Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why it could have been a brilliant career

I didn't want to write this post. I've been putting it off, too embarrassed. Everyone has been so nice, leaving comments, sending e-mails. Then another comment, then another e-mail, "just checking in." Hoping I'm feeling better, that things are getting better, if only a little bit. I suppose, in a way, things are a little bit better, since I quit my job. However, in another and much more real way, things are also much, much worse, since...I quit my job. And there it is. I quit my job. What I have been to embarrassed, too ashamed to post about, to tell even my close friends about, to tell my parents about. They still don't know. But now you do. On Thursday I talked to my principal, in tears, and on Tuesday, after a long weekend, I didn't go back. I didn't go back.

Everyone has been so nice, the steady stream of social workers and instructional coaches the principal sent into my classroom on Friday to "check up" on me, perhaps hoping they would sway me, but no one even tried to. They hugged me, these complete strangers, and told me it would be ok, that it wasn't my fault, that they understood and that I had to do what was right for me. But I don't deserve their kindness. I don't deserve the e-mails of support and offers to share contacts at other schools, in other districts. I don't deserve it because I am the worst kind of person, because who abandons her students only two weeks into the school year? Who gives up and throws in the towel without even giving it a proper go? What kind of person devotes an entire year of her life to a Masters program and goes into debt all in the name of teaching, and then gives up when the going gets hard? Three weeks ago I would never have thought that would be me. But I guess we can all surprise ourselves, sometimes. 

I am finding it hard to explain myself, because really, there is no excuse for what I have done. But here are the facts. I wasn't sleeping. I couldn't eat. I felt nauseous 24 hours a day, my entire body a twisted knot of nerves, and every day it got worse, and not better. I started out on an adrenaline high that lasted most of the first week (a day out for an earthquake mid-week helped), but by week two, things had changed. Week two, it was real. My attempts at re-gaining control in my classroom all failed. I couldn't teach my students; I couldn't even get them to sit down. Nothing I did seemed to help. I assigned detention; no one came. I called parents and sent e-mails and spoke to administrators and logged all of my actions, staying at school until late, way past the point of drained, and then went home to prepare lesson plans. I came in early to prepare and I went to morning all-staff meetings, and then I steeled myself for the rest of the day, but the fact was, I couldn't teach my students. Years of experience and training, and suddenly, I knew nothing at all, anymore. The truth is, I only had one really bad class (one out of three, with demon-from-hell block scheduling and classes lasting an hour and twenty minutes each, so help me god). But even in the good classes, the "good" classes, I didn't know how to reach them. I didn't know how to get them to learn, there was such resistance. And the bad ones I couldn't even get to acknowledge my existence. I would speak and they would ignore me as if I wasn't even there. If I assigned detention, they laughed at me. When word got out that I was calling homes, that egged them on. "I look forward to your call tonight," they would say laughing, defiant. "You gonna call my house? Go ahead." 

And eighteen-year-old Rico, on his fifth year of high school, who had begged them to let him back in so he could graduate, not even a kid but a man. With a head full of braids, a booming, resonant voice and a swagger, he said, "Man, you ain't got no control of this class. Look at you, they aren't even listening to you." I wanted to say, No, because they're listening to you. But I didn't. The first time I tried to be light, make a joke out of it. "You want to get up here and do this?" I said, faking a smile. "I'd probably do a lot better at it than you," he said, scowling, and my smile faded; it was true. The second time he said it, the next day, I snapped. "Can I get a pass to see my counselor?" he complained. "I gotta get out of this class. You don't know what you're doing, you ain't got no control." His voice oozed contempt.

"Get out," I snapped, losing any pretense of dignity or calm. 

"I'm already goin'," he said. "I don't want to be in this class anyway, you don't know how to teach." And it was true. I didn't.

They said, they said, all you need is to have your procedures in place, and you would have nothing to worry about. All about structure and routines. They said all you need are engaging lesson plans and you'll have them eating from your hand. I never saw the footnote that said, *This is what will work for white, suburban kids. Your results may vary. Teach at your own risk.

If I could have kept on, I would have. If I could have finished out the year, finished out the semester, if it had been even a possibility, I would have. Somehow, some way. But as it was, if I managed to go to sleep at all, I would wake up at 2:00 in the morning, without fail, violently sweating, and then lie awake the rest of the night, and start the day at 6:00. I could barely choke down half a piece of peanut butter toast in the morning without wanting to vomit, picked at my lunch, would throw together completely unappetizing leftovers for dinner, making meals of things like steamed broccoli and two-week old mashed potatoes, no time and no energy for more. Losing weight without having weight to lose. But instead of feeling light I felt heavy, dragging myself to the bus stop and down hallways like I had weights attached. I felt sick when I was there, and sick when I was at home, anticipating being there. I couldn't relax, couldn't turn off, couldn't not think about it. My hands would shake, and I had no idea how to fix it, how to fix any of it. It all seemed insurmountable, like more than I could do. And so, instead of fighting, I gave up. I gave up. 

My kids deserved better than me. They deserve better than me. They deserve someone who can teach them. Leaving after two weeks, I thought, or justified, would be less traumatic than leaving them after a month, or two months. They would still have a chance at a normal semester if they could just get someone else in there right away, someone who could teach them, but it wasn't me. It isn't me. 

I didn't say a word to them when I left. I am still thinking about them. I hope they aren't thinking about me. I hope they don't think I left because of them. I hope they have forgotten me.  

I know it seems like the easy way out, but if you think there's a weight off my shoulders now, there's not. Instead now I am burdened by guilt, by regret, by shame, by impending financial disaster. It wasn't the right decision but it was the only one. I didn't want to leave, but I couldn't stay. I wish it could have been different. I don't know why I feel the need to explain myself to strangers but I do. I want to scream from the rooftops, I am sorry, please don't hate me, there is already enough of that to go around.

So, now you know. But how will I tell my parents?   


  1. I get it. I understand where you're coming from and what you're talking about. I know those feelings.

    Maybe your parents won't understand it right away, but they will eventually. Because, above all, they don't want to see their baby girl so terribly unhappy.

    Do you want me to say that you did the right thing? I will say that. I will say that because I *do* think you did the right thing. Only YOU know your limitations. I don't mean that as an insult (AT ALL!) -- I think it's wonderful to know your own boundaries. It took me many (too many) years to know my own.

    Don't feel guilty. And, above all, don't feel sick anymore. There was something in your life that was going completely wrong and you took the step to stop that. That's STRENGTH, Rachel.

    Big, warm hugs to you. Now go eat something.


  2. I am a former NYC public schoolteacher, and I can assure you that you did the right thing by quitting. You should read the book Small Victories, which is a biography of a teacher who loved teaching who left because the difficulties of teaching in an urban system was destroying her. People who stay in the NYC public schools and hate their job become the most depressed, saddest people you could ever imagine meeting. Their whole lives are spent counting down days to the weekend, then to summer break, then to retirement.

    Please understand that I am making the following statement based upon my assessment of your blog it may not be true: I'm not certain that teaching is your calling in life. If that is an accurate assessment, then you cannot teach in an urban school district without getting destroyed. It's just too hard to battle the constant discipline problems and lack of resources unless teaching is your calling (and even if teaching is your calling, it is still insanely difficult).

    But the good news is that you might still be able to teach in a suburban school district or private school quite successfully without that same level of calling. If people were trying to help you transfer, then they must have seen that you have the potential to be a good teacher. Hold onto that, and understand that that is the lesson for the future.

  3. I won't say whether you did the right or wrong thing, because it's such a personal decision - but I'm sending hugs your way.

    Teaching is definitely hard, I couldn't imagine teaching HS (5th grade is difficult enough for me!).

    Keep your head up and look forward, not back!


  4. I think...what you did was brave. You took care of yourself, and there's bravery in that. Now go do the next brave thing: face the people you're scared to face, and unburden yourself of this secret. And then go do the next brave thing after that: make a new grand plan. A better one. Be bold.

  5. Also, I live in Montgomery County, MD and I know how messed up DC schools are. You can't fix something that much bigger than yourself. It's a disaster of a school system, and that's tragically said in a thousand different ways, some of whom have faces and sneered at you, but you're just one person. So since you couldn't fix that, or them, I go back to my first comment: you bravely fixed what you could fix-- yourself.

  6. Quitting can be a brave thing to do. Admitting that you can't do something that everyone expects you to do so well is even braver.
    It will work out. Some way, some how . . .

  7. Your story sounds like hell!
    I hope you find a job in a nice school because this was just wrong!

    Don't waste your energy in feeling bad or guilty. It's about you, and your mental and physical health.
    Take care.

  8. 1. That sounds like a freaking nightmare.

    2. Stop beating yourself up over it. You didn't quit because it wasn't everything you'd fantasized about, you quit because the experience threw you into bona fide panic/anxiety attacks every single day. No one can live like that.

    3. Forgive yourself, let the dust settle, make a plan for moving on. It was a learning experience, now it's over, time to move forward. Take out of it what you can use constructively, reject anything that's telling you that you're a failure, because it's bullshit.

    4. The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.

  9. I wonder, as you're reading these comments, my initial one included, if you're thinking: "They're just telling me what I want to hear."

    I can't speak for everyone who has commented, so I'll just speak for myself: "No. I'm telling it like it is. You did the right thing. If I thought you just wimped out, I would have said that. I got to be very good friends with someone who I met via her blog and whenever I commented, before or after we became friends in real life, I told it like it was. I called bullshit on her when it was warranted. I told her that she did the wrong thing if that's what I thought. I gave her advice that wasn't always the advice that most everyone else gave her. So when I say that I think you did the right thing -- and to go eat something, dammit! -- I'm not just serving you what you want to hear on a silver platter. You did the right thing. Now go eat something else."

  10. I currently teach 10th graders in a Tier 1 school (low income --more than 50% of the students on free lunch). Unless you have parental buy-in and a strong mentoring program at a school, it is an almost impossible job -- especially for a newly-certified teacher just out of school. It sounds like you were thrown to the wolves with little or no support; did they assign you a "master" teacher as a mentor, to help you plan lessons and to serve as a sounding board? I know what it's like to have the 'class from hell' (it's a cyclical thing -- you'll have great classes for a couple of years and then...). A totally different teaching methodology is needed for these classes, but they don't teach you that in teacher education colleges; that comes from years of experience and is why having an 'old pro' to go to for advice is essential. Only you can say whether or not you feel you have what it takes to be a teacher but, looking in from the outside, I don't think you've gotten a fair shot at teaching and urge you to try again -- this time, with the odds stacked more firmly in your favor.

  11. I think your options were having a nervous breakdown or quitting. You made the healthiest decision for you. I am so sorry that you went through this and I hope that you will find something that you enjoy. Be kind to yourself and put this all behind you.

  12. Having read your blog for a while now you've never struck me as a teacher. Is it something you always wanted to do/were passionate about? I respect teachers but I know tha I could never be one because of all the things you described in your post plus I lack patience. did you ever think it would be this hard? I worked as an English Assistant in Orleans, France but only for the money not because I ever wanted to be a teacher and teens are the worst. However; I will say that I was surprised at how well behaved most of the children were - not like my peers and I when we were in a Catholic Secondary school in England. I remeber you had an offer to teach abroad, can't recall the country but I think that would have been easier as they would not likely have the level of attitude on Anglo students and it would have been a great opportunity to discover a new country. Would you consider doing that now?
    Sorry for the long comment, I should have emailed. I think you've done the right thing in quitting, you sounded like you were living in hell and your suffering would have only gotten worst. All the best, this may lead to something more rewarding.

  13. No advice, no nothing. I just want to say you do so deserve kindness. You absolutely do.

  14. Wow, reading this is really inspiring. I think people are definitely right that this was not right for you (thought I don't believe you're not meant to be a teacher) and that you did the right thing in quitting. It sucks that the people "in charge" even let you get that far!
    Watch The Wire season 4, read the Small Victories book (sounds good!) and I agree, eat something! Pasta!

  15. Tell your parents nothing. You do not owe anyone a reason as to why you made an executive decision to not teach at this particular school.

    Don't fret over the kids. They're kids. They forgot about you at the end of that school day. (not meant to sound mean, but it's true).

    Your pending financial doom will work out. It has too, cos you have that fear of it not working, in you. There is a fire under your ass.

    Give yourself permission to sulk, cry, scream and be angry at the universe for a week. Then suck it up and get to work looking for employment else where.

    There are lessons in this to learned. You are NOT a bad teacher. Some kids, no matter their back ground, will always be defiant, just cos they can.

    You will learn your own strategies to deal with those kids who have no desire to learn, those who are defiant and mock you. You will rise above them. Though keep in mind, you will also have days of losing your cool.

    Those teachers, counsellors, colleges, those complete strangers that hugged you, offered up contacts etc, they know. They've been there themselves.

    You are awesome and will find the right fit at a school soon. You may have to change schools a few times in your career.

    Don't look at any of this as a failure on your part. It's building character and experience in your benefit.

    Chin up love

  16. I'm really not one to blow smoke up a strangers ass, but I do kind of admire that you were able to pull the trigger on a terribly difficult decision. One that many people(meaning: me) have not been able to.

    You'll live to fight another day...and another battle. So will the students. No need to worry about either.

    But just for the record, I'm about to declare fatwa on my own West Coast version of neck tattoo'd little bastards. I'm not exactly sure that as a caucasian, blue eyed, Mormon woman I am allowed to declare Holy War....I'm hoping for a loophole.

  17. I am so sorry. This is not the experience any of us hoped for you! I think you're incredibly brave.

    Also, in my highschool there was also a troublesome 18 year old man/child with dreads ... for a brief moment I thought it could've been the same one...then I realised I was in highschool like 8 years ago. awkward.

  18. Oh darlin. I can't speak for everyone else, but I am SO NOT judging you, in fact, I've been in the same place before. I'm guessing we all have. Life is so funny because it never goes in the direction you expect it to, no matter how much you plan. At 31, my life is so, so different than it was just a couple years ago, and it's better than I could have ever expected.

    The reason I've been reading your blog for so long, even though I've pretty much stopped blogging or reading others, is because you have so much character, and you seem like such a GOOD person. I have no doubts that your life is going to be nothing but charmed, and all these little bumps you've had are just that, little bumps.

    Chin up, m'dear.

  19. Don't feel like a failure. If it was making you ill, then you did the right thing.

    As for telling your parents. Just tell them. I remember having to tell mine I was pregnant to a holiday romance when I was 34. And this year I had to tell them I'd been 'let go' from my job and I'm in my 40s. Just tell them.

  20. I was surprised to read that other people in the comments never saw you as a teacher. I see you as a teacher. I just see you as a teacher of people who want to learn.

  21. I don't know what to say *GIANT hugs*.

    You needed to do what was the best for you, and the best for your health. Your parents will understand I'm sure, they will want you to be happy.

    Take care of yourself in the next few days/weeks. Take a break and chill out and try not to overanalyse with "what ifs". You are not a failure. You are so brave and I admire you for being able to leave. It's definitely not an easy thing to do... Hang in there and surround yourself with things and people you love x

  22. Holy Hell. I taught military members how to be journalists for six years. It was such a rewarding experience. To be a part of these people's careers. That being said, these were adults who had 'chosen' to learn. They 'wanted' to be there. They felt 'lucky' to have earned a spot in my class. That is the difference. I'm sure that my teaching style was fine...and engaging...and lesson plans were informative and bla bla bla. But in the end...those students had a psssion for what I was teaching.

    Such a difference. I can't imagine doing a job where everyday people oculd care less about me and about what I was saying. I'm so sorry you had to make the decision you made. I know it was hard. But you have a support group. You will get over this. You will.

  23. Rachel-

    I am so moved by your honesty in this post. Few people can admit defeat. As others have said, take solace in the fact that that decision alone was a very brave one. Find something that makes you happy. No one should have to go to bed dreading the next day.

    I wish you all the best.

  24. I don't think I've ever commented but you did a VERY brave thing, my dear. Very, very brave. I would not have lasted 2 weeks in that situation. I live in N.Va and DC schools are horrendous. I cannot even imagine. I'd love to open my home to you to stay and regroup but I'm quite certain my husband would not quite understand...
    Wallow and be sad and then figure out plan B or C or D.
    We are all rooting for you!

  25. I must admit, when I started reading your post, all I could think of was 'for God's sake, man up!', or something along those lines. But then, reading on, your quitting started making sense, and, if I must be fully honest, you probably did those kids a favour...

    Not that I intend to be mean, but teachers who 'reach through', and can actually teach you something are the ones that are passionate... And somehow they don't have much problems with their classes, no matter how 'hard' they can be, because... Well, it might sound stupid and too easy, but passion really does impose respect. So, well, two weeks might be a bit soon to quit. But, on the other hand, it 's interesting to see that, no matter the country (I'm French but live in the UK), the same problem arises: young teachers are sent to the worst schools, where the experienced ones get the nice, easy-to-teach pupils... That doesn't make much sense, and does not help the kids whatsoever.

    You did not spend all those years studying for nothing ; your blog is a "living" proof of the fact that you have a voice, don't give up so easily...

    Good luck!

  26. Such a raw post; bless your heart. Where were all the people who said the DC schools are horrendous when you posted about getting a job in DC? As I look back on your May 20 post I foresee a lot of soul searching on your part. I hope you find your path sooner than later. Your parents love you and nobody wants to see their child in pain. You did the best you could with what you knew at the time. Blessings.
    p.s. If it sounds like I'm old enough to be your mother, it's because I am :-)

  27. Dear Rachel, You poor old thing.... my heart goes out to you. I know about knotted stomachs and all of that. Whatever decision you made was the right one. And something better will pop up - believe me! Hugs. xxx

  28. I did this sort of leaving of a job about 15 years ago and it was the best thing I ever did for myself. I wasn't a teacher, but I still consider is similar to what you have gone through. HARD. Against everything you have worked for. But it was what you needed to do, absolutely. You will get through this and we are all rooting for you. I know it isn't easy. Not at all. But you did the right thing. Sending positive thoughts your way, and I know that sounds lame.

  29. I started working as a probation/parole officer two years ago. I have never experienced the type of prolonged stress that you describe.

    I am able to bring people back to court. They face prison if they don't behave, don't attend counseling/treatment, use drugs, or dismiss their responsibility as a parent (or student at times).

    I have a system that supports me, there are real consequences, unpleasant consequences that my probationers have to face if they blow me off.

    Its too bad that some kids can do whatever the hell they want with no fear of consequence - but don't worry, many of your former students will end up incarcerated one day. with the shitty excuse for parents/upbringing that they have had - what else could have happened?

  30. 5 years ago I was in nearly the same position as you are in. I was teaching 7th and 8th grade English and I had to quit 2 months in because I felt exactly like you. I had to get a doctor's note and my principal was not nearly so understanding. He was out to get people and tried to take my teaching certificate away. It took a while to get back on the horse but now I teach Kindergarten and I couldn't be happier. You'll get through this. Just get a job somewhere, anywhere just to pay for rent and get back to feeling like yourself. The guilt will go away and everything. Don't even worry about it. Easier said than done, I know.

  31. We tell kids transparent lies. We tell them that success in school will lead to college, which will lead to a comfortable life. They know better; their future was handed to an investment banker and called a bailout.

    We imprison them in schools, even though they've done nothing wrong. We tell them how great their future is, and they know we lie. They know their lives will never really get better, just as the lives of the rich will never really get worse (oh, you were a billionaire and lost all your money? Here's another billion.)

    Then we wonder why we can't control them. They are in a place they don't want to be, with no incentive for success. This doesn't lead to good behavior.

    You did the right thing to get out. Until we have systems that actually work for kids without lying to them, the systems don't deserve good people. The kids do, but good people can do nothing in such a system.

  32. Something The Chaser said earlier in the comments stuck out at me. He/she indicated that they taught adults. It sounds like maybe that would be the best thing for you. You've got the degrees. I think you just need students who want to learn, or who at least you're not afraid will physically harm you. There are always community colleges or even high schools who help arrange adult night classes. Approach every single one in your area and offer to teach courses in beginner's French for them.

    I think you did the right thing. If it was causing you that much stress and giving you panic attacks, you did the right thing. It's not a failure except in the sense that it was something that wasn't right for you. Tell your parents, maybe even by printing up this blog post and letting them read it. Honestly, from the description you gave here, I don't see that anyone can see that you had any choice.

    Good luck!

  33. Rachel,

    Another long-time reader, never commenter, and ex-teacher here.

    For what it's worth, I think you completely did the right thing. A job can be stressful, but a job should never be as mentally damaging as this one was being to you.

    I taught for two years, both in a rougher school and a rich, suburban (French Immersion!) school. They were in completely different leagues. I got along great with the students in the suburban school and flopped at the other one. I spent time trying to figure out if that made me a failure, but I view it differently now. I see it as different people having different strengths. The math teacher who spent four years working construction after failing out of university before deciding he was sick of freezing his ass of in the winter and became a teacher loved his job as much as I did. But he connected with the rough kids and they thought he was awesome. How would he have fared in the French Immersion suburbs? Not nearly as well. We had different strengths. Find a place that plays to yours.

    As for your parents, just tell them. Tell them it all. Parents want nothing more than for their kids to be happy and safe. You were neither. They will understand and support you.

    As will all of your readers, anonynous and otherwise.

  34. All i have to say is that you have fine taste in music.

  35. So you didn't connect with inner city students, so what. I quit working at Michaels 3 times in 2 weeks (they kept on rehiring me when I picked up my pay check) because I was such a bad fit.

    Now you have the time to write a book. I've been saying it for years you are a wonderful writer and you really contect with readers. I feel like I know you better now than I did when we hung out in real life because you write so well.


  36. I demand an update, Rachel!!!

    Um, I mean, can you please update, Rachel? We all want to know how you're doing. Thanks! xo

  37. CrazyLiz, my old roommate, taught earth science at five different schools in five years. It's hard enough to keep a teaching job right now, but the one that broke her and made her quit was working at an upper class, suburban high school.

    She shuffled through three different Chicago Public Schools and a charter school, honed in on teaching science to troubled inner-city kids, and then was offered a fantastic job at one of the best public high schools in the country and it nearly killed her because of the intense differences in teaching styles. She was under a lot of stress in the inner-city environment, but she grew up in a similar environment, so adjusting to rigorous curriculum where every student EXPECTS to go on to a top college pushed her over the edge.

    Now she is working on her second masters and creating an outdoor science/experiential education program for veterans, soldiers with PTS who aren't ready to be thrust back into old homes. It took her two years of unemployment and time spent with her brother (an army medic who spends nine months in the middle east out of the year) to figure that out, but she got there.

    You will find your place.

  38. I made it two and a half years before I didnt go back after a Christmas holiday.