I Loved and Left Teaching and That's Okay

BySarah Singer

My basement classroom was sandwiched between the school security office and the band room.

Amid the shouts of guards, humdrum of the scanning machines, and the sometimes synchronized — often not — sounds of percussion, I didn't need caffeine to wake up in the morning.

In fact, I'm sure few teachers do.

There's a natural adrenaline release in teaching that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in other lines of work. Teaching is centered on human connection and collective energy. Teachers strive for the "ah ha!" moments from students, the late-night emails asking questions about an upcoming assignment, the sound of pens moving across notebook paper during independent work.

I certainly did. And these countless moments filled with small victories made me excited to get to work every day. 

But something happened during my final months in the classroom.

I loved my students, loved the content, and loved the unanticipated daily surprises of teaching and advising the student newspaper. I found myself, however, growing curious about other job opportunities. I was ready to move out of the classroom. If not forever, for the time being. 

I taught in the NYC public schools for the first four years of my adult life. After graduating from college, I worked as a special education teacher at DeWitt Clinton, a high-need public school in the Bronx. I taught content-based classes and skills-based classes: English, earth science, journalism, resource room, computing, reading, and writing. I taught 13-year old 9th graders and 20-year-old 12th graders.

I was the youngest member of the approximately 300-teacher faculty for my first two years at the school.

I entered the classroom as a member of the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF), an alternative certification program managed and funded by the NYC Department of Education and the New Teacher Project. It aims to staff high-need public schools with recent college graduates and career-changers looking for a direct path to the classroom. The NYCTF aims to make a lasting impact on NYC's schools by staffing them with dedicated, motivated long-term teachers. 

Let me back up. I am 26. I grew up in a NYC suburb. I was an English major. I like folk music. I own a ukulele. I run marathons. I bike like a maniac. I began the job with no end game in mind. 

And I no longer teach.

I'm also not a law student, medical student, business student, consultant, investment banker, or researcher of "educational policy" for a think tank in Washington, D.C. I did not use teaching as a launch pad for another career. I taught because I deeply care about public education. I wanted to work with students. I wanted to coach them in how to read deliberately, write effectively, problem solve carefully, and study purposefully. I wanted to help them develop academically and personally as young adults plugging through their inevitably difficult adolescent years.

After four years of work in my first full-time job, I found myself ready to transition, excited to start a job and move to a new apartment. These changes were not politicized, nor were they impassioned gestures of relief or rebellion against teaching. I was not turning my back on the Bronx, my students, my coworkers, the public sector, or on education. Like every person who enters the workforce for the first time, I was in the process of figuring out my strengths and weaknesses as a professional. Teaching was my first full-time job, and I was fortunate to have had one.

Yet, the weeks leading up to my final days of teaching were filled with guilt and self-doubt. I couldn't help but ask on repeat: I like teaching, so am I allowed to leave? I taught for only four years, was that enough? Am I a coward? A hypocrite? A cheater? A liar?

America's recent obsession with education reform has transformed teaching from a profession (a wonderful, challenging, and rewarding one at that) into a career that has taken on an otherworldly, missionary-quality imbued with seemingly life-or-death repercussions. For teachers like me who like their work, get along with the students, and most importantly have a positive effect on their learning, the act of leaving the classroom has become a form of sacrilege. 

Those of us who entered the classroom in the past decade are likely familiar with the adage that their work, more so than other variables affecting schools (class size, school environment, resources, and parental involvement, etc.) has the greatest impact on raising student achievement. Social psychologist Malcolm Gladwell writes in his celebrated New Yorker article "Most Likely to Succeed" that "teacher effects dwarf school effects," and that children are "better off in a 'bad school' with an excellent teacher than an excellent school with a bad teacher."

But this elusive concept of "excellent teacher" is haunting to educators, administrators, and those in education policy. How does one measure teachers' "excellence" in the classroom? By observing them? By tracking their students' test scores? By completing video analysis of their classrooms? By analyzing portfolios of their students' work? By asking students what they think about them? Configuring the right formula for evaluating and coaching teachers to this golden standard remains at the crux of today's unending educational debate. 

On one hand, good teachers cannot be quantified and measured. You know one when you have one, and you know one when you see one. On the other hand, good teaching is objective: it can be measured by results, analyzed with scientific precision, and replicated. Social psychologist Gladwell argues for the former, and master teacher, administrator, and researcher Doug Lemov argues for the later.

Educators agree that master teachers are not born. They are made. They grow into the role after thorough and deliberate practice, reflection, and coaching. The learning curve of teaching varies, but for most teachers, it takes at least a one to two years to grow comfortable in the classroom, develop a repertoire of effective lessons, and positively affect student outcomes. 

This time-frame is what gets millennials who enter the classroom looking to make a meaningful impact into trouble: the teaching time line does not parallel trends in millennial employment. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays at his or her jobs for about 4.4 years. Men have 11.4 jobs on average in a lifetime, women 10.7. Millennials, according to Forbes contributor Jeanne Meister, expect to stay in a job for less than three years, which sets them up to have up to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Millenials are notorious for flipping through jobs at a rapid-fire pace, so much so that some employers have adopted specific millennial hiring and retention strategies. Compared to Baby Boomers, who stay at a job for an average of seven years, and Gen X employees who stay for an average of five, the average millennial will leave their first job after a mere two years.

Reasons for this trend vary: millennials are constantly seeking greater fulfillment in their work and are comfortable with switching jobs to find it; millennials entered the market a high point of the economic recession and are prone to unstable working conditions; the high unemployment rate amongst millennials (16.2%) has eliminated the stigma of being without a stable, long-term job.

This leaves millennial teachers in a pickle. They are members of a generation in constant employment flux, but work in an industry where partaking in the "wash, rinse, repeat" cycle of short-term teaching is not only scorned upon, but considered offensive to the field of education and hurtful to the youth of America. 

There's no quick fix to this problem. Millennials make good workers. We think outside the box. We go above-and-beyond the requirements of a job to make a lasting impact. We work in areas they are passionate about. Our life's mission is often aligned to our work.

It's time to end the constant, merciless critique of young teachers who leave the classroom after a relatively short time. Young teachers have proven successful in countless ways within their schools and with their students. To ignore such successes amid the social, political, and economic debates surrounding education does a disservice to the field at-large. 

I loved teaching, and I left it. Sometimes the story is just that simple.