Teacher of the Year: "I quit"

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Even the best teachers get tired of teaching.  The job is taxing enough of its own, but add systemic instability, top-down meddling, and less than stellar administration and you have the grease that speeds teachers toward the exit. In this post republished from Tom Rademacher, an English teacher in Minneapolis, MN., he shares what has pushed him to the end of a successful teaching career. In May of 2014 Tom was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching at Mr. Rad's Neighborhood.

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tomrad-e1420643401199-200x300Every year, somewhere around this time, I decide to quit teaching.  I get exhausted with teaching, with the adults I work with, with the kids who always need everything to be a thing.  I get exhausted by the gap between what we ask teachers to do and what we give them to do it with.  I get tired in the way that makes me want to cry without reason.

Most years, the decision to quit teaching is an empty threat.  There is not a long line of non-education suitors interested in someone who can make Shakespeare interesting and who would like to spend their day just, you know, helping people and changing stuff.

This year, the threat is more real.  My school is shifting districts (long story) and staying in my same room teaching my same kids means making less money than I would have (longer story), and less than other districts are offering.  There’s also this piece where I’ve been spending a lot of time this year writing for and talking with a bunch of adults and there’s a few different people interested in having me do that full time in some way.

So, I’ve been waking up early just to have some time in my classroom with a cup of coffee to sit and think.  I’ve been staying late just to sit at my desk and pretend I’m reading something.  I’ve been standing back and staring in the distance.  I’ve been holding my head in my hands in meetings a lot.  I’ve not been sleeping well.

A week ago, I quit teaching.

I decided I would find myself a job where I could do the work I do outside of work at work.  I would write, study schools and culture, try to understand, support, and fight for the decolonization of classrooms and the progression of teachers.  There’s work there that I think is important, and work that I think I would be good at.  Also, if someone would have offered me a cabin in the woods to sit and write stories and essays that were increasingly out of touch with reality, I would have taken that in a second.

I didn’t really tell anyone I quit, but my mind was made up.

But then there was this week.  Two things happened.

One morning, I woke up to pictures on my feed of new teachers, part of the Young Teachers Collective, who were posting pictures about why they teach (check out #whyteach).  One of the pictures was of a brilliant science teacher from California (@AliciaJohal, go follow her, she’s got all sorts of smart) that I met at the NEA convention in Denver last year who impressed me then with her passion for teaching, the scope of her understanding of the education world, and the way she was stepping up as a leader in so many ways when so many people tell her she needs to wait.  She teaches to give students a voice.  Something about seeing that picture, about knowing that teacher already, started this shift in my brain.  Teaching is important.  Teaching is incalculably important, and good, and powerful.  Teachers are astounding, and I want to be around them.

Then, on Wednesday, I was reading an article with my class (From Lynching Photos to Michael Brown’s Body, Commodifying Black Death), and at the end of the day one of my students took over.  For twenty minutes, this student spoke truth about being a black male, about the fear and assumptions he feels increasingly as he gets older, about his passions to succeed, to “live greatness,” and how often he is made to feel like shit, and how often he is told he isn’t shit.  He spoke with anger, with pride, with intelligence and hope, and with a broad perspective and understanding of our world that was, after a decade of teaching, among the most impressive things I’ve ever heard.

After the hour, I sat in silence with my student teacher, and after he left, sat in more silence by myself.  One of the most powerful experiences as a teacher is to be really taught.  No book, no training, no group has pushed me to grow more than my students have, nothing has come close to the sense of awe, the inspiration, and the energy they give me.  Students are incredible, and I want to be with them, I want to be there when they do amazing things.

So, I’m staying.  I’m starting over again, ready to learn and excited to teach.

I’m not staying because my kids need me.  I’m not staying to save anyone. Anyone who thinks they need to save black kids doesn’t know enough black kids.

I’m staying for the honor of being there as they live greatness, for the honor of being with them, for the honor of supporting when they need it and getting out of the way when they don’t.

I’m not staying so I can mentor these poor new teachers.  I’m staying so I can watch them change schools for better, so I can see what great things the generation of teachers not raised on color-blindness can do when they have classrooms, departments, schools all their own.

I’m so tired and so full of energy.  I am frustrated and inspired.  When I stop teaching, I want it to be for the work, and not because I’m ready to quit.  I’m a teacher, and that is why I teach.