Admittedly, I was a bossy little thing, and that probably had something to do with it, but it's also about sharing an enthusiasm for learning. What can I say? I LOVE school. Learning and books are part of my soul.
I was probably only six or seven when I started telling people that I was going to be a teacher when I grew up. I was also going to be a witch, a dancer, a veterinarian, a reporter, a writer, and an astronaut…only some of those stuck.
Unlike most people I know who changed their minds multiple times about what to be as they grew up, I stuck to that childhood plan of becoming a teacher. The only thing that changed was what level I thought I wanted to teach (elementary, middle, high, college).
I went to college and earned a degree in English education with minors in Spanish, Creative Writing, and a sort of Humanities add-on they called "Honors." Other than a minor gig with my college public radio station and a brief secretarial job, all my work life was teaching or education adjacent. I tutored, served as a classroom aide, subbed, and taught in my own public school classroom, in summer programs, and on college campuses.
The work was never easy, but it was worth it. There's such power in being there at the moment of elucidation or new comprehension or boundaries being stretched and helping people gain the tools they need to make their goals and improve their lives. I felt useful, important…like I made a difference.
Even now, after 27 classroom years, I still believe public education is the most important idea to rise out of American democracy: the idea that ALL citizens have the right to education was and is ground-breaking and represents all that is best about my country. (we can talk another day about the forces trying to kill that from within).
You knew there would be a but, right?
The realities of choosing a teaching life can be pretty grim. Nearly always, it means sacrifice in other aspects of your life.
- You'll always earn a low salary, especially considering the education required, the importance of the work, and the stress and danger involved.
- It's the only profession I know of where people who have never attempted the work themselves (or worse yet: FAILED at it) are in charge of the system, and the whole world thinks they know better than the trained professionals how to do the work. (Well, maybe mothering--that also came with a TON of irrelevant, hateful, and unwanted "feedback" from people who don't know a darn thing about it--we can talk another time about misogyny and the value of women's work).
- You might as well change your middle name to scapegoat, because you'll collect ALL the blame and none of the credit.
- The stress levels are sky-high and self-care is just two words people like to say, about as useful as sending "thoughts and prayers" during a tragedy. No one means it; no one cares.
- It's physically dangerous. More schoolkids than police officers have been killed in our country this year by gun violence, and their teachers die trying to save them. Between school violence, stress-related health damage, unsafe and poorly maintained work environments (school buildings), and contagious illnesses, teachers die from the work every day. Your life is on the line.
- You'll be overworked every single day. Schools are underfunded, which leads to being understaffed, which leads to one person shouldering a work load more appropriate for three to five people.
- People will call you a hero, but it's lip service they pay to avoid paying you in respect, support, or dollars (you know: things that MATTER and might make a difference). It's disingenuous at best, and often far darker than that.
- You'll feel helpless a lot because you can see the problems and what needs to be done, but you don't have the tools, time, or resources to fix things. It'll break your heart a little bit every day…and can eventually make you shut down out of self-protection.
It's not sustainable. The system was built on the backs of women--something we allowed at a historical moment when it was hard for a woman to get paying work of any kind at all and have been stuck with ever since. When the entire system is predicated on the exploitation of the workers, there's something wrong.
It's even worse in states like North Carolina: "Right to Work" states they call them. Anti-union is probably a step more honest. No protection for the worker--not even the basic protection I'd enjoyed in other states like a guaranteed lunch break every day or due process if I got fired.
I've thought about leaving lots of times.
- Sometimes I stayed out of passion--to try and make change from the inside.
- Sometimes I stayed because I'd been gaslighted so much that I'd internalized the idea that the problems were about me instead of about the work conditions.
- Sometimes I stayed out of exhaustion--too tired to put in the footwork to find something else.
It was like having an abusive spouse in a lot of ways. You convince yourself that it's not as bad as it is. You stay "for the kids." Fear and manipulation reign over all.
Well, reader, I left him: that abusive spouse I called a teaching career.
Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my last group of students and walked out into the sunlight. I'm corporate Samantha now, working as a content strategist for a large financial firm. I've had my new job for all of nine days as I write this, and it's already a world of difference in terms of stress and work-life balance.
It's telling, I think, that my primary emotion, intermixed with the sadness of leaving the children and some of my colleagues, was relief.