Two Years Later: An Outside Insider

Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom
Teacher pointing to raised hands in classroom

It's been almost two years since I submitted my resignation letter to my principal...and then posted it on my blog. I had no idea what those next hours, weeks, and months had in store for me. I had no idea that my letter would go viral, that I would get media attention because of it, and that I would be offered a book contract based on that letter.

What I did know was that I loved being a teacher; I was sad beyond measure that I would be leaving the profession, students, and community I loved at the end of that school year; and I was scared to move across the country without a means to support myself and my son.

Although the last two years have brought many changes into my life, the one thing that has not changed is how much I miss teaching high school English. I didn't realize exactly how much until recently.

A few weeks ago, I went to the local high school with my son to see his friends play a 10-minute exhibition game as the half-time entertainment for the boys' basketball game. As soon as I walked into the building, I felt the energy that only exists in a school: An energy fueled by youthful hope and ambition.

We were a little early, so we sat in the bleachers by Ian's friends. As I looked at the faces on the court, I was disappointed that I didn't know anyone. Then I immediately chastised myself. How could I know anyone in this building? I don't teach here. I don't teach at any high school anymore. My heart began to ache.

Ridiculously, I fought back tears. I thought of my former school in Colorado. Why did I leave a place I loved so much? How could I resign from a position that defined my purpose in life? How could I leave the students who needed me?

I looked at the parents, siblings, students, and teachers sitting in the bleachers. In Colorado I would have had at least one if not five people approach me while I was sitting in the stands--a student just to say hi or a parent thanking me for working with his or her child or an older sibling back from college telling me I made a difference. But here, in this high school, no one knows me: None know that I used to change young lives for the better; none know that I would lose sleep worrying about students just like them; none know how much it meant to my students to see me sitting in the bleachers.

While Ian watched his friends play, I evaluated what to do with this surprising surge of emotion. What did this reaction mean? Should I start applying for secondary teaching jobs? Can I truly find fulfillment in any other job? Did I do the wrong thing by making my resignation letter public? Would any school ever hire me again because of it? If I were fortunate enough to get another position, could I really work full time in a public school again? That thought brought a new surge of pain and questions.

How could I go back to a public school, no matter how much I loved it, when the reasons I left still exist? How could I be part of a system that aims to replace hope and ambition with standards and test scores? How could I go back to a profession that is being exploited by corporate greed and destroyed by bureaucrats with little concern for our children?

What if I applied at private or charter schools? There are some amazing schools out there...but then I had to fight back more tears. If I did that, I would become part of the problem instead of the solution. Education is not a business; creating competition for a quality education is a win/lose situation. Privatization and choice allow the people who have money and influence to turn their backs on public education because it's no longer their problem. If those amazing private and charter schools are meeting students' needs, why can't public schools do the same thing? Joining the "choice" reformation movement would be a betrayal of everything I know to be true.

The bottom line is the current educational system is driving out great teachers. I hear the despair in former colleagues' voices when we speak about the profession we love. The enthusiasm they used to have for the classroom is transformed into enthusiasm about leaving it and doing something else. As much as I understand how they feel--after all, I left for the same reasons--I weep for the students who occupy our hearts and minds much longer than the ten months they sit in our classrooms. If these teachers leave, who will be left to make sure those children are getting a quality education--not a standards and test scores one?

As my mind and heart raced, I thought about my college students. I am still changing lives and losing sleep over them, but I'm not immersed in the community the way I was in high school. As an adjunct, I just show up for class. If a student has questions, I stay on campus a little longer, but I'm free to leave when I'm done. I know I am still making a difference with my college students, but at a community college I have many nontraditional students who are no longer teenagers in their formative years. Nevertheless, they respond positively to my encouragement and passion for teaching. Most of my students leave at the end of a semester better prepared for their futures. Some students, however, don't make it to the end of the semester. They didn't start this process with the necessary work ethic or resilience to battle through entitlement issues, to embrace the demands of a college course and grow stronger mentally and emotionally because of it--skills I made sure I taught in high school.

I also thought about my financial situation. I'm barely making it right now. I chose to work as an adjunct so that I would have time to write. But a part-time adjunct position (up to 3 classes a semester) has just as much work as a full time high school position with a third of the pay, so I have less money and still have limited time for writing. If I taught full time again, I would at least have money, but I wouldn't have as much time with my son.

So where does this leave me? How do I get all of my son's and my needs met without sacrificing my convictions? How can I still be part of a system that encourages and builds up students when they are at their most vulnerable?

This semester, I put a few things in place: I started tutoring high school students, and I am on the subbing lists for the middle and high schools in the area.

If all of my subbing experiences are like my first one, subbing will be a viable solution for my heartache. Recently, I was a substitute teacher for an 8th grade English class. Once again, I felt the energy as soon as I walked into the building. I think I smiled the entire day. Don't get me wrong. Being a substitute definitely has its challenges and is different from being the main classroom teacher. I had students who tested my teaching abilities immediately: They took out their phones, walked around the room, sat next to friends, and talked while I talked.

However, they were no match for my experience. I took charge with a smile, laughter, and strategic movement around the room. Students were able to relax because I quietly and respectfully controlled the learning environment. My heartache dissipated--at least for a while--because I was making a difference in young students' lives.

If I can't teach as an insider, then I'll do it from the outside. Being in that classroom was like going home again; it was solace for my broken heart.