Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Why I Left Teaching (Spoiler: It Wasn’t the Students)

The three trends that drove me out of education—and how we can fix them
By Paul Veracka — August 02, 2022 5 min read
Illustration of exit doors leading out of a school hallway
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In April, when I logged into what would be my final Zoom meeting with my school administrators, my hands were trembling. The head of school had scheduled the meeting to discuss whether I planned to return. And it was time to speak up. He asked me why I hadn’t signed my contract for next year, and I didn’t hesitate. With my shaking voice, I responded, “I do not intend to return next year.” He sighed in disappointment and understanding, and the meeting ended soon after. There was so much more I wanted to say, however.

Over the four years that I taught 2nd grade as a lead teacher in both Maryland and District of Columbia traditional public and public charter schools, my students were unique, smart, and caring young people with whom I built meaningful relationships and had tons of fun. So, spoiler alert, I did not leave teaching because of the kids. Sure, as a teacher, I felt frustration with some students’ negative responses to their learning environment and witnessed the secondhand effects of traumas in their lives, but the reasons behind my departure stemmed from the priorities my schools adopted.

Public schools are often forced to make many unethical decisions. Even before the pandemic, the schools I worked in prioritized standardized-test scores over any other academic goal. I saw the direct effects of punitive discipline systems, which mimic and foster the school-to-prison pipeline. I felt the crush of persistent underfunding for public schools. It was these three major education forces—too much standardized testing, too much punitive discipline, and too little funding—that pushed me to leaving the profession, a profession I excelled in and even loved.

A student I taught in my first year, we’ll call her T, was one of many who struggled in school. From the curriculum my schools selected to how faithfully I taught it to the rigid scheduling, my school’s emphasis on standardized-testing preparation was everywhere in T’s education. And she could not stand it.

I don’t blame her. The curriculum was not relevant to my students, though administrators assured me that it was both common-core aligned and designed to teach to the “whole child.” My classes of mostly Black students read mostly white stories that decentered the narratives of people of color. None of the schools where I taught gave teachers the freedom to adopt project-based learning or self-directed learning models that might have allowed students to find more relevance in what they learned.

T was not a kid who “slipped through the cracks.” Everyone in the school knew about this 7-year-old girl. She had thrown things, cursed, called everyone names, hit kids, and screamed for hours. She was also brilliant, motivated, and curious. She had interests, friends, supports, and aspirations. T loved using her manipulatives in math, reading about princesses and the teen dancer and singer JoJo Siwa, acting, and teaching other kids.

But when it came to the curriculum, none of it got through to her. So, T rebelled, every year. My school’s positive behavioral interventions and supports system was the first response to her rebellion, but teachers lacked proper resources, and the system’s reliance on external motivation and discipline triggered her more.

When that failed, school leaders and student-resource officers often got involved. Administrators sent her home several times, SROs physically pulled her from class, and teachers wrote her up dozens of times. Once, administrators felt the need to bring the police to school for her. When I read Mariame Kaba and Erica R. Meiners’ essay “Arresting the Carceral State,” I cried as I saw T in their description of who ends up in the school-to-prison pipeline and why.

No-nonsense approaches to discipline are archaic and proved to be ineffective. They decenter kids, not allowing them to have a voice in establishing community norms, while putting teachers in a space of moral superiority, assuming they know better than students. If kids stray from these norms, teachers are expected to respond punitively.

At each of the places where I taught, I wish we could’ve used a more transformative discipline model instead, like the restorative-justice programs provided by Restorative DC, which centers kids and their voices to foster community and accountability. I wish the districts I worked in had heeded the calls of advocacy groups like Schools Not Jails that call for increasing social workers and community services in schools and youth-organizing programs.

It was during those times of self-doubt that the severe effects of underfunding hit hardest.

Meanwhile, many of my students responded to punitive consequences like T did, with anger and confusion. Eventually, it began to weigh on me. “If this isn’t working,” I wondered, “are there better discipline models that would?” But that was not a conversation anyone was having at my schools.

It was during those times of self-doubt that the severe effects of underfunding hit hardest. Resources are the lifeblood of learning, whether it’s a pencil or a set of blocks. The more exhausted I became from the day to day, the less time and energy I had to supplement resources with my own money. Buying journals, pencils, fun books, markers, plants and supplies for science, candy, prizes—it all took more time out of my short evenings and more money out of my slim wallet.

Every year, I requested resources from my building leaders in schools that suffered supply shortages, including pencils, dry-erase markers, and even classrooms. The pandemic only exacerbated these shortages. When my school turned off the water fountains this past school year as a COVID-mitigation strategy and shipped in water bottles, we had to limit the number that were handed out daily. There simply were not enough for everyone to drink as much as they wanted.

I believe we could give students and teachers the resources they need if more states adopt policies like the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The program, passed last year by the state’s legislature, calls for billions of dollars in extra funds for schools. Crucially, that funding will use poverty data to target funding disparities and prioritize equity.

Even as I leave teaching, I’m confident in the public’s support for healthy public schools. Though many educators are leaving teaching and leadership positions, I am hopeful that with less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on helping students foster curiosity through robust resources and conflict-management programs, schools and teachers can thrive. These movements are growing, and they really make a difference. I’d still be in the profession if these supports had been stronger.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why I Left Teaching

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Download Downloadable: 5 Ways Principals Can Help With Teacher Burnout
This downloadable gives school leaders and teachers various ways to spot and treat teacher burnout.
1 min read
Silhouette of a woman with an icon of battery with low charge and icons such as a scribble line, dollar sign and lightning bolt floating around the blue background.
Canva
Teaching Profession Massages, Mammograms, and Dental Care: How One School Saves Teachers' Time
This Atlanta school offers unique onsite benefits to teachers to help them reduce stress.
3 min read
Employees learn more about health and wellness options during a mini benefits fair put on by The Lovett School in Atlanta on May 8, 2024.
Employees at the Lovett School in Atlanta meet with health benefits representatives during a mini benefits fair on May 8, 2024.
Erin Sintos for Education Week
Teaching Profession Opinion How Two Teachers Helped Me Weave a Dream
A journalist and debut book author dedicates her novel to two of her high school English teachers.
Anne Shaw Heinrich
3 min read
0524 heinrich opinion keller fs
N. Kurbatova / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Data Average Teacher Pay Passes $70K. How Much Is It in Your State?
Teacher pay is growing faster than at any point since the Great Recession. But it's lower than a decade ago when accounting for inflation.
3 min read
Illustration of a man holding oversized money.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty