You know the stereotypical dream where you show up to take the final for a class you haven’t attended or studied for? My version comes with a twist: I regularly find myself back at the high school where I began my teaching career. It’s the first day of school and I’ve done absolutely no prep whatsoever. I don’t even know where things are, and my mailbox is overflowing with unread notices.
What’s ironic is that, in the beginning, I really did consider this my dream job. This is the school where I’d done my student teaching, and during the ensuing year and half, it’s where I did the vast majority of my mostly-full-time substituting. The school had a solid reputation, and I’d lived in this town since starting my Master’s program, so not only was this my first-choice assignment, I didn’t have to move. And so I distinctly recall, on a late spring day in 1993, running upstairs to share the good news my principal had just given me with two of my closest teacher friends. I distinctly recall thinking with trembling excitement, “I just got the perfect job! I will never have to look for work again!”
Okay, so you know that old line that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans? How about the warning, “Be careful what you wish for?” Well…
I had some sense, of course, some expectation that my life as a first-year teacher would be uniquely insane. In my case the insanity was enhanced by the fact that I had three preps (i.e., three different sets of lesson plans) and was the assistant Speech and Debate coach (which meant many long weekends spent in other people’s high schools). Yet at some point during that year, I realized that many of the things stressing me out weren’t likely to improve as I grew more adept at the work. As it turned out, I was right: three years after getting my dream job, I left conventional teaching for good.
So what happened? Why did I leave? A single blog post hardly offers the space to cover or inject much nuance into a complicated story. So I’ll stick to the main point, which is that despite thinking I’d won the lottery when I got this job, and despite the fact that I met a lot of good people (many of whom I’m still in touch with twenty years later), in an astonishingly short time I went from thinking I was set for life to thinking anything had to be better than this.
I got into teaching because I enjoyed academics and working with kids, but I found that the job allowed precious little room for either. With the qualified exception of my AP European History classes, the academics were shockingly superficial, and even that level of content I had to entice, coerce, and otherwise manipulate my students to engage with. Indeed, the worst part of this experience—the worst part of conventional education in general—was/is the way it sets teachers and students (and parents and administrators) against each other, poisoning their perceptions of each other. I was forcing my students to do things they really didn’t want to do, and they were very good at letting me know just what they thought of this.
Even with those students who seemed to tolerate or even enjoy my presence, the curriculum and structure constantly got in the way. We weren’t allowed to relate to each other as people, because there were allegedly more important demands on our time. Besides, I was in position where I had to tell them what to do, and where they had to do what I said. I evaluated their performance, and I controlled their actions and movements down to the level of when they could exercise their bodily functions. From their perspective, I was just one of several petty dictators they could only hope would be more or less benevolent.
I didn’t get out because I’d found Sudbury schooling: actually, I caught only one passing reference to it during those years (though it was one of my former high-school students who, right after I’d left, recommended I check out Sudbury Valley School): I left because the job was driving me into the ground. The stress I felt as a first-year teacher only increased with time, to the point that I was ill pretty much all of my third and final year. I left because I was having trouble making kids pay attention to things of questionable relevance. (Really, who cares if they can define serf or name Napoleon’s last battle?) I left because as a history teacher I encouraged people to ask Why, and I was having more and more trouble answering that question myself.
The best analogy I’ve come up with for this experience, one that’s persisted over the years, is tht my first teaching career was like a promising marriage that ended in divorce. Like some bad relationships, this one was hard to leave, not simply from fear of the unknown (what would I do next?), but because I had to confront my guilt over abandoning those students who couldn’t just walk away like I could.
In the end I decided I had no choice, that I’d be no good to anyone if I stayed in a place where I was disillusioned, where the stress was killing me. So I went back to grad school, chasing a second Master’s (and presumably, after that a PhD), but by the end of my first year in that program, I’d found my way into a group that would open the Chicago area’s first Sudbury school.
As a conventional teacher, students regularly thanked me for treating them like people (which always struck me as sad, that this would make me stand out). My Sudbury work I’ve often described as being everything I liked about teaching with none of the b.s. By now I’ve worked really hard for a long time to show what’s possible and desirable in education, to really change the world. As dreams go, I rather like the way this one’s developing.