Not too long ago, I was a public school teacher. This is the story of how I ended up leaving the profession I considered my passion and my calling.
To resign from teaching was the toughest decision I ever had to make in my life, because I really enjoyed teaching. I loved my students, and I wanted to be a part of their life for more time to come. But everyday I would come home after a 12-hour (minimum) work day, which consisted of a more than a full-time load of teaching, PLUS all the time dealing with the bureaucracies of the corrupt world of education. I spent so much time filling out paperwork that achieved nothing, and I sat in so many meetings that accomplished nothing, while I was dying for more time to prepare for the actual teaching that needed to get done. It felt as though, for every teacher that works in education, there are two more people in the system whose only job is to make the job of a teacher more difficult. Every night I would come home, mentally drained and physically too tired, with no energy left for anything else. It didn’t help that I am an extreme introvert whose energy got sucked up by all the highly stimulating non-stop interactions that happened throughout the day. I could not go on like that anymore, because a part of me was dying on the inside. Some days I was too tired to even eat dinner, and went straight to bed. I gave my all to the school and to the students, and I needed some time to restore myself by focusing on my life and my passion for music.
For anyone who has not been to a school in the inner city, I want to share with you what it’s like. The students, at no fault of their own but because of the lack of access to quality education prevalent in every inner city neighborhood, came to us with low skills. Okay you probably knew that, but do you know just how low? Many students were reading at an elementary grade level. Many students didn’t know the times table. Some even struggled with single digit addition.
Many came from homes where their parents are hardly ever home because they are trying to make ends meet by working more than one full time job. Many took care of their younger siblings and cousins and lived in multi-family homes with no time or place to study. How dare the politicians of this country accuse the hard working parents of these students of stealing from the government? How could they be so out of touch from the realities of the struggles of people all over the nation? They make my blood boil with anger. Then I got to thinking. Would I be where I am today, if I grew up in the same situation as that of my students?
No, I probably would not be where I am at now, if I was not given the opportunities I was so freely given. I am where I am today because I was set up for success. I had access to the most amazing education, and very supportive parents who wished the best for me and had the power to help me achieve whatever it is that I wanted. I was never concerned about how my family was going to pay rent next month, how I’m going to pay for college, or whether we would have enough food in the fridge. My psychological and physical needs were met, and the only thing I had to worry about was myself; what am I going to do today to be a better person tomorrow? So of course I did well. From the moment I was born, I was set up to do well. That is called privilege, and I was not aware of it until I met my students.
My students’ lives may have been nothing like mine, yet they still came to school everyday, and they were so eager to learn. They did not use their problems at home as an excuse, but gave their all in my classes. That’s another misconception that people have about inner city schools, that somehow the kids are “bad”. I spent a vast majority of my waking hours with them and I assure you, these kids are nothing short of amazing. It makes me angry that students who want and deserve the best education are not given the best because society has made the decision to make their lives so difficult. We have collectively made this choice by being aware of failing schools in the city while doing nothing about them.
When I started teaching, I thought that I could change the whole world. I was confident in my teaching, and I thought that all my students, even though they came to me behind in academics, can catch up and even thrive, after one year in my classroom. I was naive. One year was not enough to make up for the many years of education that they missed. But every time I felt like calling it quits, a student would say something to encourage me to keep going. One day a student came up to tell me, “thank you for another great lesson.” Another told me, “you may not change the whole world, but you changed my world.” These words of gratitude were all I needed. Despite my failures, my students would encourage me by telling me how glad they were that I was their teacher. They wrote me countless hand-written letters of appreciation, and they worked so hard in my classes. So I found the power in me to keep teaching, at least for a while more.
Ever since founding the school, my amazing coworkers and I did everything in our power to provide the best education to the students that came. It was very frustrating to work so hard only to be told that we need to do better, that we are the reason for the failing education system, and when we asked for changes in policy that would benefit the students, our opinions were ignored. Apparently, teachers are not considered important enough people in education, so we are not given any opportunities to affect policy. It really hurts to see the current status of education, because politicians are arguing over what really are not issues at all, just for the sake of saying something that sounds good to get them into office, while teachers, if you just take a second to listen to them, have so much to say and have very good ideas about how education can improve as a whole, are ignored completely in the education reform conversations.
Often when I told people that I’m a teacher, people would ask, “Why are you a teacher, with your resume and your engineering background?” Keep in mind that when I tell people that I’m an engineer, nobody ever questions, “Why are you an engineer despite your teaching talents?” And that tells you something. America does not value its teachers at all. So many people believe as if people who are smart go into other fields, and people who don’t have other options go into teaching. I don’t blame them, because unless you have taught a classroom full of students, you really do not know the intellectual talent that it takes to break down a subject in a way that the students can master it. So in case you didn’t know, I’m telling you now: teaching is much harder than it looks, and the teachers who have mastered this skill deserve the same kind of respect and status that doctors and lawyers get. Teachers are the ones who know what is best for the students, and I assure you that we would be much better off if teachers’ opinions were valued, and we used them as the basis to guide all policy decisions.
I consider teaching to be the most important job in the universe, and I have the highest respect for teachers who are teaching today. I have a feeling that I will be back in the classroom in the future, because I really miss my students. I hope that slowly, people’s perception will change and we will become a nation that values and respects the hard work that teachers do.
If you have a teacher that made a difference in your life, please, reach out to them and let them know how much they matter. It’s about time we give them the recognition and compensation for the important work that they do. The status quo is simply unacceptable.