Id read all the books, seen all the documentaries, but I still wasnt ready for the horrors of Americas schools
Teaching is in my blood. My mother is a teacher, and my grandfather was a principal in Miami. In college during the summers, I worked for this phenomenal local non-profit modeled after the education organization Breakthrough Collaborative, which provides educational programming to kids in low-income communities so they dont slide during the summers, and I learned I, too, loved teaching. When I stepped into the classroom that first summer and saw that I had a natural ability to reach kids and bring them joy, I knew I had to do it.
I never thought itd be easy. I had read all the books, I had seen all the documentaries about the state of Americas schools. But I still wasnt ready for the horrors I found there.
I taught first in Florida, and then in North Carolina. One school couldnt afford soap for the bathrooms. We only had a nurse three days a week, until noon, so we just told vomiting children to lie down or go home. One classroom had black mold, and the bugs were revolting. Kids would open their textbooks and termites would fly out, or theyd find termite larvae in their crayon cups. Cockroaches crawled along the floors, and once maggots started falling from the ceiling; I checked and there was a dead rat up there, which is what they were eating.
It was demoralizing to show up to these facilities every day, to associate your work with these dirty classrooms and filthy bathrooms. I tried to bring even more joy and energy to the classroom, because the kids dont deserve this. It was soul-crushing.
But sadder still were the administrators and older teachers. My peers were teachers in their 40s, who were worn down by decades of this. They were brilliant, but I didnt want to wind up like them both so exhausted that they didnt have any more hope, and so poor from their salaries that they couldnt afford to support their own childrens dreams. They urged me to take my energy and leave. Go learn other skills while youre still young, they told me. The leadership was even worse. They did not have these kids best interests at heart. Once they put in their 25 years and hit six figures in their paycheck, they checked out. You sort of have to do that to survive for that long.
Still, its hard to find one, single breaking point. I keep coming back to the story of Jason. I was teaching third grade, and on the first day of school I noticed Jason was extremely delayed. He couldnt write his own name, and he was almost mute. Something was really wrong. I asked around: Whats his IEP? Thats an individualized education program, a federal requirement for students with special needs. His second-grade teacher told me the special-ed teacher didnt have time for him, and his mother wouldnt come in for meetings. I set up a coffee date with his mom, and tried to build up a rapport a bit before I asked about her son. She said what many parents of children with delays say: But hes such a brilliant boy. She said she couldnt come to meetings she had other kids at home.
I fought and fought to get him an IEP. The special-ed teacher was interviewing for another job, so he was checked out. The principal threw up his hands, saying we couldnt do anything without the mother. No one would take accountability for this poor kid, who was doing his best.
I noticed he was incontinent, and would smell strongly often. I started bringing him diapers to help with the odor, and an old mentor of mine provided me with exercises for children with the learning disabilities I thought he might have.
Hed already been held back multiple times, but if a kid is held back twice for the same grade it usually causes issues for the school district, so theyd find ways of moving him along. When it came time for the standardized tests at the end of the year, administrators knew he wouldnt pass and so they placed him in a separate room without telling me and gave him an alternate test. I became frantic when I found out, and searched everywhere for him. He was locked in a room with a secretary.
I knew if I raised even more of a fuss, if I kept advocating for his mother and pushing the administration, Id lose my job. It was a few years into my teaching career, and Id taught at a Title I school and a charter school and they were oppressive for kids and teachers in their own ways; I felt like there was no right school for me out there. This is just the state of Americas schools. I was nominated by my staff and won Teacher of the Year, and I saw kids make strides because of my efforts (my students had the highest improvement data school-wide). Still, I was exhausted. I looked around and was scared for my future, scared of becoming even more worn down like my colleagues. They told me, Youre still so young. You need to leave.
For my health, I decided to quit the profession.
I lost a lot of friends because of this decision, and I completely understand where theyre coming from. Oppressive systems make you angry at those that are able to leave them, those that fight. But I just couldnt do it any more. Do I miss teaching? I miss my kids so much. I miss the creativity, I miss making up songs or games. I miss the joy. But I dont miss the schools.
Now I work at a startup, and even though I sort of fell into the role, Ive been promoted to the director of marketing. I dont have to survive on ramen noodles and Taco Bell anymore; a cut of my paycheck doesnt go directly back into my classroom anymore. My current salary would have taken another decade to work up to if I had stayed teaching.
After I left, I called one of the teachers and asked about Jason. Hed been pushed into the fourth grade. He must be about 12 years old now, and still in diapers.
Anonymous now works in marketing at a startup in North Carolina