It has now been over a whole year since I left the classroom, and here’s what I miss and don’t miss about being a high school teacher in NYC.
Why I Miss Teaching:
Kids — Most people assume that I left teaching because of difficult kids, but for the most part, my students were bright, curious, and respectful. Even the most difficult students were just kids at the end of the day.
Autonomy — The upside of working at a poorly managed school? Being able to create your own curriculum. Writing lesson plans from scratch was time consuming and stressful, but I also loved having so much freedom in what I could teach and how I could teach it.
Social justice issues — With the autonomy and creativity I had, I incorporated a whole lot of social justice-related topics into my lessons. When Michael Brown’s shooting was still fresh in everyone’s mind at the beginning of the 2014 school year, I wrote the race and class issue into my lessons, encouraging my students to talk about it. I wanted them to not only be angry about it, but be able to do something about through reading and writing.
There are other aspects of teaching I miss — I liked being in front of people. I enjoyed mentoring kids. I felt helpful. My job felt like it mattered. Daily. But there were many downsides to being a teacher as well.
Why I Don’t Miss Teaching
No supplies, no books, lots of problems — I would often get only 25-30 books for almost 100 students, and many of these books would be ripped and dirty. So what is a teacher supposed to do? We can a) spend our own money (or do a fundraiser) and buy extra books needed or b) have the kids only read inside the classroom. No readings allowed at home. Two schools I worked for did not have updated textbooks. Buying pencils, pens, papers (for copy machine), sticky notes, etc. with my own money became a routine. Every semester, I did not have enough desks and chairs for my kids. One copy machine all the teachers shared broke so often, that one of the teachers bought her own that she hid in her classroom closet. In general, I was constantly battling lack of resources and tool while trying to teach the kids who were battling poverty, disablities, language barriers, and society’s prejudice against them. They needed the most, but the system provided the least for them.
Not being able to go to the restroom — Okay, this may seem like such a small detail, but trying to run to the restroom (there was one 1 for all the female teachers, by the way) during my one break in a day (because during normal “breaks” between classes, we are supposed to somehow monitor the hallway while setting up for the next class….all in 5 minutes or less) was pretty much impossible. Did I mention that the bathroom was on a different floor, on the other side of the building? I stopped drinking water during the day while I taught and am pretty sure this had something to do with my sudden development of psoriasis in 2013.
Eating lunch quickly while doing million other things — There’s no true lunch break. Lunch time = extra help for students/tutoring sessions/monitoring lunch room/supervising basketball game/trying to clean up a mess from a previous class/consoling a crying student who broke up with her boyfriend the night before/anything else that comes up. Oh, and principals love to “lunch and learn.”
Endlessly working, always feeling like I didn’t do enough — I cannot tell you how almost everyone says to a teacher, “Well, at least you’re done at 3 PM!” No. Just no. Evenings, weekends, and even breaks can become lesson planning sessions, extra help sessions, after-school activities, grading, etc. I worked all the time.
Feeling helpless — Here’s what finally made me say, “I quit.” I never dreamed of becoming a teacher until I found NYC Teaching Fellows program; it promised that we would make a difference; it promised that we would be well-trained and supported. I don’t want to say that the program doesn’t work because I know many of my fellow teachers who stayed in teaching beyond the 2 years that the program asks for, and are still loving it and changing lives. But for someone who went into teaching, thinking, “Lives will be changed! I will see the difference my work makes on daily basis!” teaching in one of the most underprivileged areas was more than I could handle. I felt defeated every single day. There were so many things beyond my power. My students’ struggles were beyond my control. What do you say do a smart, articulate, brilliant high school senior who gives up on college because she is homeless and her family actually opposes her going away to college? Even after hours of mentoring her and persuading her, she decided to not apply anywhere. How do I scold a student who has a dad that shows up to a parent-teacher conference meeting high and drunk? How do I ask a student who comes to school hungry and cold to sit up straight? How do I ask an immigrant kid who worked the night shift to stay alert in class? I want him to sleep.
Teaching was harder than anything else I had ever done in my life. It was harder than Exeter. It was harder than first year of law school. It was more heartbreaking than my first breakup. I don’t regret walking away. I made a choice to leave, and that is that.
I will always remember my amazing students who won battles against the whole world daily by coming to school and doing their best to learn. Even the ones who pushed me to the edge and caused me stress, I hope they know that I forgave them immediately after each moment. Sometimes I run into my former students or see them across the street in NYC, and I may not remember all their names, but I remember their faces. I remember their handwriting and the stories they wrote in their essays and poems. I remember who they are and everything they taught me.