Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a former student of mine—a beautiful caring, smart young woman who I taught as a freshman. She went on to transfer to a 4-year school, get her Bachelor’s Degree, and become a teacher. And she’s a great teacher. But like so many great teachers, she wonders if it’s worth it; and by it, I mean teaching—and the sacrifices one makes to continue fighting to do right, to make a difference, in spite of a system that actually discourages it.
At almost this exact time last year, I wrote a blog post called “Teaching: It’s More Than What I Do.” And I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or what, but I figure that sharing the exchange I had yesterday is a good reminder—not just to her but to me and to anyone else who teaches—of why we do what we do.
Her: How do you continue to want to be a teacher when so any things go wrong every day?
Me: I hold on to the very few things that go right. And try to remember them when things go wrong. It sounds like you’re having a rough day.
Her: I’m not sure. I decided two weeks ago that after this year I was not going to teach anymore. It wasn’t a day where something particularly wrong happened. I was just miserable and realized that is my normal. I’m just tired of being busy being miserable. It takes up my whole life, and I don’t know that it is worth it.
You are a teacher. Whether or not you do it in the context in which you currently work or not, you are a teacher. You always will be. Just today, after having read this message from you, I came across this line in a book (totally unrelated to work) I’m reading (Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wells):
You have the calling, [name redacted]. It’s in you–it’s a part of who you are. I know this because it is a part of who I am too. And so whatever you ultimately decide to do to make a living–you will always be a teacher. You may, however, choose not to do it in the way you have been.
With that said, let me assure you of this: all the good teachers want to quit. All the good teachers get frustrated and tired and depressed and wonder whether or not it’s worth it. At LEAST once a year, I decide it’s my last year. Sometimes–it’s ten times a year that I make that declaration. And I really mean it. Because I also feel tired and miserable all of the time, and it is my normal. And then something happens–sometimes it’s the very smallest thing–and I realize I wouldn’t really be able to do anything else–not because I can’t or I’m not qualified or interested. I always end up being a teacher–even when I’m not a teacher. And then, I’m in for another year.
You asked me how I keep doing it. And I said I hold on to the few great moments and the hope & faith they give me that what I’m doing makes a difference–it counts. I have a giant bulletin board in my office with pictures and notes from students–a collection of ten years’ worth of students. I hold onto every little tiny glimmer and stick it to that board, so on the days when I really wonder if it’s worth it, I can look back on those words from actual students–and let them tell me whether or not it’s worth it. Usually, they convince me it is. Sometimes I have to look at it again. And again. And then again. And then I still want to quit.
This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday–sent years ago.
But do you know why I want to quit? It almost never has to do with those students. It almost always has to do with all the other BS. The students? 9 times out of 10, even when the students are causing me grief–they’re not causing enough to make me want to walk out the door. And I don’t do what I do every day for anyone other than the students. And that makes it worthwhile for me. It’s worth it when their lives are changed–even in small ways–because of something I did, said, or created. It’s worth it if that ‘s only true of one out of every 500 students I see in a year. And so ultimately, I keep teaching because of them–for them–and because that’s who I am–a person who wants to make that difference–even when it’s small and even when it’s only one out of 500+ times.
And it’s who you are, too. You want to make that difference. And so you will keep teaching. Maybe it won’t be high school English. Maybe it won’t be public school. Because if you are truly miserable day-in and day-out and think you would be happy doing something else, somewhere else, then you owe it to yourself–and the world who needs you–to try something new. But you, [name redacted], will always be a teacher. And you will always change lives–and make the world a better place. You can’t not. You care too much. The downside of caring so much is that you also feel every failure as if it’s yours. You care so much that you give your all when maybe you should try to give a little less–but you couldn’t if you tried. You are also, like me, a perfectionist, and you don’t want to do anything less than the absolute best–which means you’ll always be busy, always doing more, always be forgetting to take time to relax and enjoy something other than your job, career, calling. But you should focus on doing those things. Because even if you move into another career–you will face the same problem. You will always give more. You will always give too much.
One of the best decisions I made was to make some rules to limit myself. I no longer answer student e-mails on weekends. I leave my laptop at work. I accept that not everything I need to do can be done in the 40-hour work week. And if it can’t all be done, then something will just not get done. I prioritize so that the thing that doesn’t get done isn’t going to be something that is actually detrimental to my students. Usually, it’s some administrative BS that I hate anyway.
Probably none of what I’ve written here is very useful other than this: I understand. It’s hard. And you have to do what’s best for you. But even if you leave the k-12 system, you will always be who you are: [name redacted], Teacher. And you will teach and mentor and change lives. One way or another. And however you choose to do it will be great.