On Quitting Teaching, Revisited

I always cry when I watch Grey’s Anatomy.  Every. Single. Episode. It’s not that I think these people are actually dying.  I am fully aware of the reality of the situation: I am sitting in my big, comfy chair with a bowl of too much popcorn in my lap and Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry at my side, and I am watching a television show.  “It makes me so sad, but I love it,” I tell my husband, who’s a few feet away paying half-attention to the show while he winds down from his tough day managing engineers.  He’s really paying more attention to Candy Crush level six-hundred and something. But he’s tuned in to Grey’s Anatomy a little.  “It’s just a show,” he says to me.  “They’re not real people; none of this is real.  I don’t know why you have to get so upset.” 

At this point I could do one of three things: 1. I could explode into a tirade about how dare he say that and why did he even marry me because this is how I am.  I am sensitive and if he can’t understand that then he should just keep it to himself because he doesn’t need to crush candy and me, too2.  I could explain to him “why I have to get so upset,” which would result in him staring at me and back to his phone with a slight shake of his non-believing head. 3. I could keep it all to myself for my own reasons because the bottom line is I know why I’m crying and that’s good enough for me.  I’m at the point in the relationship where #3 is my option of choice because I’ve learned a thing or two, or fifty about being married.  I’ve learned about my husband, yes, but what I’ve really learned is that I am way too compassionate.  I care about what happens to people, even if they are just actors on television enacting real-life scenarios.  These things could happen, and it is the possibility that a pregnant woman might be fine one moment and then die the next.  And her baby will be cut out of her by brave and skilled, quick-thinking doctors.  The thought that such grief, loss, sadness, despair, and struggle actually does occur is what underlies my sadness while watching this show.  I am also crying for the hope and faith in humanity that these characters represent.  They may not be experiencing real life, but they represent people everywhere who are experiencing very real struggles. 

But my tears aren’t about death. As a teacher of high school students for over fifteen years, I learned how to interact with and build rapport with teenagers.  Many of my students remarked that I was different than other teachers because of my teaching style or because I was “real.”  I tried to impart to them the importance of doing their best while maintaining a healthy balance.  Many of my Advanced Placement students were stressed to the gills because they tried to do too much.  Conversely, many of my “college prep” students were failing or flailing, or both, because they weren’t doing enough.  A significant aspect of my teaching philosophy included the belief that they needed to be their own best advocate, and that their life was going to be impacted by their decisions, academic and otherwise.  It might seem like this should go without saying, but every year, I had many, many students who lacked direction, volition, goals, and urgency.  They made excuses instead of changes. 

Perhaps one reason I felt like I could never do enough as a teacher was that I was supposed to help prepare these kids for college or for life after high school at the very least, but I saw how ill-prepared they were as a whole, and taking my class for 57 minutes a day hardly seemed impactful enough.  It wasn’t my job to counsel them; it was my job to teach them how to master the state standards, many of which seemed impossible, given the students’ ability.  It was as if someone had demanded I teach giraffes to do ballet.  And I loved my students, and I was passionate about my subject.  I wrote with them, showing them how to do what I wanted them to do.  My approach was interactive and animated, and we laughed.  A lot.  I learned how to be a person in the world because of my job as a high school teacher.  And when I went to graduate school, I learned how to be even better because my confidence soared. 

But something interesting happened around my twelfth year of teaching.  It seemed the more of a veteran I became, the more overwhelming the job of teaching the future became.  I saw major problems in the education system and became ethically opposed to how things were being done.  We were forcing students to master Shakespeare, students who were worried about whether or not they should commit suicide.  We were telling students that they had to follow MLA format when they hadn’t eaten for two days.  We were acting as if school was the most important thing in the world and the only thing they should be worrying about when they were being bullied and getting pregnant, and smoking cigarettes in the bathrooms or across the street at break, when they were showing up to school drunk with vodka in their water bottles, joints in their backpacks, and ecstasy in their pockets.  If I had a dollar for every time a student told me about another student who “wasn’t anything like they were in class in real life,” I probably could’ve retired a long time ago on a mountain of cash.  Teens are having sex.  They are smoking.  And drinking.  And doing drugs.  And they are lying to their parents. But the longer we keep pretending like these behaviors aren’t a problem, the more of a problem they become.  I don’t have statistics, but I have instinct.  The culture of teens changes as much as it stays the same, and when adults close to teens pretend like everything is fine or like these things are normal or accepted, teens feel two things: vindicated and abandoned. 

I quit teaching for a number of reasons, one of which is I thought I might be able to make a significant contribution to my community or to society in some other way.  Teaching zapped my spirit because so much despair lurked around every corner, in every desk chair.  While many students wrote to me to tell me I was the one bright spot in their day or that they always enjoyed coming to my class, my heart beamed.  However, I felt like a fraud.  It was and always will be true that literature and writing are important for many reasons. I tried to instill in my students a love for literature, a means to achieve unique and authentic writing voice, and the pertinence of hard work and pride in workmanship, but what I really wanted to do was eradicate the poison that was killing them long before they got to my class. And this was an impossible task. Maybe this is the real reason I cry while watching TV. Grief compounded over the years has nowhere else to go.

7 thoughts on “On Quitting Teaching, Revisited

  1. Very well said Leslie as usual, you have empathy and compassion in abundance, unfortunately, not everyone does.


  2. I really hear you on this. It was my experience too, in many regards. But I have to remind myself (and therefore you) that the difference that you made in those lives is greater than your inability to fix them all. You are deeply empathetic – that same quality that occasionally feeds your despair makes you capable of great feats of humanity, and makes you the beautiful person that you are. =)


  3. I can so relate to your story, Leslie, and am moved by your accurate and poignant picture here. So much under the surface going on with the kids, reminds me of the poem, “Not Waving, but Drowning.” You were an awesome teacher, the one kids hoped to get. Thousands of lives were touched – and are still positively influenced – by your natural gifts of empathy, compassion, skill, knowledge, humor, and caring.


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