From someone who turned their back on their dream
I became a high school English teacher for two reasons: I liked a college major where homework involved reading a book in bed and I had seen Dead Poet’s Society 184 too many times. This seems to be the story of most high school English teachers.
My first year teaching was a bit out of the ordinary. I took a part-time assignment teaching two classes of Freshman English. For the record, no amount of schooling could prepare 22-year-old me for being in charge of 32 15-year-olds.
I ended up with a full load mid-year when a fellow teacher left her job to go work in Rwanda with the Peace Corp. Apparently, a country fresh out of a civil war seemed a better workplace than a classroom.
I suppose I should have taken that as a hint. I didn’t. I lasted four years before I made the decision to leave my career behind. Abandon what I spent the previous four years studying to do. I did it because there were more things pushing me out the down than pulling me back in.
When I got my first contract, it was for roughly $28k a year. In checking my former school district’s website, if I started this year, I would make $43k. It’s about a 50% increase. It sounds impressive except when I tell you that I started teaching before Bill Clinton even finished his first term in office.
The only way I could make more money was to spend my summer, you know that time during which everyone thinks teachers sit around eating Bonbons, taking college classes to up my rank in the pay scale. To demonstrate how self-defeating this is, consider the following math:
It takes 12 credits to slide over one column on a certified pay scale. That’s four college classes. The cost per class at Arizona State University is $939 and that’s just tuition. So, the cost to move over is $3,756. Going from your 4th year teaching to your 5th year teaching and moving over a pay column nets you an increase of $2,321. At this point, you cap out on your salary until you can pay another $3,756 for 12 more credits. Then you cap out again until you earn 12 more credits.
So, you start your first year teaching at $43,400. Over the course of seven years, it is totally feasible to be making $53,150. You just have to spend $11,268 taking 12 classes for that $9,750 gradual increase in pay.
Throw in the cost of our own office supplies and we’re doomed. I remember getting about $50 in April to spend on supplies for the next year. We’d all order our stuff like a winning contestant on Wheel of Fortune buying that damn ceramic Dalmatian.
My last year, my friend Kyle and I got wise. We started a racket. The most expensive thing was dry erase markers. It was all we bought. By November, other teachers would trade just about any office supply, in any amount, for a damn dry erase marker. This is the shady shit happening in America’s classrooms. Dry erase marker extortion.
The time suck
The fallacy that teachers skip home at 3pm and snuggle up with Netflix at the holidays and lounge by the pool all summer is still greatly alive and well. This is the single most ignorant, and yet most widely held, misconception about teaching.
If you want the soul sucked right out of your body, spend your post turkey Thanksgiving tryptophan induced euphoria grading 30 poorly written essays on Hamlet while your family watches football.
If teachers got lucky we could hit that sweet spot of teaching the same thing year after year after year. This allows us to reuse the same lesson plans. One year, I was not this fortunate and got two brand new honor classes given to me in May. June and July were spent rereading books and short stories to create lesson plans and write tests.
Trade secret? Teachers are well-rehearsed. They know exactly what they’re going to say every day for 9 months. Think of it as writing 150 Ted Talks in the span of two months. Except you have to quiz the audience after. And four people fell asleep during your Ted Talk. And you had to stop giving your Ted Talk every time someone has pee.
The politics were the final straw. I taught in a very affluent school where kids would often ask me if I knew who their dad was. When I answered one kid, “You could be Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t care who your dad is,” I was the one who ended up in the principal’s office being given a lesson in how to talk to students in an appropriate manner.
There were education associations (not unions…) that were powerless. Getting a raise required a strike. Proposition money that was supposed to support us got redirected. The curriculum changed all the time. Pressure for our kids to perform well on standardized tests removed the passion from teaching our content. Every day felt like we swam upstream until we passed out from exhaustion.
The hardest past
The most painful part of my decision to leave my teaching job was the crushing feeling that I was turning my back on my kids. I loved what I did. It just hurt too much to do it. I felt like my leaving was me telling them they weren’t worth it. So many were.
I feel the same way about leaving my teaching career as I do my two divorces. You pour your heart and soul into something, expecting a lifetime of happiness, only to find it’s not what you thought it was going to be. One day, I was a teacher. Then I wasn’t. Just like one day I was a wife. Then I wasn’t. It didn’t hurt any less. It’s still giving up a dream. And healing from that loss was just as hard.
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