August 2, 2013

Teaching: A Noble Pursuit…To Quit

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I’ll forever remember when I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I was going on a study abroad trip with a group from my university. Part of the trip involved community service. You could volunteer at the city hall, or a nonprofit organization, or a primary school. I had already had my fill of office jobs, and I loved kids, so I chose the elementary position.

Although I was only with the children for a short amount of time (as a volunteer teacher’s aide, I came in two days a week until classes were over), I fell in love with the classroom. I loved the students, I loved the teacher I worked under, and I loved watching the students learn. My experience was limited: aside from babysitting, I didn’t know the first thing about working with children. But my naiveté drove my passion to learn about the teaching world and to someday become a teacher.

This passion led me to finding an internship at a local preschool back in the States. This passion led me to enroll back in school almost immediately after graduating, since I was in my third year of an English degree when I decided I wanted to be a teacher (insert joke about the uselessness of an English degree here). This passion led me to downright beg any institution, public or private, to take me in, for any position, for any pay. I was ready to work for free if it meant I was teaching.

Cut to me over four years later. It’s now the summertime and I’m very unemployed. In May, I had handed my resignation letter to the school I had been working at for the last two years, letting them know that I wasn’t renewing my contract and that I would be done, effective the last day of school. I was (and continue to be) scared out of my mind, because I didn’t and still don’t know what the future holds. Because I didn’t know what I could do next. Because I lacked even an iota of the passion that I once had for teaching.

Teaching felt tailor-made for me. From the tutelage to the empathetic chats to the fancy DIY borders on bulletin boards. I would tell people I was a preschool teacher and have them respond with, “That seems like the perfect job for you.” Or, “You totally look like a preschool teacher.”

But somewhere along the line, I burnt out. If I’m being 100% honest with myself, I burnt out the third day of being a teacher. Three days into my very first job as an actual teacher, I found myself huddled by a park bench near where I worked, crying my eyes out, wondering if I’d ever calm down enough to go back. The details as to why I ended up in such a state are irrelevant. And it wouldn’t be the last time this happened, either: between that day and when I quit, I had three more breakdowns, in different classrooms, at different schools. Some I could hold in until my lunch break. Others I could not.

I spent the better part of three years telling myself that I would toughen up, or that it was just a difficult classroom that year, or that someday it would all click.

Then, as I approached the midway point of my fourth year teaching, I realized something I had been denying myself since day three: I was not cut out for this. And instead of toughening up and learning the ropes, I had become more and more and more burnt out, until whatever passion I originally had was gone.

The rest of that year was misery, but not for the usual reasons. I was conflicted. I knew I needed to quit, lest my mental health deteriorate beyond repair. I had already learned that no amount of rest or vacation would fix this issue. But I was wracked with guilt. I loved the kiddos, and quitting teaching felt like I was quitting them. I felt guilty for wanting out of the one career field that I actually had wanted to be in. I felt like I was giving up on everything: on my aspirations, on the children, and on myself.

Some people were understanding. I would tell friends or family about my predicament and they (especially those who were teachers themselves) would reply with, “I don’t blame you.” One (former) teacher even joked, “Get out while you still can.”

Others, not so much. On the opposite end of that spectrum were people who would offhandedly say that teaching “was a part time job” or “just babysitting”. Or they would view my decision as weak-willed, because they stayed in their job even when things got tough. But none of the comments were as damaging to my psyche as those who would say things like, “But it’s those good moments that make it all worthwhile!” or “But teaching is such a noble pursuit!”

My guilt was highest after those conversations. I felt like I was proclaiming that being charitable and nice was too much work so I was resigning myself to a life of pure selfishness.

However, I knew I had to quit. It was getting to the point that I would get emails about workshops or various classroom techniques, and instead of feeling inspired or driven, I felt nauseous. I was having visceral reactions to things that simply reminded me that I was a teacher.

So my last day came and went. I said my good-byes to the parents, who all knew I was leaving. They were curious about my plans for the future, and I gave various answers: ESL tutor, yoga instructor, animal shelter … person-thing. I focused on the idea of a “change of pace” because “burnt out shell of a teacher” tends to leave a sour taste in people’s mouths, especially when their children were under your care and tutelage. I then spent the next week – my first week of pure unemployment – dealing with the emotional fallout (which included a lot of DVRed talk shows, online articles about cats and GIFs, and the music from Evita playing at inopportune times of the day).

And now it’s August. Summer vacation is winding down and another school year is about to start. Instead of attending one of those ubiquitous in-service days and preparing my room, I’ll be preparing for the next phase in my life. Which could be anything. Downright anything.

But as I look at what options seem appealing (or at least not-unappealing) to me, I notice one common trait: help. Whether it’s showing someone how to write a paragraph in English, or giving a dog a needed bath and walk, or guiding people to find nirvana, the drive to help people is still there, even if the drive to teach children is not. Teaching may be a “noble pursuit”, but there are other “noble pursuits” out there. And admitting that classroom management is not your forte is not admitting that you’d rather hoard all your time and energy for yourself.

I feel like a woman trying to go on a first date after a major divorce – a divorce that happened in the midst of family and friends telling you what a “good guy” your former husband is. I’m a little shell-shocked, a little exhausted, a little afraid to ever have that much passion about anything ever again. But still taking that step forward. Understanding that a job does not necessarily make me, but it does have the power to break me if I don’t walk away when I need to.

I have no idea where this path is going, but I’m on it, and I refuse to stop or turn around. And that right there is quite the noble pursuit. TC mark

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image – Murat Livaneli
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