Dear Teacher: Why I Quit

EDUCATION

Or, how I went from Teacher of the Year to suspended with pay in less than 24 hours.


It’s August, and for some of you that means the final countdown to work is now with us. Summer’s freedom is evaporating like heat shimmers from a blacktop highway.

This isn’t always a bad thing. I know plenty of teachers who, though they love having time off, are excited to break into their classrooms and face the blank walls, eager to unpack the posters they picked up in July, ready to set into motion the lessons that have been hiding in the corners, anxious for students to try them. August is a thrilling month for these teachers. It was thrilling for me. There was nothing more satisfying for my head and my heart than to hold, fresh off the printer, my syllabus for American Literature, or English Language and Composition, or Creative Writing.

But August is a different month for me now. I quit teaching almost five years ago. If you’ve never known why, it’s best if I start at the beginning of the story.

My first English teaching job was at a regional high school about ten miles from our house. It was a small school, fewer than a thousand students altogether, and when I arrived it was recovering from the recent opening of a larger, newer high school that had split its student population. My school struggled a little with its sense of pride.

I arrived with a handful of other new teachers and reported to work for a still-new principal who was starting her second full year. She was a wonderfully good administrator. We had solid assistant principals. It was a good faculty. Every school has its issues, but as a new teacher, I wasn’t worried.

My teaching career took off quickly. By my second year teaching, I had taken on an AP class, started a new creative writing elective, started coaching varsity track, and served on several committees. My test scores were mostly quite good. My students mostly liked me, as did their parents. I worked late. I showed up a lot. Year two was a terrific success, and year three followed much the same tack.

In addition to classroom teaching, I sponsored a club, redesigned and edited the school’s website, served as the school’s central office advisory representative, and mentored kids who were part of a student assistance program. It was all going very well. I had solid teaching reviews. I had earned the nickname “Golden Boy” from my colleagues, and I was kind of proud of it.

That isn’t to say there weren’t problems along the way. Nor is it to say that my students all passed, or did wondrous things like getting into Yale but choosing Harvard instead, or that I was the Best. Teacher. Ever.

In fact, I’d had run aground a couple of times. I got very upset one time with a central office administrator and later referred to her as a b—-. I told an adult joke at a faculty meeting that offended some of my fellow teachers. Both incidents earned me a meeting with the associate superintendent of human resources and a note in my personnel file. Two strikes.

I was 24. I was too immature for the success I’d lucked into as a teacher, too full of ego to think that I could do anything wrong. Anyway, I had a principal who was often in my corner, and I had the license to try a lot of very cool things. Then, my principal left.

Principal No. 2 was very different from my first administrator. I was used to having a good relationship with my supervisor, but for some reason I wasn’t hitting it off very well with No. 2. Given my young age, ego, and Golden Boy status, I mostly assumed it was No. 2’s problem, not mine.

For the record, we both made a lot of mistakes, No. 2 and me. I was in my fourth year of teaching, and frankly, I was becoming more married to my job than was healthy. I spent too much time at school.

Meanwhile, the school’s leadership had changed dramatically, and our entire faculty was noticing. More than one of my colleagues referred to it as a hostile work environment. Tensions between No. 2 and the faculty became so difficult that the central office asked a small team to investigate and interview the teachers to see what on earth was the matter.

At the same time, No. 2 was doing a very effective job of making me look like a bad teacher. Hindsight is 20/20, so perhaps I can be forgiven for missing the obvious. For example: I had an unannounced teaching observation one morning at the very beginning of the school day. It was during the time when the student body president made morning announcements over the PA, and I was in the office to announce the results from the previous night’s track meet. My first period class had work to do in my absence, but in the five minutes I was in the office, No. 2 decided  to make a surprise observation and totally flunked me. He marked me Below Standard in every category, even as he listened to my voice on the intercom. He was gone by the time I got back to my classroom. I was officially a failing teacher.

There is a week every spring semester in which final assessments are handed out to faculty. I’m sure you, Dear Teacher, are aware of the importance the meeting carries. It’s the time of year when your supervisor grades you on the job you’ve done, and the measure of importance for me, finishing my fourth year of teaching, was great.

No. 2 met with me at the small conference table in his office. My teaching file, previously rock-solid, looked as if a grenade had been tossed into its belly. With a tone that felt decidedly smug, No. 2 explained that he did not want me teaching at his school again. He was not recommending me for tenure. Quickly, I said I had planned on resigning, and by the end of the day, I’d sent a letter explaining my decision to step down at the end of the school year to the central office. I kept my resignation a secret from most of my coworkers and all of my students.

A funny thing happened just a few weeks later. My colleagues voted me Teacher of the Year.

The school secretary told me about the vote after school one day, her voice giggly at the irony of such an event. I called my former principal (No. 1), and we laughed about it. Still, she said, if I’d resigned, there was no way I could accept the award, which carried duties in the next academic year. I had to decline the award, she said.

So I went home to draft a simple email to Principal No. 2, thanking him for the recognition but saying I’d have to turn it down. I was honestly a bit gleeful to send this note. It was an affirmation that I was right and No. 2 was wrong about my quality of teaching.

When I opened my email, though, I saw a memo from No. 2 to the entire faculty–congratulating another teacher as the Teacher of the Year. There was no note from my principal explaining the change. I was mad.

This is the part where self-righteousness performs its greatest, most-earned disservice to me.

I replied to the entire faculty. Here’s what I said (edited for clarity and confidentiality):

First, I want to congratulate Mr. Cassidy (not his real name), a teacher I respect and admire very much, for being elected Teacher of the Year. I’m hoping he won’t mind this message. I think he’ll find this story to be quite amusing—along with many of you.

See, I was informed this afternoon that I’d won Teacher of the Year. When I heard that, I knew we’d be in quite a pickle since I’ve already handed in my resignation for next year. I had planned on declining the TOY award gracefully and allowing a teacher who intended to remain on faculty to claim the honors, but it appears No. 2 has already taken the liberty of eliminating me. Oh well.

That said, I’ve always wanted to send out one of those encouraging messages to the staff under the subject line “Words from your Teacher of the Year.” Notes like this feel…nostalgic, I guess…and since I never won student body president in high school and got to write the little column in the student newspaper (appropriately titled “Words from your President”), I always imagined one day I’d win something—anything—and get to write a little message to the folks who thought I did my job well.

Here it goes….

If I could offer you one piece of advice, one little tiny scrap of philosophy I’ve learned about teaching, it would be simply two words: teach kids. Now, I know that sounds cheesy, and I know all the pedagogues in the audience are screaming, “We should call them students to be more politically correct.” But that’s what they are—kids—and that’s why we’re here.

Teach kids. The philosophy is simple. Imagine a system where we had all the time in the world to work with our kids. No meetings, no flow charts, no sticky notes. Instead, time to watch our kids play ball, time to see them in a play or hear their band concert, time to visit them at their jobs and make sure they know how much you care. No more data-driven performance indicators. Instead, kids become our barometers. Are they smiling? Are they happy? Doesn’t it feel good to have a good belly laugh at work every day? A central office administrator once told me it wasn’t my job to make my students laugh. I couldn’t respectfully disagree more.

Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at my hokey dogma, wondering out loud how I can be so sentimental and cheesy when there seem to be so many obstacles in the way—a school environment that feels threatening and obtuse, and accountability measures that insult even the veterans among us.

Teach kids. Don’t yell at kids. God knows they have plenty of people in their lives yelling at them already. Try to be patient with them and understand that memorizing the quadratic equation, Spanish verbs, characteristics of American Romanticism, or the atomic weight of helium won’t really matter much to them in twenty years. What your students will remember about high school are the people who touched their lives and inspired them to be decent human beings.

Forget about covering every inch of the curriculum. Forsake thy standardized tests. Teach kids, and love kids, too, and all of the thunderheads about negativity and staff issues will slip quietly into the warmth of a late spring evening.

Before I end (if you’re still reading, that is), I do want to thank all of you for your warmth and support and encouragement. This school has been an unbelievably wonderful place to begin my career in education. The first thing I mentioned in my interview with the investigation team was that our faculty was incredibly strong, and I never imagined having so many friends at my place of work. I will miss this group of people dearly. Good luck next year. I wish you the best.

I want to again extend the most sincere congratulations to Mr. Cassidy, as well as all of the other nominees for Teacher of the Year. It is an honor to work with fine folks like you. Thanks for nominating me and voting for me and helping me feel like I do a good job, even if I can’t win an award. Thanks for this tiny opportunity to say a few words like I’ve always wanted.

I clicked “Send.”

The next morning, less than 24 hours after I’d been voted Teacher of the Year, my principal arrived at my classroom door to inform me I’d been suspended from my job. A sheriff’s deputy was behind him, as was the school security guard and two assistant principals. Together, they escorted me out of the school building–as near a perp walk as I’d ever experienced–and said if I came back to campus, they’d charge me with trespassing.

I drove straight to the central office, demanding to know what was happening. And even though it quickly became apparent that No. 2 had acted without consulting the associate superintendent of human resources, I was nonetheless suspended anyway, with pay, for an indefinite amount of time. I had disrupted the educational environment, a clause in my teaching contract that allowed the central office to do as they wished with me. I had no recourse, no legal action, and nothing more to do than sit at home and pray they decided to keep the “with pay” part of my suspension active.

Meanwhile, back at school, my students and several of my coworkers were in disbelief. The school psychologist requested grief counselors to help her deal with the flood of students in her office. My email was somehow shared with several of the students, and my AP class convinced the substitute that they had a research paper to work on in the computer lab–and subsequently spent the entire block researching freedom of speech precedents in public education.

The next day, the students showed up with hundreds of index cards printed with the words “TEACH KIDS.” They papered the school with them–taping them to walls, lockers, backpacks, even No. 2’s door. Later, I’m told there were t-shirts and posters, all bearing the “Teach Kids” slogan. They took to Facebook. They organized.

Later, they petitioned the school board to reinstate me, even though personnel issues were not up for public discussion and were required to take place behind closed doors. They showed up en masse to the board meeting, sitting in solidarity. I became front page news in our local paper. “Embattled Teacher” was how they put it.

I was distraught. I didn’t think I had any hope of ever seeing my classroom again. I was convinced the newspaper publicity was only driving more nails into my coffin, even though the articles they wrote were completely sympathetic to my cause. I was a hero to many of my coworkers who were also fed up with No. 2, but to my administrators, I felt I was a pariah.

You can imagine my dread, then, when the superintendent called and asked me to meet him at his office. I knew I was going in to receive the word that I was terminated.

I was wrong.

Much to my shock, the superintendent carefully explained that he wanted me in the classroom, but we needed to figure out a way to make this a win-win situation. We would forget the Teacher of the Year matter. I would apologize to the principal and the entire faculty. The principal would write an email welcoming me back and underscoring his efforts to have me reinstated. It was a crazy thing to do, but I had my job back until the end of the year. Then, as the letter I’d written a month earlier had said, I’d resign.

My best lesson at my first job, as it turned out, happened when I wasn’t around to teach. My students had good, sensible notions of injustice. They reacted responsibly and maturely, even though it was my own irresponsibility that landed me in hot water to begin with. A week after graduation, I packed all of my files into copy paper boxes. I waited until everybody left before I found a hand truck, loaded my car, and left the school.

I moved on to another high school and taught a single semester before I resigned to come work at the small, liberal arts college where I’ve worked now for four and a half years.

I quit, Dear Teacher, because I had to. I discovered that, deep inside, I have a burning sense of righteousness about public education. Being a good teacher and a good employee can be two totally different things. I know I can be a good teacher, but I also know that the fire inside can threaten my ability to constructively deal with what is a very public and political job. My best advice to anyone entering education has always been to find a way to handle the frustration that will inevitably occur when idealism meets reality. If you can’t do it, Dear Teacher, you can burn out or flame out, just like me.

I am still surprised that all it took to clip the wings of my teaching career was one bad principal. And who knows–maybe he was just having a bad year and making mistakes, too. I don’t judge No. 2 or hold him responsible at all for what happened to me. I am tremendously happy with what I do now. I am privileged to be an advocate for education and teaching. I am free to write as many letters to the editor, as many op-ed pieces, as many posts on this silly blog as I’d like to. I am happy in a way I never was as a teacher.

So August is staring you down, Dear Teacher. I didn’t intend for this letter (which is now the length of an epistle–sorry) to be a downer. Rather, I hope that it serves as a reminder that you can do amazing things in the classroom–but you have to be in the classroom to do them. My students are gone, and I won’t have any more.

Though I just trumpeted how good it is to publicly share my thousand opinions on public education just two paragraphs above, I still envy you, Dear Teacher, because you will get to feel that heartfelt satisfaction of holding your syllabus, fresh off the printer, and I won’t. You will feel the thrill of pouring over your classroom lists, and I won’t. You will be there.

So for the sake of your students, for the sake of their parents and your community, for the sake of all the positive potential you hold, and for my sake, Dear Teacher, make this year a damn good one.

Good luck.

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1 Comment

  1. James C

    I have to say, James, that this letter truly hits home for me—this year more than any before. You really are a great teacher and awesome colleague and friend! (On a side note: I strongly dislike No. 2 myself!!)

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