By Sarah Fine -- Why I Left Teaching Behind

By Sarah Fine
Sunday, August 9, 2009

My National Book Festival posters are gone, leaving behind tack marks and shreds of tape on the yellowing walls of Room 108 of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School on Capitol Hill, where I spent the past four years teaching. The bookshelf where I kept my collection of young-adult novels holds nothing but a few outdated textbooks. The poems that my students added to our 10th-grade "slam wall" fill the trash can in the corner.

This will be the first time since I trooped off to kindergarten two decades ago that I will not celebrate the new year in September, and I find that hard to imagine. Somebody else will cover the holes in the classroom's walls with posters. Somebody else will pore over class rosters on a Metro commute from Dupont to Southeast. Somebody else will stand at the door and greet the students -- my students -- on the first day.

As for me, I plan to travel, write and try not to think too much about what I have left behind.

When I was a first-year teacher fresh out of college, I got a lot of questions about my chosen profession. I usually said that I was inspired by my grandmother, who taught in the Boston public schools for 35 years. The real truth was that, like many of my peers, I had fallen in love with the idea of the job. Urban classrooms struck me as seductively gritty, and it only seemed right that I "give back" after spending 22 years in a suburban, Ivy League bubble. I rarely voiced this sentiment because I was afraid of sounding cavalier.

Four years later, the question I encounter is equally thorny: Why leave teaching? It's not just a question about how I'll pay my rent. Reformers have big plans to transform failing urban schools, and their work hinges on finding a way to keep strong teachers in the classroom. By throwing in the towel, I have become one more teacher abandoning her students.

So why am I leaving?

When people ask, I tend to cite the usual suspect -- burnout. I just couldn't take it anymore, I explain. I describe what it was like to teach students such as Shawna, a 10th-grader who could barely read and had resolved that the best way to deal with me was to curse me out under her breath. I describe spending weeks revising a curriculum proposal with my fellow teachers, only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it. I describe how it became impossible to imagine keeping it up and still having energy for, say, a family.

My listeners nod sagely. They've heard my story before: An eager young instructor plunges into the fray only to emerge, disappointed and disillusioned, a few years later. In the era of Teach for America and urban teaching fellow programs, my journey is not particularly novel.

In 2005, the year I started teaching, nearly a third of new teachers in the District of Columbia were recent college graduates who had enrolled in Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows program. Statistics suggest that many of these recruits have already moved on. Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded "no excuses" charter schools, turnover is often much higher.

But there is more to those numbers than "burnout." That term is shorthand for a suite of factors that contributed to my choice to leave the classroom. When I talk about the long hours, for example, what I mean is that, over the course of four years, my school's administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries. More and more major decisions were made behind closed doors, and more and more teachers felt micromanaged rather than supported. One afternoon this spring, when my often apathetic 10th-graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class "seated and silent." It took everything I had to hold back my tears of frustration.

The teaching itself was exhilarating but disheartening. There were triumphs: energetic seminar discussions, cross-class projects, a student-led poetry slam. This past year, my 10th-graders even knocked the DC-CAS reading test out of the water. Even so, I felt like a failure. Too many of my students showed only occasional signs of intellectual curiosity, despite my best efforts to engage them. Too many of them still would not or could not read. And far too many of them fell through the cracks. Of the 130 freshmen who entered the school in 2005, about 50 graduated this spring.

There is yet another factor that played a part in my choice, something that I rarely mention. It has to do with the way that some people, mostly nonteachers, talk about the profession.

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