Education Opinion

Guilt for going

By Jessica Shyu — April 22, 2008 3 min read
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‘Tis the season for state testing once again, and Texas is no exception. The next wave of TAKS exams are coming up in another week and a half, and my teachers are scrambling, and their students are scrambling, so therefore, I am scrambling along with them. My apologies for not posting earlier.

Over the past few weeks, I noticed a number of comments, some accusatory, other curious, about why I (and others) left the classroom to take on other roles in the field. This is a perennial question with no right answer. While I found myself tired of being asked, the more I pondered about it driving from school to school to meet teachers, the more deeply I felt about my personal decision to leave room B-2 on the Navajo Nation after two years of working as a special educator.

It breaks my heart to field phone calls from former students considering dropping out, and it’s a bittersweet feeling when 16-year-olds write me letters using the exact sentence construction techniques we had worked for months on. If I stayed for another year, another decade, imagine all the children I would have had an impact on (hopefully positive). Imagine the years of reading growth, writing rubric improvement, and social skills development. Imagine what it would have been like if I could have been one “outsider” teacher who didn’t leave the kids after a year or two.

These were all things I considered, but didn’t truly feel, when I made my decision to take on the position as a program director helping develop new teachers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. I cried and I said my good-byes and I mailed math homework over the summer. But it wasn’t until I got a phone call in November from a former colleague who mentioned in passing that one of my most severely disabled students, both physically and mentally, wasn’t getting any educational services because the new teacher hadn’t figured out how to fit him in her schedule. Last year, he learned to count money, grew by three levels of comprehension and could read over 25 life skills words-- after starting from zero with each thing.

I was enraged. I called the school, sent resources to the teacher, he’s getting classes now, but mostly, I questioned my decision to leave. I was tempted to quit my job right then, which I felt like I was lousy at anyway. And I felt guilty. I felt guilty, guilty, guilty about dipping out of the front lines and taking a “cushy administrative position” instead.

Well, the “cushy administrative” notion gave me a quick laugh since I was logging an average of 90-hours a week and spending most of that time working directly with teachers or on teacher stuff (imagine a dean of instruction whose job is to entirely to take care of getting their 30 teachers to teach better-- that’s my job.)

But the guilt stayed. It faded from time to time as I saw my teachers grow and improve, and as I grew to enjoy my work, but a bit of it stayed. It stayed because part of me always wondered if I’d have been better for education in general if I, and so many of my colleagues who’ve left the classroom, stayed.

One Saturday morning after meeting with one of my teachers, I casually mentioned this guilt I always feel. And she looked at me in amusement and awe. “In the time that it took you to show me how to write my lesson plans this way, you just helped improve my teaching,” she said. “And that’s going to have an effect on 150 kids. Multiply that by 30 teachers. That’s 4,500 kids you’re helping. Why are you feeling guilty again??”

That made me realize the guilt I felt wasn’t about leaving the classroom, it was about doing something instead that wasn’t worth leaving all my Elroy’s, Alvin’s and Jenny’s back in New Mexico. When cast in that light, I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt-- the dramatic growth I’ve seen and had a hand in with so many of my teachers has made it all worth it. So, no, there is no “right” answer for why people leave the teaching profession. But there’s also no guilt in it if it was worth it.

(Note: The argument that all good teachers should stay in the classroom is rather preposterous to me. Yes, it’s sad to see a great classroom instructor leave the front of the room, but it seems silly to demand people stay in a role when they want to work in a different capacity. One can only hope it’s still working toward the same goal of student achievement. Otherwise we’ll just end up with a whole lot of professionally-dissatisfied good teachers! And I’ve always argued that I would prefer having a good and motivated teacher teach for just two years than a mediocre teacher teach for 20. Naive, perhaps, but this is what principals have told me time and time again.)

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.