It’s no secret that public school teachers have a tough job. And it’s no secret that teaching got a lot more challenging with the onset of Covid-19 and all of the upheaval of delivery methods for instruction. After more than two years of struggling to reach students through distance learning for which teachers received little or no training, rendering them often unprepared to succeed, many have called it quits, while others are barely hanging on. As of February, 55% of teachers were considering leaving teaching earlier than they had planned. Many of those teachers are planning early exits due to the strains the pandemic has brought upon them. Eighty-six percent of teacher members of the National Education Association (NEA) claim to have seen increased number of their colleagues leave the profession because of Covid.
If you became overwhelmed by the challenges of teaching during the pandemic, or are considering leaving teaching because of it, I encourage you to remember, it’s important to take care of yourself, and one of the reasons it’s important to take care of yourself is that so you are able to take care of others. The truth is, there were days during my teaching career when I became so frustrated I wanted to quit on the spot. In an empty room during a planning period, I would on rare occasions just go into my storage area and let out a scream of anger. “There has to be a better way to make a living than this” I would say out loud to no one but myself. Teaching is tough. Teaching in urban districts is tough.
I remember one year at my K-8 school, the entire middle school faculty had quit by the end of the year, and several did so mid-year and had to be replaced “mid-stream.” By the next fall, several elementary teachers had decided not to return as well. I had also considered moving somewhere else to teach. But I didn’t. I stayed. And that first day of school I would have the lesson of my life taught to me by a 7th grade boy as he walked past my classroom door on the way to his home room.
In a K-8 school, students keep in touch with teachers they have had since kindergarten, because they see them and can easily say hello or stop in to chat after school. They look forward to seeing their former teachers when they return to school in the fall. This particular year, on the first day of school, this 7th grade boy had just walked through the building, past his former classrooms, hoping to say hello to familiar teachers. As he progressed down the hall, he was saddened to not find a single teacher he recognized. They had all left. Finally, his last classroom to pass by before climbing a flight of stairs to his homeroom was mine. There I was standing outside my classroom. He saw me and stopped right there in front of me. He looked at me and I’ll never forget what he said just then. “Well, at least you’re still here.”
I decided right then and there that no matter how tough it got, I would stay. I was reminded by that boy that I mean more to these kids than the subject I teach. I was a harbor in the storms of his life. I was someone who continued to believe in him when others had bailed. I was more to him than a music teacher. I was an important presence in his life. I was that to at least most if not all of the thousands of children I taught over my 33 year career. So are you. Knowing how much my being in that school for those kids was giving to them put the cost to me in perspective. The best things are not free, they come with a cost. All the frustration and anger and feelings of failure were not as big a loss for me as the value of what my students were receiving from me. That kept me going for the next 10 years until I retired. I spent a third of my career at that school. Eleven years, and only six days missed, all of them for legitimate sick days. I don’t miss teaching; I love my retirement, but I do miss the kids and the colleagues I worked with. That’s because working there wasn’t a job for me, it was a relationship. I stay in touch, donate to causes that will help kids at that school, and am overjoyed to do so.
There comes a time for all things to come to an end. My time was July 1, 2019. I didn’t know the pandemic was about to strike, so in hindsight it was good timing. I didn’t have to figure out how to manage teaching under the circumstances that many of you have had to. But I’m pretty sure everyone of you did the best you could, gave everything you had. That’s what teachers do. That’s what makes teachers precious, no matter what their salary or working conditions may suggest to the contrary. If after all that, this was or is your time to leave, then be well, and thank you for the countless lives you’ve made better by being there. Don’t feel bad or guilty for leaving. Take care of yourself.
If you’re still there, hang in if you can. Don’t stay there because you’re afraid to leave. Don’t stay there because you feel guilty leaving. Stay there if it’s in your heart to be that special someone for your students, and you still have plenty of heart to give away. I found it amazing how my frustration and anger and dissatisfaction shrunk when I focused more on the value of what I was giving and less on what it was costing me. But we all reach our limit. Then it might be time to give somewhere else, or to retire. Know when that time arrives, and leave when it does. Until then, your kids love you, even when they say hateful things.
They appreciate you, even when they do disrespectful things. For some of them, they just want to be sure you’re not going to give up on them, no matter what they do. When they finally decide you’re really not going to walk out on them, they’ll be devoted to you. When I retired, I made sure they all knew, I wasn’t leaving because of them, I was leaving because I had been teaching for 33 years, and I was looking forward to the next part of my life, just like they look forward to graduating and moving on. Take care of yourself and make sure your students know how much they mean to you. Chances are, they already know, but tell them anyway. Take care of yourself, especially the part that loves and loves to give, but also the part that keeps you together and healthy so you can keep on loving and giving. Good luck to everyone as we continue to navigate through these challenging times.