I have thought a lot this summer about quitting my job. If I were to quit, I could stop slogging through variables and decimals amid the wails of the oppressed youth of America and do something that enchants me for a change. I could learn woodworking or go sailing or live abroad. Quitting wouldn’t cause any major financial hardship if I took on occasional substitute gigs and tutoring opportunities. I could lace up my boots and get my fingers all sticky and frown over art problems and remember what it feels like to be free.

We’re two weeks into this year, and already I can feel a growing knot of stress under my right shoulder blade. My stomach has stopped recognizing familiar foods and has turned gizzard on gravel over red onions and pineapple. School exhausts me: I come home tired, and I don’t sleep well. The emotional drain is a 72 inch pipe in the bottom of my reservoir, and my hundred and twenty kids are Dallas. I hate that even in a good week, I can only hope to fail well every day. In a bad week, the Sisyphean nature of teaching takes its toll and I get smashed flat as everything I’ve worked for unspools at the feet of a school system already so bewildered by bureaucratic inefficiency that it can offer up only the feeblest of support.

I haven’t quit yet, and the reasons why are all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. This is hard, stressful, unsatisfactory, unsupported work, but it is a labor of tremendous love, and the kids make me smile, even on the worst days. Until recently, there could have been no question at all of my quitting.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

Now, I’m teetering on the edge of a choice that I don’t want to make.

I'm not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

I’m not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

At what point do the personal consequences outweigh the value of the ethical work that I’m engaged in? At what point does self-sacrifice become needless and stupid? I love teaching kids, but I feel that I’m being asked to do it under untenable conditions, and that my willingness to go all-in is being abused. Kid-love is a variable, and some days it’s abundantly clear that it’s not enough. Other days, a sweet bit of graffiti blows the k-factor through the roof.modd

8 thoughts on “Balance

  1. Such a hard choice but every time I’m come face to face with this particular decision, I took a deep breath and really listed to myself. Your heart of hearts is telling you what you should do. Good luck!

    • thank you. I think I need to wait it out a little while longer. My heart wants me to stay, but if things in my district don’t get better, I think I may have to let reason rule over my heart on this one.

  2. I completely understand where you are. Last year, not a day went by (especially in the first semester) in which my mind wasn’t rolling around in misery, planning my imaginary life change. For me, it was all dreaming and no action. Second semester was a bit better. This year is already off to a rough start. People have no idea of the hardships and the bureaucracy involved in leading a classroom in this day and age. Between the disengagement of the students, the fact that many parents wish no accountability for their children, and the hours of paperwork, it is hard to see a reason to keep going sometimes. I hope things look brighter for you as the school year continues!

    • Thank you. With a little luck, my district will see some big changes in the next few weeks that will brighten things considerably. If not, I think I need to assign my health and emotional wellbeing an appropriate value (I think we often forget to value ourselves as highly as we should) and do a very careful assessment of the situation.

  3. I have a friend going through something similar and I’ll say to you what I said to her.

    Just imagine what you could achieve (and achieve with fantastic kids who need your support) if you weren’t spending so much of your energy on the job stress. You could tutor kids and offer a percentage of tutoring free to kids on low incomes – or run amazing Summer programmes for them. Or you could so something else amazing. But whilst you are bearing the weight of so much stress then you probably won’t have the energy to do that.

    So I’d re-frame things. It isn’t just asking yourself when do the personal consequences outweigh the good you are doing. But “could I do more good if I wasn’t so stressed out by my job.”

    Obviously if you decide to live abroad I’d make a case for the UK. It is much cooler here in the Summer 😉

    • I have been meaning to write back to you for ages but I haven’t been able to sit down and articulate my thoughts. THANK YOU. It is such a relief and a gift to have someone say it’s okay to place a value on my sanity and energy in this equation, and beyond that, to value my possible positive contribution, not just the negative personal impacts. Yay reframing!
      It is easy to get caught up in the self-sacrifice of ethical work, but your advice and some friends’ support on the home front helped me keep my courage up. I thought about it all through last weekend and talked to my principal on Monday.
      Speaking confidently about my own value to the school system and the personal value that I place on my health was challenging. I felt a little silly and a little pompous, but I described my unhappiness honestly. My principal, who is the Mayor of Awesomeville (unlike our superintendent) asked what he needed to change to keep me around.
      We negotiated, and he’s removing college-bound students from my senior math class (I’m not qualified to teach it, especially with no curriculum or textbook available. This particular responsibility was keeping the needle on the stressometer well up there in the radioactive red), and placing these students in more advanced courses. Without these kids, I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down quite so much.
      Things on the stressometer are back to a tolerable dayglo. I’m taking on some extra responsibilities (extracurriculars!) at school that are adding joy to my days (the anti-stressmisery), and we’ve settled into a routine again. I’ll make it to the end of the year.
      I think I would have left if we lived in a place where I could find another job, or if Sean didn’t have a contract to stay here for another year and we could have moved away. On one level, I’m glad I didn’t, every day, because kids make my heart smile, but I’m glad I went through this, because I feel much more conviction about my own value as a teacher, and I have a better understanding of my professional limits.
      Woo! A school night novel! I must be back in a happy place if I can type for this long without feeling guilty about not grading papers.

  4. As you (I think) know, I relate to this 100%. It is an exhausting back and forth, and why I am currently in grad school. I wanted to keep working for the kids but felt I couldn’t do anything more in the system I (we) were placed in. It feels awful to make a “selfish” decision, but when I became jaded to the point that I was no longer giving my all, I knew it was time to walk away. Which leads to what Becky said up there. She offers a great perspective.

    P.S. I am currently working on narrowing my research question for my thesis but right now it looks like it will have something to do with environmental justice, art ed, cross curricular learning, and adventure playgrounds…in public schools (gasp). I am pretty pumped.

    • That sounds completely awesome! I want to hear all about your research. The coolest thing I ever came across when I was doing school garden stuff was an outdoor classroom/theater thingie with seats made out of old tires: you can write on them with sidewalk chalk for activities!

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