First Person

I Left the Classroom After 13 Years. Here's Why I Came Back

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In high school, I worried I would never stick to one thing long enough to become great at it. I would work hard at something—classical violin or technical theater, for example—for a while, but once I decided it was not my life’s calling, I would lose interest.

I finally chose teaching as a career, in part because I believed it would be complex and varied enough to hold my attention long term. It required a combination of creativity, strategy, intellect, and verbal, social, and emotional skills. I also chose it because I enjoyed the curiosity and humor of children—and having gone through a difficult adolescent period myself, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other young people at the same stage.

I promised myself I would teach for at least 10 years before moving on to anything else. I wanted to ensure I put in the time to achieve some mastery. A decade sounded like enough time to push past obstacles and develop real skills.

When I signed my paperwork at the New York City Department of Education central office in 2004 to start teaching, the administrator who handed me my thick yellow envelope said, “I can tell you’re bright—I bet we’ll see you back in a few years for a position at central.” She meant to pay me a compliment, predicting I would “move up” to a district leadership role of some kind.

Her assessment was puzzling. She didn't know me, so it couldn't have been based on any meaningful criteria. Her comment also carried assumptions that conflicted sharply with my actual goals. The moment perfectly encapsulated a major cultural norm and failing of the education community: Great teachers—even “promising” but not-yet-teachers—are encouraged to leave the classroom for educational leadership.

After 13 years of full-time teaching, I finally did leave the classroom. My goal was to expand on the outside work I was already doing in writing, curriculum development, and instructional coaching—without the major time constraints of classroom teaching.

I had for many years been balancing teaching with school-based and other leadership work. When I became a mother, this balance suddenly felt untenable. I decided to leave the classroom to write a second book and explore other roles in education—like consulting and coaching—that would allow me to develop in new ways. I did write the manuscript; however, the year exploring other avenues in education led me to a deeper understanding of why I love teaching, and why it is a key part of my identity, personally and professionally.

Here are the three reasons I chose to complete the circle, returning to the place I’d left.

1. I was not done learning to teach. No two students, classes, or years are same, and so our learning changes, too, if we are responsive to what’s happening.

Every year, I explore specific questions I have about teaching and learning. One question (and a focus of my new book) has been, how does frequent creative writing impact my students’ overall academic and social-emotional development, and how can I leverage this to help them meet standards?

These questions are my most intrinsically motivated professional goals. In them, I’m looking for a deeper understanding of an aspect of my work as well as practical applications—what to do differently.

One of the possibilities I most seriously considered over the last year was doctoral study. I thought that my questions about teaching and learning—and I had a few on my mind—could become good research questions.

But as I got closer to enrolling as a full-time doctoral student, I started to realize that I already had a process for exploring important questions about teaching: experimenting in my own classroom and drawing conclusions from what I observed and experienced. I also had a process for disseminating my findings through my writing, which I knew was reaching practicing teachers, and in many cases, their students, too.

A more formal process could open up many new doors, I had thought; however, I could not imagine trying to learn about the questions I had in mind without teaching my own students as a central tool of the investigation. I knew I had more I wanted to learn about teaching, and I realized that I didn’t want to give up actually teaching as a means to do so.

2. I missed having my work grounded in a school community. First, let me just say, it was great to get away from the grind of teacher life for a little while. I did not particularly miss grading or waking up at the crack of dawn.

But I did miss being part of a school community—working with students, colleagues, and families—far more than I anticipated. The school I left (and now returned to) is also located in the Queens neighborhood where I live with my own family, which makes the community tie a bit stronger for me.

Coming back also brought up another question, or perhaps criticism, I’ve had of myself as an educator. On one hand, I’ve always advocated for teachers to leave schools that don’t support their professional growth. I've moved schools three times in the past, each for totally different, but significant reasons—and I would stand by those decisions now.

But these choices mean that I haven’t stayed in one school for longer than three or four years. I’ve committed to teaching, but I haven’t committed to serving a particular community, weathering the storms there, and making a lasting contribution. This is a different take on longevity, and it’s an area where I hope to grow.

3. I felt like I was throwing away too valuable a skill set. I’m still learning to teach, but I have developed skills and some wisdom over the years, which allow me to effectively lead a group of middle school students in studying English/language arts. That is no small thing. And yet it’s very specific.

I know that we need leaders at all levels of our education system who possess deep knowledge of teaching. But we also need teachers in our classrooms who have honed these expert skills.

If I knew that there were more than enough people out there with well-developed teaching skills to fill all of the open positions, I might have felt differently. Might. As it was, I felt sad when I pictured never returning to the classroom. It’s always a loss for students when accomplished teachers leave, but equally so, it felt like a loss for myself.

When faced with the decision after a year away, my teaching self was not ready to go. Taking time to explore other possibilities helped me see this clearly.

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