planning throughout the rest of the year) but I have to say that for me, it’s too little too late. And, in general this is not really as much a “leaving teaching” thing as it is “explore new paths” for me. It’s time and I’m ready.

I’ve worked through my grief – of loved ones, of infertility, of leaving places I’ve lived – and I’m ready to embrace what’s coming next.

Saying 'no' means saying more

I’m sure you’ve heard it said that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. Usually you’re told this if you’re not sure if you should or can do something and the person you’re talking to wants to encourage you to put your foot down and say ‘no’.

I don’t think our society is there yet, to hear only the word ‘no’. People want explanations, reasons, negotiations. And in some aspects it makes sense: we’re kind of built on those things. Early in the formation of this country, we did say no, to the King of England, to the Church, to the two that were inextricably tied together. But I think we’ve lost something along the way.

In the year of 2020 so far, I have made it a resolution to say ‘no’ to things, events, attitudes, situations, that do not advance my growth as a person. This may sound individualistic, but I really believe it’s in our best interest as members of society to model what we want to see in the world.

I want to see people who are content (not necessarily always happy), satisfied (with what they have); rested, not ragged.

I want to see my fellow teachers in the profession for years to come instead of dropping out of the ranks due to burnout, overworking, endless fruitless and sometimes abusive interactions with parents, lack of administrative support, and guilt tied to taking a day off for physical or mental health. Statistics have shown for years that the attrition rate of teachers is close to 50% – think about it. Half of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Is that what we want for our children? Teenagers?

I want to see my fellow congregants at church happy to be involved in their chosen ministries, satisfied in their own spiritual lives that they can contribute to others without becoming weary. I want to see Christ followers who have the time to delve into the word, into prayer, into meditation or contemplation. I want to see people who truly bring Christ into and outside of the church building, serving and loving everyone.

But it is obvious, especially with recent events, that society is not there yet. Will it take a global pandemic to get us there? Maybe. Honestly, I’m hoping. I hope after this, and even throughout, people will begin to say ‘no’.

This takes a fortitude and a level of critical thinking that doesn’t occur when you say ‘yes’. Most of the time, people say ‘yes’ to all sorts of things without first discovering the terms and conditions – how long is the commitment, how toxic might the relationship become, what are all the subordinate tasks of what I’m agreeing to do. We say ‘yes’ to please people (see my post on that here) and because our own self-confidence isn’t built up yet.

And then we falter. We run ourselves ragged and can’t sleep and have high levels of anxiety and become more susceptible to illness. All because we did not take the time, or were never taught, how to critically evaluate a situation and our place and role in it.

Therefore, saying ‘no’ means saying more. At least to ourselves. It means more direct communication. So, fellow American, stop with the “I don’t like confrontation” attitude. Saying ‘no’ does not mean that you are being ‘mean’ or ‘confronting’ someone. If someone is bold enough to ask you to join them in whatever task, adventure, or attitude, then it’s well within your right to ‘confront’ them by saying ‘no’. And you don’t need to explain yourself further.

However, to that last point, you do need to do some work on the inside to get you there. So don’t answer right away. Sleep on it. Think it through. Talk it out with someone. Pray about it. And after that’s done, still all you need to say is that one word.

Since our society is in the very beginning stages of hearing the word ‘no’, there will be opposition. You will probably be going up a creek, with or without a paddle. People might give you a sideways glance, or if they’re so bold and confrontational, send you packing for a guilt trip.

That’s okay – just leave the packing to them and the ticket on the table.