One Teacher's Story: I Hate My Job and Want to Quit Now!
Giving up on the wrong career is not a crime
When I was in high school, I had the coolest history teachers. They were passionate, funny and basically told stories all day long. Whether it was the dirty details of Henry VIII and all of his wives or the real story of the Roosevelts, I loved history. And boy did I love field trips. Occasionally there was a paper and a test. There were very few forced group activities, and there was no internet. We physically had to go to the library. And I still got a great education. We weren't graded with rubrics. You sat there, listened to the teacher and respected them.
I never remember any of my history teachers telling me, "Today our learning objective is X. It is a question on X exam. You will know you were successful today because you will be able to do and know X and answer the objective on your Exit Ticket." That was in 1989.
As any other people have done, I once thought, "Hey-I am brilliant at history. I am going to be a history teacher. With my knowledge and passion, I'm a natural. I think I'll teach high school." This was in 2003.
The field of education had changed drastically since then, and since I came in so late in the game, it felt so foreign to me. Little did I realize that being interested in a discipline does not a brilliant teacher make. I found this out when I was student teaching. Student teaching was difficult because I realized that teenagers do not necessarily respect you (you have to earn it), they are defiant, their behavior has to be managed and you have to engage them. Most importantly you have to love them and you have to have 'the gift of teaching'. Or at least you have to work very hard at it if it doesn't come naturally.
Then you have to make lesson plans, be organized and you get observed all of the time. Constructive criticism is dished out more regularly than praise; from students, parents and administrators alike. And you always have to be "on". And if you are a Type B person, being 100% "on" is not always possible.
I should have realized it then, when I would get gas in the morning and wish I were going to work at the gas station instead of the school, where I had two sort-of-okay ninth grades, and another group of especially defiant ones who should have been drowned at birth.
After the experience was over and I passed, getting a teaching a job was a tougher matter.
I was living in the wonderful, but small state of Vermont, where history jobs were not plentiful. So I went to work as a secretary at a local college, and but for the fact that I was not using my degree or even teaching, I had a very pleasant job on a bucolic campus and was surrounded by respectful professionals on a daily basis and I never experienced stress.
Three years later, my good friend, who worked with various charter schools in New York City at the time, called me up and excitedly told me about how he had been working with this great school and that it would be a perfect place for me to teach. The unspoken reality was that if I didn't finally try teaching, it was never going to happen.
So, I got my resume together, showing I had virtually no real-world experience, sent in my application, had several interviews, taught a demo lesson to a group of perfectly-behaved eleventh grade honors students, got the job and moved to Brooklyn. These events all happened in such rapid succession, that I had no time to think about the fact that I was going to teach city kids and was headed into a culture shock like none I had experienced before. Had I known, I would have probably stayed in Vermont forever.
But I went.
Little did I know that I would be entering a climate where I would be bullied by school leaders instead of getting supported, being threatened and never complimented. Even new teachers who are learning and sometimes making mistakes need positive encouragement. One of the worst examples of lack of support and even racism was when a school leader said to me, "Get to know the kids more. Eat lunch with them. Find out what bands they like. Show them that you are more than just a white teacher from Suburbia."
The first year was understandably challenging. I will go through some of the worst events some other time. Suffice it to say it was a fight. But I always built myself up by telling myself that the first year is always the worst. As it turns out, my fifth year was the worst and it was the one that made me terminate my teaching career for good.
I will not tell you the whole story now. But I will say this. Charter schools do not have unions. This is very good for the Charter Schools, but very bad for the teachers. Many do argue, understandably, that if schools don't have unions, teachers have to do their jobs well without complaining and be competent enough to handle it. A union, as some may say, is an enabling crutch that allows teachers to be lazy. When Charter Schools catch wind of teachers mentioning that word, it becomes a witch hunt, with various people throughout the school trying to catch the union agitator and cut off their head.
Realistically, Charter Schools will frequently give teachers a workload that surpasses what a union would allow. The reason why my career ended, quite frankly, was that although I was experienced and in my fifth year, having been challenged and meeting each challenge, the powers that be decided I needed even more challenges. I had to teach three separate grades, one of which I was not licensed for, and I had to submit fifteen scripted lesson plans by end of business every Friday. If parents did not like something, they would call the principal directly and the principal would come to me and warn me that this was a problem that needed to be fixed. My writing assignments were also micromanaged. I had been taught to teach students how to write DBQ and Thematic-type essays to help kids pass the essay portion on Regents exams, but the school had its own prescribed way of teaching writing that was badly communicated to me since my previous background had been in high school and not middle school. I never received the proper guidance and support in learning their ELA methods and was frustrated because I already knew what I was doing in terms of teaching writing and adding literacy to Social Studes. Before that time I had never had anyone tell me my methods were bad before this teaching gig , and in my previous schools I was praised for doing it well.
I had my share of experiences with getting observed without warning and was used to it from my other schools, so it wasn't a big deal most of the time. However, with this last school, the pop-ins happened several times a week. I was always told what I was doing was wrong, but never was told how they wanted me to do it. I was micromanaged. A few times the principal stormed into my room when things were getting too loud with the group I was not licensed to teach. She would announce to everyone, “This class is not working. It is a disaster.” Then she would tell me what to do. "Ms. Kikibruce, wait for silence. Ms. Kikibruce, do not give them the paper if they do not say thank you. You are not holding them accountable." She said all of this in front of the kids. I was horrified. Even though my other Charter Schools were not stellar, this was new craziness that I did not think existed in the real world.
I started getting sick every morning before school. I was taking anti-anxiety meds. I worked until ten every night and worked all weekend. I took a day off here and there because I could not get time to write those fifteen lesson plans the way they wanted them. And really, who ends up using a scripted lesson plan anyway? I was at the point where I had so many things to juggle that I didn't know where to start. And when I told a school leader I felt overwhelmed because of the third class, it was duly noted, but in a way that suggested there was now a lack of confidence in my abilities.
The final straw came at report card time. Knowing they harassed you if grades were too low, I made sure that my grading was absolutely fair, but some parents insisted on their kids getting above a 90% whether they deserved it or not, and this was supported by the Principal and the Dean. I tried to give balanced but accurate verbal comments that were both about how their children 'shine' and how they need to 'grow'. I guess I was too honest, because I was called into the office and was made to sit with the Dean and change all of my comments so that there were no constructive comments about behavior and respect and how students really were doing, and only warm and positive comments that did not relay the fact that the kid ran around the classroom farting all the time. That was finally it. At that time I came down with a horrible sinus infection and had to be out for five days, confirmed by the doctor and totally legit. All the same, when I came in the principal said, “for this list of reasons, including your long absence, we will not be continuing our relationship with you after Christmas.” Inside, I was overjoyed. On the outside I was sober and calm. She kept talking. I said, “It's alright, please do not explain.” And that was it.
Since the beginning of the year, I had a bad feeling about the job. From the first day when a school leader scolded me for not "tracking the speaker" (jargon for looking at the person who is talking), from the extra class I hadn't expected to teach, to being subjected to leaders who gave me nothing but obstacles, to the ever-changing screwed up schedules and terrible class period transitions, horrible discipline and not enough planning time during the day to plan for three separate grades a day. I tried as hard as I could. I worked my butt off. I enjoyed a number of the kids and some of them liked me. I tried to do group projects. The kids usually knew their learning objective because I told them what it was and often had them fill out Exit Tickets. My lesson plans indicated how I would assist students with special needs. They were scripted (more or less-I kind of gave up on that because it was too time-consuming). I had a hunch I would be laid off when I would send in the lesson plans and stopped getting any feedback, acknowledgement or response.
Maybe I wasn't the greatest teacher in the world, but then again, who would be, considering where I was teaching and what I had to put up with? I didn't want to wake up every morning filled with dread. I wanted to walk into a place with a smile on my face. It's not that I don't like kids. I just feel that along with bad charter schools, that there is a greater lack of respect for teachers in general, and I wasn't able to connect with them, perhaps because I was not into rap and didn't compare every successful person in history to Jay-Z. Other teachers were already doing that. I wanted to expand their horizons, not keep them where they were. I understand trying to connect to them by relating things to their own lives, but wasn't going to try too hard and come off as fake. Kids see through it. I had to be true to myself, confident that I knew my curriculum.
I found out later through one of my colleagues that more than one person was hired to teach the load that I was carrying and they were much more "hip" and "street" than me. To this day, I don't understand why they overloaded me and then ended up hiring more people and costing them more money.
After almost five years of trying and trying and living in the city and not giving up, I was thrilled not to have to back there, happy to have the time to let the stress hormones leave my body. Generally speaking, being 41 and moving back home with one's parents is not an ideal life change, but for me it saved my mental and physical health.
Being between jobs is not ideal. It can make you feel like a failure. I don’t feel that way. Teaching was hard for me right from the beginning. I was not a natural, and I had to work at it. I was teaching in some very rough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx and stayed on while many others would have stopped. Many of my former coworkers from my first school have moved on to other schools. Some have quit. Some have become successful at teaching. I feel no sense of inadequacy because I finally gave up on the classroom. Sometimes you have to admit that something is wrong and deal with it.
That is my advice to you if you are a teacher who wants to quit. Your new career search will involve thinking outside of the box. It's a hackneyed expression, but it's true. You will consider operating a forklift and you will get told by temp agencies that you will not get more than $10 per hour doing a clerical job. Many potential employers will think you are overqualified and want to know why you quit the more lucrative career of teaching. Don't listen. Keep moving forward. Just remember, quitting something that is wrong is not a crime. It is just a new beginning.