This past week I made possibly the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. I decided to resign from my teaching job mid-year. My last day will be January 22nd, the end of the first semester.
If you've been following my blog, this may come as a small surprise. The last time I discussed the possibility of leaving my school, I said that I intended on staying until the end of June. I declared that I was ready to fight the administration and that I was so angry that I was ready to take on the world. Many of you even congratulated me and sent me supportive messages, which makes me feel like kind of a fraud at this point, and for that, I apologize.
I decided to leave for a number of reasons, but the one that stands out over all the others is that the atmosphere at our school is toxic and soulless.
The decision to quit all began on the Monday back from school. It was possibly the most depressing morning of school I have ever experienced. Colleagues at my school were not even able to gather up enough energy to fake a positive interaction when I smiled at them and asked how they were doing. I noticed that I wasn't even able to pretend to be okay when somebody asked me how I was doing. I opened my mouth intending to utter that small white lie many of us do on a day-to-day basis: "I'm fine. How are you?" But instead, I just sighed. This miserable experience was capped off when I ran into a teacher in the mail room and asked how he was doing. Now, this guy is one of the nicest, happiest guys I've ever met. He's always smiling and always seems to be optimistic about life. But on this morning he just looked at me and said, "You know, life is too short for all this." Over the next four days, I would come to that conclusion myself. Life is too short for this.
I found out later in my first week back that my department head was again totally changing direction with the department curriculum, that the colleague I'm closest to had made up her mind to quit over the break, and that a veteran who's been at the school for thirteen years (the VAST majority of teachers have only been at the school for between 1-3 years) had already tried and failed at all of the awesome strategies I'd come up with over break to fight the administration. We had a staff meeting on Thursday during which time we looked at data concerning how students, teachers, and parents felt about our school in terms of a number of areas. When one of the staff members brought up that almost half of the staff members who participated in that survey last year were no longer with us, and that that in itself should be a cause for concern, the principal effectively blew the comment off as irrelevant to what we were trying to accomplish.
Another big reason for leaving is, sadly, I don't think the school as a whole really cares about what the students really need. Our prime (and seemingly only) mission is to raise test scores. We (i.e. the schools' attitude as a whole, not individual staff members) do not care about our students' emotional or social needs.
When we did a training on helping students develop their relationships with others and a sense of identity among the school and community, I actually heard an administrator say that we were to use what knew about students social/emotional needs in order to "leverage it against them in order to raise test scores."
I assume that she meant we should get to know our students on a personal level and help them get to know their classmates because that helps students feel more comfortable so that they can learn more effectively, which is all fine and dandy, but this particular administrator's words clearly illustrate what I consider to be an unhealthy perspective concerning our school's reason for being: We're not primarily here to help students grow; we're here because higher test scores look good downtown, to parents, and to the media.
I think one of my students put it best when he said, "This school doesn't really care about us, it only cares about our tests."
We're so caught up in trying to raise test scores that we have virtually no discipline system.
One of our discipline deans quit because she didn't feel she was able to do her job when every time she attempted to suspend a student, the admin told her that wasn't a possibility, even when students had committed violent acts. Our other discipline dean is no longer with us after participating in an incident I can't describe here. We received a notice from our principal Sunday night reminding us to take care of all discipline problems in the classroom, and to only ever refer a student after having taken the prescribed number of steps. Our stand-in discipline dean is a big red box that sits on the counter of the front office with a hole cut in the top and a sign on the front that says, "Discipline Referrals."
A classic example of our lack of discipline came for me on December 12th. A fourth-period student of mine, Star (see previous post on her), returned to class after having been absent for almost two months. The minute she walked into my well-run classroom, I'd lost 3/4 of the class to her jokes and side-comments. After having asked my counselor to help me remove her from class, she began screaming. She proceeded to slam her stuff around and march out the door. My administrator brought her straight back to me and told me to keep her in class. I refused, explained the incident and went back to teaching.
I originally believed that a group of strong-willed teachers could rise up and right these wrongs. There are, after all, more teachers than administrators - they should have a greater say in how the school is run. However, the admin is extraordinarily well-entrenched. They've been best described to me as "cultish" by more than one colleague.
I recently received an e-mail in chain of e-mails circulating our department after the news came out that both myself and my next-door neighbor were quitting. In response to what many of us perceive as a crisis at our school, one teacher put it best:
"Here's the problem..no matter what we think, I bet the administration doesn't think this is a crisis. I think there has been a very conscious decision made which is something like this: 'We have a program which is designed to lift the average test score by X%. The program penalizes teacher creativity and risk-taking, while it rewards conformity and not thinking or asking questions. Above all, we value obedience. We accept that a lot of people will not like this program and will leave. They can be replaced.'
We seem to be dealing with almost a cultish entity. Cannot be reasoned with. Strict separation between teachers and administrators.....The problem for us, and the advantage for them, is that hardly anybody here has any institutional memory or commitment to the school."
I think this teacher hit it right on the money.
I knew the decision to leave was the right one when, after having told colleagues and other important people in my life that I wasn't coming back, the responses I got weren't: "Oh my god, that's horrible! What's wrong? Why'd you do it?" Instead, they were, "Good job!" or "Congratulations!" or "I wish I could."
I also knew I made the right decision when, after having sent my department head two e-mails Thursday night, one stating that I was resigning and the other submitting my objectives calendar, I received ONE e-mail back informing me that I'd done my objectives calendar incorrectly. Not a single admin came to talk to me about my decision to resign on Friday.
So I feel pretty good about my decision. A considerable weight has been lifted. I'm just glad that my classes are only a semester long, because I wouldn't have been able to quit if I knew I'd be leaving my kids mid-year.
So I've decided to leave DCPS a mere semester after coming to it, and it has NOTHING to do with the kids. Perhaps I've been spoiled in that I've worked in schools where teachers were treated like adults and were trusted to be professionals. If so, I'm okay with that. That's the environment I want to return to. If you're a struggling first-year teacher in the district, keep in mind that this is NOT what all schools are like. There are places that will value and support you. Don't leave the profession because of a single experience here.
I'm also very lucky in that I am able to leave and not have a job for a while. I know other co-workers who are not so lucky, but are leaving anyway - so that should say something.
I'm not ready to leave the students of the district though. There's an urge in me, just like every other DCPS staff member, to positively affect their lives. I intend on remaining jobless until August, and I'd like to use my free time in the spring semester to tutor at as many DCPS schools as possible and gather as many stories from people as possible. Perhaps there are other things I can do as well in my free time. If you know of opportunities for non-staff to make a difference in education around the district, please send them my way. I'll be looking.