Why I left the classroom
Thank you for your time in reading this. I’m not complaining, I’m not whining, I’m not out to make some political statement. I am a talented and well-liked high school astronomy and physics teacher. I will be an educator forever but I need a break from the classroom.
I have been teaching science for 10 years straight, including summers, subbing and teacher training school. I teach at a high performing, very diverse school that I love. I love the students and the staff, the support from the community and our local businesses! Nevertheless, I need a break. As you can imagine this is an excruciatingly difficult decision to make, to leave the classroom and head off into the unknown. I wanted to give some details as to why I made this decision in hopes that situations might change for others in the future.
These are the main reasons that tipped the scales towards my decision to leave, in order of priority they are:
- Compassion fatigue
- Financial stress
- Student – Teacher ratio
- Student’s social media addiction
My big heart always surrounds my students with love and concern for their well-being, but even I got to the point where I didn’t have anything left for myself. I started to ignore my own needs, for years. For many years I was waking up at 2 or 3am worrying about kids. I can’t count the number of hours of sleep I’ve lost trying to fend off the emotional baggage of the week. I had false hope that if I make it to the summer I could recharge my batteries and fix what was wrong the next year, a process of iteration, make things better and better. My math didn’t account for each year getting significantly more difficult.
Within 10 years I’ve had 6 students pass away. 4 by suicide, 2 by tragic death. In 2017 one of my bright hopefuls jumped off the third floor of our campus courtyard – he survived badly injured and currently on a lifelong journey of recovery. These were kids I knew well, I knew their parents, their brothers and sisters, some I knew for multiple years. I’ve seen kids become abandoned, homeless, hungry, so exhausted from work and life they are like zombies trying to eek out a diploma. I see these kids at their best but more often lately I see them at their worst, their bad days turn into bad weeks and bad months… They are worn out and in need of a lot of individual attention just to get the bare minimum from many of them. I walk into the classroom knowing it is a sea of high emotions and try my best to take their moods, their family situation, their abilities and their hearts into consideration – after all this caring, it’s easy to see how an emotional sponge like me can be up all night worrying about them…
I also cannot ignore the accumulation of mental stress from the barrage of recent school shootings over the past 10 years. I’m not going to dive into the whole gun / schools debate. I wouldn’t go so far to say I have “anxiety” from this, but I won’t deny that my students and I share a natural sort of “background tension” directly related to our safety in the school.
On top of this layer of emotional stress, teachers are expected to wear innumerable hats. Most we are happy to wear but many of these are normally left to experts with advanced degrees. Here are just a few:
- Child psychologist
- Shoulder to cry on
- School shooter fighter
- Guy who takes a bullet for your kid
- Father or mother figure, big brother, big sister
- Pillar of unconditional encouragement
- Social worker
- Social emotional skills teacher
- Mindfulness and meditation teacher
- Tutor for my class, math and other science classes
- College mentor
- Life coach
- Tech support expert
- Phone Nazi
- Equipment organizer and maintainer and repairman
- Curriculum writer
- Materials buyer
- Recommendation letter writer
- Grant writer
- Fight stopper
- Child anger management intervention expert
- Thespian dramatist and clown
Suggestion: There’s not much you can do about teacher stress. This is part of the job of taking care of so many kids from so many different backgrounds, and often feeling helpless getting them to certain academic milestones. Yoga has been good for me mentally and physically. I would highly suggest free or seriously discounted yoga classes off-campus at the teachers discretion. Or comparable gym membership. The yoga programs in town barely discount us enough to make it affordable. The gyms are also pricey. There have been yoga classes here at school but that has been intermittent at best, and I don’t want to take yoga after I’ve had over 100 kids in my face all day, I just want to go home and curl up in the fetal position and not have any interaction with anyone. Getting out into nature has been helpful of course, so perhaps some field trips for teachers to force them into the outdoors?
Prior to teaching I was a successful real estate broker making close to $100,000 but I dreamed of teaching science for many years – I come from a family of teachers – so when the opportunity arrived I made the jump into one of the most rigorous teacher training schools in Austin – the infamous “Region 13.”
When I started teaching in 2009 I took home $2200 a month. I actually called HR when I got my first check to see if it was a mistake assuming too much was being deducted… HR responded by saying “You’re single, you should actually be paying more!”… Within two years I had to declare bankruptcy because I couldn’t pay any of my old credit cards off, make my car payment, pay a mortgage and pay for my teacher training school loan. I was hoping my neighbor’s wifi connection would stay open so I could sneak some free internet for a few months since I cancelled cable too. My car was nearly repossessed because i was using whatever money I had to buy groceries and pay the mortgage. I did everything I could and eventually managed to crawl out of this hole, but I ended up back in the hole in 2015. Taxes… Taxes… Taxes…
Austin is my hometown, I’m a local, not a transplant. You simply won’t meet many native Austinites because of the influx of so many people from out of state moving here. Property taxes in Austin have now skyrocketed due to rising home values and demand. I’m barely in Austin, I’m on the northeast side because it was affordable when I built. My house cost $165k in 2005. I don’t live lavishly, I am frugal. I happily shop at Goodwill, I believe in what they do, and it’s cheap! When something breaks I try to fix it. I don’t take my car to the shop, I work on it myself.
Even with all these savings, taxes have gone up such that what once was an $1100 total mortgage payment is now $1700. It’s difficult to get a good roommate that is willing to live this far out. Airbnb costs nearly $1000 to get a license and inspection, these are recurring money-grab fees purely from the city of Austin, not Airbnb… Believe me, I have considered and tried everything to offset expenses. I started designing websites on the side, that helped, but all the money went to pay for dental work last year (even with a dental plan). On this budget I have no money left for savings.
All expenses have increased across the board here in Austin. There’s no way I could afford to have a kid in this city and be a teacher. Although my salary has gone up in small steps, with the rising cost of living here it’s as if I never made more than when I first started. So there is a financial burden that is crushing, on top of an emotional burden that is equally crushing – I cannot afford this job, literally.
Suggestion: No one is forcing anyone to stay in a particular job. We are all free to move around. I feel that one way for teachers to earn more money is to have a job that is year round. The problem with teacher pay isn’t the hourly amount, it’s the number of hours we are scheduled. We are on contract for 185 school days of the year. We are paid for those days, but we get 12 checks. So, it’s 185 days of pay, spread over 12 pay periods. That means you are missing around 70 days of pay because we typically don’t work summers. 70 school days of pay is several thousands of dollars. A huge percentage of teachers would gladly work year round to tie up these loose financial ends. Yes there is summer school to teach, but that is getting phased out in my district. There are remedial “catch up” classes and credit recovery, but this is largely during the busy school year or for only a couple weeks in the summer. On occasion there are curriculum writing jobs but these are limited to departmental needs and budgets. If we had guaranteed jobs for them to do during the summer, or, have year round classes, you would alleviate a lot of the financial burden of keeping this job.
STUDENT – TEACHER RATIO
This is a topic that simply gets pushed under the rug all too often but in my opinion it is a major cause of lowered standards, teacher burnout and self-isolation among kids. When I first started in 2009 my physics and IPC classes were average size, a very manageable 20-25 students. Fast forward to 2018. My smallest class is 29 students. My largest class has 37 kids. We simply don’t have the equipment to handle this volume of kids! And even if we did, it’s borderline mental to have that many teenagers in a class! What was once “buy 9 sets so you have 1 leftover as a backup in case something breaks” to now “buy 12 sets so you can just teach the lesson”…
To illustrate class size, take a look at this list of numbers…
Did you notice: the extra comma, the 8 that should’ve been a 9, the semicolon, the two numbers with a period? If these numbers were kids for example, some of their individual needs might have fallen through the cracks… Some of these kids may not get served as well as they could be in a class with fewer students… Welcome to my world.
A class of 25 is a pretty comfortable size, you will probably get a few kids that are ADHD, dyslexic, autistic, aspergers, maybe 5 to 7 out of that group. In a class of 35+ you will have around 15 students with special needs requiring various unique accommodations. In one class of 31, I have 18 students that have health related accommodations, 4 of those students with serious autism, 1 with a full-time aid. The best you can hope for with this kind of ratio is that the 13 other kids in class are self-motivated and can handle the material independently. These higher performing kids begin to isolate themselves in a bubble of independent study since the teacher is often called away to other students.
In my district we normally teach 6 classes. 3 per day. There are of course exceptions. I have been offered on several occasions to teach an additional course so as to spread out the population of students among 7 classes instead of cramming them into 6 classes. I did this twice and it was truly a nightmare. Class size didn’t go down that much, I was still at an average of 30 students for close to 8 hours straight without time to take care of grades and other logistical duties of my job…
Having lower class sizes is a goal among districts, but in a large district like the one I’m in, it simply can’t be implemented without great expense. Our school was built in 1969 to handle around 1000 students. We have 2200 now. We now have portables, an extra robotics building and an extra science building and we are still overflowing with students. The original structure itself is falling apart from age and population growth. Large class sizes often mean slower pace and lower class averages. This often leads to making numerous accommodations just to get work turned in – especially if you have a majority of burned out graduating seniors like I often have.
Suggestion: Have a variety of attendance options. Have a variety of school locations. Anything from satellite schools, pop-up schools or completing the course online with regular teacher check in’s for kids that are more independent. This flexibility is usually only reserved for students that are homebound from some type of accident or serious health issue (surgery etc..). I feel we need to open the gates to allow more people to qualify for this type of flexible attendance path. Lowering the class size has so many good benefits. From authentic grade improvements, to enhancing attention among ADHD kids, to building healthy relationships, to less stress, less anxiety… Only good comes from lowering the class size to 25.
SOCIAL MEDIA ADDICTION
Please understand that I feel social media plays a fantastic role in connecting people all around the world. I willingly admit to my own Facebook addiction but I’m a grown up. My argument here is that access to social media should be delayed for kids until they are late teenagers and it needs to be managed a lot better by parents. Yes I think social media could actually be beneficial and conducive to collaborative learning, but it seriously needs to be monitored better for younger kids.
In the decade that I’ve taught, I’ve seen kids with flip phones, then mp3 players, then ipods, and now smartphones… The hardware is manageable… Tell the kids to put their phones away is a constant mantra… But the apps are really the true problem. The app that killed and continues to kill student attention is Snapchat. It has truly devastated student interest in learning. I tried to embrace it, even started a Snapchat astronomy site but it soon became fruitless and lost in the storm of their friend’s selfies. The average kid, high and low performing, now has near ZERO attention span. Every free second they are checking their Snapchat. The content they are looking at is mind-meltingly stupid and of little to no academic value for their future. The amount of social anxiety this app created is unbelievable. Students are now immersed in a pool of knee-jerk careless and often cruel opinions of self-worth, beauty and intelligence. No other app has caused this much damage to the minds of so many. Maybe TV addiction was bad in the 40’s, but it didn’t follow you around and harass you about your prom pictures.
What does this have to do with me leaving? Am I afraid of an app? No. But you cannot deny that Snapchat and similar apps have caused an enormous deficit in student interest in academics. The amount of effort I spend trying to get a point across has increased, the number of students that “get it” has decreased. The amount of time spent on their phone has increased, the amount of effort they dedicate to their school work has decreased. It is truly a drug. It is truly an addiction.
Suggestion: Taking the phone away isn’t enough. Parents need to seriously keep tabs on the apps in their kids’ phones. As a society we shouldn’t be shoving tablets and devices at kids when they’re young. Being able to use an iPad isn’t a sign of intelligence. We survived for a couple decades using small cell phones without apps. Kids should have a way to contact their parents in case of emergencies, but the social media apps on the phones have got to be intensely monitored for that age group.
So, as I draw this year and this chapter of my career to a close, I have to mention that the staff I work with on a daily basis are some of the most amazing, awesome people in the world. I have met some incredible people in my teaching career, I will miss them the most. I was incredibly fortunate to have earned a position here where I was paid to carry the torch of science and enlighten nearly 2000 students! What a wonderful, life-affirming accomplishment I have been blessed with! All the staff at our school consider our kids as THE top priority, literally everything else comes after the well-being of our students. It has been an honor to have worked among so many caring, talented and compassionate people.