I am not sure if this is an open letter or if I just need to share my journey? Either way, here goes nothing..
To start, becoming a teacher was something I chose to do because I found an early passion working with kids during my high school years. As a student studying art in college, there were only a few routes to go if I wasn’t planning to be a starving artist. Digital art was still up and coming as a career choice and I didn’t really find the same joy in that art form as I do working with my hands to create. Some of my decision to go into education was due to the fact that my oldest brother is a high school music teacher. In fact, I remember having a conversation with my brother about the pros and cons of being a teacher (this was around 2007 during an economic recession and job security was one of his biggest selling points). However, he spoke of his joy working with kids and seeing them thrive under his tutelage and how he really enjoyed playing a part in their passions. So I decided, that’s what I wanted to do.
Fast forward to the start of my student teaching experience. Prior to discovering my student teaching placement, I found out that I won’t have a placement in a high school setting. The reasoning behind this…because my college advisor had concerns with my “maturity” to teach this age group. The real reason: just because I didn’t suck up to every professor like some other art students and have alternative opinions to what this person believed. Looking back it was really hurtful and I am still bitter about those comments. Let me just go on another quick soapbox rant. Colleges have the whole education training backwards. Prospective teachers should start out their training by doing the internship first and then be able to decide if this is the best career path. The way it's currently done means that someone is stuck with their choice regardless of if they feel it’s right. Back to the main point. My first job as a teacher was at the middle school level. This age group is a whole challenge on its own for reasons we all can remember and don’t want to relive. I overall had a pretty good first few years. Like any new teacher, you have your roller coaster ride of emotions and experiences that anyone has at a new job. Trying to find that work-life balance as a 20’s something teacher in a small town was tough which is why I only stayed for two years. I needed a more modern living style and urban setting to try and enjoy my days as a young person and hopefully allow me to actually find a potential life partner, spouse or whatever people want to call it nowadays.
Jumping ahead to my third year of teaching. I just moved to a more hip and rad city (if there is such a thing in Iowa?) with tons to do and people to meet. My new teaching job was a combination of teaching elementary art (herding squirrels with art supplies) and doing some project based learning that was tied in with core subject areas. Overall, I really enjoyed the job and the people I worked with. Anytime you start new at a school you have those growing pains like any new job. Then, midway through this year I was already getting those thoughts about if there is something better out there. Taking a pay cut and making $38,000 as a third year teacher was maybe not the best move fiscally, but I needed to be around other young professionals. While at this job, I was barely making ends meet and not getting to enjoy this new city like I had imagined. However, the social aspect for me was something I craved more than having the higher income from my previous job. Overall, the job and school was something I enjoyed and I just so happened to meet my future wife because of this career move.
When March/April rolled around,I found out that my job was going to be cut to half time, leading me to go back on the job hunt. Luckily I was fortunate and started getting interviews, where of course we are asked to use personal days to go to them. However, after burning through the personal days I opted to use a sick day to attend an interview in the eastern part of the state (where I am originally from). Word got out to my boss and administrators that this had happened leading to me fully resigning from that job with no other option. Yes, I understand that this is not a technical use for a sick day and fully understand why they may have been angry. Consequently, this is where school districts need to make adjustments with their days off. Rather than giving us 15 sick days that just accumulate over and over each year and force people to risk abusing them, why not give teachers a few more personal days and less sick days?
As the summer of 2015 came to an end, I was still on the hunt for a new position. I had moved back to eastern Iowa (at the time I had broken up with my future wife because I had to focus on finding a job). My worst-case scenario plan was to substitute teach and try to connect to a good landing spot. I was also starting to consider looking for alternative careers, but was not adamant on that choice. Teaching hiring season is a lot like free agency in sports (minus the pay) in the sense that all of the jobs and movement are done in a short few months and if you don’t find a landing spot, then you are most likely a free agent until someone calls or offers. Miraculously, I got called for an interview on a Friday afternoon for an elementary art job. It was a whirlwind to say the least, I interviewed on a Monday, accepted the job on a Tuesday and started pre-service for new district employees on a Wednesday.
The job I accepted was one that I would continue at for the next 7 years. During this time, I really honed in my skills as a teacher and developed great relationships with colleagues, families and students. I had become a master at classroom management in the art room and the work I was getting from my students was high quality. Aside from having a micromanager as an administrator, it was a pretty good gig. Still, I had some mild discontent with the job due to many circumstances out of my control.
Going into the 2021-2022 school year, I was excited for changes to come. We had just gotten a brand new school building and all new classrooms. With the pandemic, most teachers were pushed to their limits for obvious reasons, so a fresh start in a brand new school was a much needed change for me to recharge. I also loved that I was able to declutter and get rid of so much junk from my old classroom that fifty years of other teachers left behind. After a brief stint in a temporary room (due to some construction setbacks), I was finally in my new classroom space. This had me really excited about my job and the future. I had a clean slate and fresh attitude.
Then…. another bombshell. Due to some district realignment and some buildings being consolidated, I was informed that I was being moved from my school. A teacher from the school that was closing/being consolidated had more seniority in the district, which in turn pushed me out of my teaching home for the past 7 years and out of my new space. Not even two months after being there. The district had also promised that this situation wouldn’t happen prior to the new building being constructed. When I heard the news I was in so much shock that I didn’t really know how to react. I also forgot to mention that I am learning this news sometime in October and still have to teach at the school for the remainder of the school year. Even more screwed up was knowing the person taking my job and that they would not get the same quality from the students that I was getting. As the news set in, it put me in such a sour and negative place mentally, physically and emotionally. The fact that my skills as a teacher and educator didn’t really matter for who was best qualified for the job just lingered in my mind constantly. School districts and superintendents speak of relationships being most important but it’s just a load of bologna. All of the time and connections built with students, staff and families was being flushed down the toilet. Naturally coinciding with this news was the news that my wife was pregnant with our second child. A moment where I should have been so excited and joyful that got overshadowed by my job situation.
Throughout the 2021-2022 school year I developed a great amount of depression and anxiety (which I now take medicine for). All I could do is linger on the things wrong with education and my job situation and those thoughts took their toll. The smallest situations at school would put me over the edge and I found myself being angry all the time at kids and my career for so much that was out of my control. To add to the stress, friends and colleagues constantly asked me what school I was going to be moved to or what my plans were. Come to find out, I wasn’t going to know my fate until the end of the school year. Furthermore, I continued to fixate on how students aren’t held accountable for anything they do wrong, disrespect towards peers or adults and the overall lack of support from administration during conflicts. Administrators just continue to coddle kids rather than teaching students life skills and hard lessons. At the same time, the students with behaviors just repeat incorrect choices with no consequence. Then having to decide if it’s easier to just keep them in my classroom then send them out knowing problems aren’t going to be fixed or I will somehow get blamed for it. One specific case of this was with a third grade student who I had been in my class every school year since kindergarten. After getting tired of the same recurring disrespect and defiance from this student, I contacted the parent to address the issue. Rather than work with me to improve the situation, the parent chose to criticize my teaching style and accuse me of bullying the student. Later in the school year, that same student texted his parents on his smartwatch during class, saying that I was bullying him, just for telling him he needed to go get a pencil. Ten minutes later he was called to the office to go home. This was the point in time where I knew I was burnt out. I was done.
Over the remainder of the school year, I spent a lot of time looking at other options for jobs and hadn’t found anything to really pull me away while going through the motions of the school year. I worried a lot about changing due to the fact that teaching allows for a great work-life balance when you have a toddler and another baby on the way. The timing was just not right. At the end of the school year, I was asked by the district what my preferences were for my next job and I decided I wanted to give high school a shot. However, I was only going to be hired on a conditional license due to my lack of student teaching at that age group. So not only was I being forced to start a new job, I was going to have to pay to take a class to be licensed to teach high school even though I had ten years of experience teaching already. Meanwhile, programs are getting fast-tracked to hire teachers due to a shortage with almost no education background or prior experience. You don’t even need a full teaching license to get jobs in the profession due max exodus. Meanwhile I am having to pay to take a class…. and pay again after the class to add my 9-12 endorsement to my current license (that I will have to pay to renew in upcoming years) in order to be in the job I requested. Let me rephrase, paying to keep the job that I should already have and for a license that I have already paid for twice.
All of this leads to the present role as a high school art teacher. In some ways, I have enjoyed the changes of teaching high school. There have been moments of that exciting spark and positive change. For instance, I can speak to students like adults and the schedule is so much better than elementary. Furthermore, lessons are more engaging and skill levels are more on par with what I want to teach to my students.I want to first reiterate that there are so many awesome kids and so many people can’t understand the many barriers students have to overcome. We all had these challenges as students, but it’s just different now. Nevertheless, there are now new stresses and anxiety for me to linger on from new sets of obstacles that have pushed me to my breaking point with this career.
The hardest thing for me to get past is students' complete and utter disregard for being present mentally, socially and sometimes physically. Cell phones, headphones and laptops have given students infinite reasons to be distracted (just like most of our society). Students come to class and refuse to take out their headphones in order to hear directions. Some literally have headphones on all day every day. On multiple occasions, students have made phone calls during class with no care of anyone hearing or of consequences. Kids are on social media, texting and tik-tok constantly with multiple reminders every class time. Due to these circumstances, I have to monitor student laptops from my computer to make sure students aren’t streaming movies or playing games on the internet. Meanwhile when I try to generate a discussion about a class topic, no one responds or participates. It’s like pulling teeth to verbally discuss anything. Technology has turned our learners into robots.
Even more frustrating, students don’t care if they are on time to class or if they are tardy because again, there are no real consequences or sense of importance. When it comes to class work, teachers try to make students accountable by having due dates, which is a life skill, but students know they will get as many opportunities as they want to turn in work for full credit at any time. Again, doing learners another disservice (and many still don’t do the work anyway). It is true that social skills and disrespectful language are a bigger problem than just school. Regardless, students cuss and swear openly with no regard for whether it's acceptable or not or if the teacher addresses the issue. Don’t get me wrong, I love dropping a good f-bomb, but when did it become acceptable at school in the classroom?
Of course, when teachers address students about any concerns, they act as if the teacher has no right to tell them anything. Students act as if teachers are just there taking up their social time and space and glorified babysitters. Surely many of these habits have been enabled and tolerated even before students arrive at high school. The fact of the matter is that teachers, including me, are leaving at the end of the day knowing that students are not being prepared for the real world and reality is going to bite hard. Teachers are coping by caring less or not caring at all which is just as unhealthy as being stressed out. Also, when are educators and school administrators going to start having a spine and actually support teachers with these problems? Oh wait, they can’t because their hands are tied just like teachers and it’ll just lead to a lawsuit from a parent who won’t accept responsibility for their kid or wanting to score a quick buck. Kids these days... I could go on and on sounding like the old man in the rocking chair complaining but the truth of the matter is that it is in fact the truth.
Without a doubt, our public education system is failing both students and educators. How teachers are being viewed and treated is disturbing in its own right, but the current expectations for this job is unsustainable. I teach an elective and am burnt out, so I can’t even imagine the stress of the gen-ed classroom teachers who give testing and assessment.The mental and psychological aspect of the job is drastically outweighing the actual work teachers should be investing their energy into. This isn’t even a pay issue (even though we deserve better and not just retention bonuses aka thanks for not quitting bonuses). Educators are becoming social workers and have more and more responsibilities piled on their plate year after year leading to the feeling of being fried and exhausted. Be that as it may, most teachers just suck it up and continue to take on these new challenges because what else can you do?
Presently, I am writing this letter after hours on one of three parent/teacher conference nights required by my district. In the twelve hours of required conference time slots, I had five students out of the 150-200 that I teach this semester actually sign up for a ten minute conference. Naturally, the families who do sign up are mainly those of students who are going to be successful regardless of what we do for them here at school. Generally speaking, the reality is that most kids will end up figuring it out and realize they should have done thing’s a bit differently. A small majority of students know how to play the game of school and do what they need to get through their days of k-12 education. Despite all of this, It’s just hard for me to fathom that getting an education is seen as “surviving school” rather than learning. It is my opinion that our current society and education system has carelessly taken the joy of learning, teaching and education by politicizing the common sense out of public education. As a matter of fact, most teacher training and professional learning are a waste of time and funding. So much money is wasted on those rather than hiring more teachers and getting better resources. Data and statistics are more important than curiosity, knowledge and exploration. People that make decisions about what goes on in a school have never even taught or set foot in a modern day school environment. As long as this trend continues, more and more educators are going to flee for other career paths.
Given these points, after 10 years and 3 months, I plan to call it quits from being an educator. It’s beyond difficult to give up summers due to my love for golf, the weather and other freedoms that come in those months. It’s equally hard to give up the job benefits and retirement perks, but I just can’t foresee myself in the classroom until I retire at this point. Whenever I do find a new job, I will most likely have to pay a fine for breaking a contract and risk losing my teaching license. Ultimately, this career has done me in and I am done with it.