Why I'm Calling It Quits After Six Years as a Teacher
A recent article published by Reuters titled “Teacher Depression May Affect Child Learning” suggests a possible correlation between a teacher's depression and student learning as measured by test scores. A depressed teacher may not work as effectively and engage students as well as a happy teacher. Therefore, teachers must control their moods because they affect daily interactions with students and thus student success in schools. This makes sense.
As a teacher, though, I also want to know how teaching impacts teachers: their psyches, mental and physical health, and even personalities. How does the profession, working with diverse-needs students day in and day out, transform teachers, whether they have fled or held their ground in the classroom?
There’s tons of data on why teachers quit: low pay, no respect, borderline exploitation, difficult work-life balance, lack of job security, unsupportive administrators, and unruly students. There’s also data on how to maximize teacher retention: performance bonuses, collaborative teams, teacher mentors, parental involvement, and actually useful professional development. But I want to know the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of teaching on veteran teachers, and on those who escape and suffer the aftermath. Some, like peppy Teach For America corps members who serve a simple two years, love teaching and have fond memories, while many others may rightfully suffer a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’m nearing the end of my 6th and final year of teaching. It’s my final year in education because I’m honestly worried that teaching is turning me into a terrible person.
Let me explain. It was already five minutes into 5th period, and some students were still grazing by the iPad cart while others were rummaging through their book bags for their short stories. My Teach For America training kicked in and I stood and spewed some bit about the assignment objectives and due dates in my teacher voice. One student, Mario, raised his hand and asked why I had called them “children.” From across the room, Albert explained something to the extent of, “It makes her feel better calling us that because then she’s superior.”
A Moment of Realization
Albert’s poignant, casual response knocked me off my pedagogical pedestal. I had unconsciously reduced my classroom of high school students to mere “children” because I was upset that they weren’t overtly eager to get started on the storyboard assignment that I had thoughtfully created to challenge and engage them. I was offended and thus projected my anger toward the students who were actually still on task. I agreed with Albert’s assessment, apologized to the class, and treated my students with inordinate kindness for the rest of the class period. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I’ve directed my frustration on innocent students, nor have I changed my ways since then. The event was simply the first time I had been so eloquently challenged.
Rarely does a student throw down the gauntlet in my classroom, and when they do, they never win. I run my classroom with an iron fist gripping a sledgehammer. It’s a highly successful yet intimidating and oppressive form of classroom management. I am the dictator. I use data to measure my success, not smiles and laughter. It’s my way or detention, a call home in class, or a referral to the principal. Apparently, I’m so terrifying that it wasn’t until the end of the May that I learned that I’d been calling a student the incorrect name all year. Her name was Crystal or something, but I’d been calling her Teresa the entire time. She’d even written Teresa on her essays even though the gradebook listed Crystal. I digress.
I’ve been realizing since the beginning of the year that I’ve been particularly dissatisfied with work and cranky towards my pupils. When a student repeats the same question after I just answered it, I’ll respond with patronizing sarcasm or an expression of disgust. Some students cannot even bear to watch me as I read their rough drafts because I cannot hide the utter disappointment in my face. Often, I take deprecating jabs at students who are failing rather than giving them a new chance every day like I should. I don’t say “please” or “thank you” like I used to. I order students to “get to work” and rarely smile anymore in the classroom. I’m afraid I’ve turned into bitter Miss Viola Swamp, and Miss Nelson is nowhere to be found.
At the heart of it, the way I treat my students is a sad form of self-preservation and an attempt to spare my ego from the aftermath of poor or failed lesson plans. My patronizing teacher voice and sarcasm is just as Albert assessed: a desperate means of making myself feel better. Then I start to wonder: Has teaching made me this way? Have I always been this mean and patronizing? My friends say no. My honest friends say not anymore. My fiancé just stares wide-eyed in fear, like my dog the shoe destroyer, and tries to change the subject. In truth, my personal life has been particularly chaotic this school year and has affected my outlook and performance as an educator. At the same time, teaching has been as demanding and stressful as usual, perhaps a bit more with the pressure of standardized tests.
A Depressing Profession
So as I near the end of my 6th and final year in the classroom, I’m not sure if teaching has finally worn me down to a bitter shell of the optimistic newbie I was once was, or if I’m just ready to move on. Maybe it’s a complicated combination of both. Either way, my students deserve a better teacher. In an ideal world, the folks in charge of educating the youth of America would be the most passionate, level-headed, mentally stable, and educated scholars amongst us, but that’s like finding a unicorn.
All I know for sure is that teaching can be depressing. It’s depressing when you plan an entire unit only to find that your class set of books won’t come in on time because of school bureaucracy. It’s depressing when you plan an epic lesson and it tanks miserably with a class of apathetic students. It’s depressing when a student confides that she’s pregnant, her boyfriend dumped her, and she’s afraid to tell her parents. It’s most depressing when half of your class has their heads down because a boy was killed in gang violence over the weekend.
On top of that, teachers have their own personal troubles. So yes, teachers suffer varying degrees of depression. Yes, teacher attitude will impact student learning. And yes, teachers need their own support if they’re going to be successful in the classroom. Often it’s a lonely island in our giant cubicles and we just need some love here and there. Love, money, therapy, a window, a margarita machine, and hell, whatever else we can get. Though it’s important to focus on student achievement and growth, perhaps we should consider the short and long-term effects of serving in education on teachers, and how we can make it all a better experience for everyone involved.