My Dream Job Destroyed My Dream: An Unoriginal Statement About Education

I realized that this job that I loved was eating me alive.

12/01/2016 04:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2016
Photo by Roman Mager. https://unsplash.com/photos/5mZ_M06Fc9g

Five years ago, I got my first job as a teacher. My dream job. My dream school. I could not have been happier: life was good.

Then, five months ago, despite my passion and idealism, I broke down and accepted that my dream for an education focused on divergent thinking, individuality, and genuine learning was horribly unrealistic, hindered by bureaucratic disconnect and systemic devaluation. It became clear that the job which originally brought me so much excitement, wasn’t at all as I thought. In fact, genuine creation and effective collaboration would be forever secondary to administrative agendas, systemic mandates, and a tireless effort to maintain the status quo. Crestfallen and exhausted, I submitted a letter of resignation shortly after this heartbreaking realization.

And, five weeks ago, I walked out of my classroom for the last time, turned in my keys, and drove away. Indeed, I was scared for my future, but mostly heartbroken and utterly vexed, wondering where things went awry: how did my dream job destroy my dream?

I am an educator. For the last five years, I have been working in a public high school, teaching English. The ideas and experiences expressed hereafter simply comprise my experiences in education, my story. There are no grandiose revelations or suggested shifts in policy. There are no references to groundbreaking educational theory or pedagogy. What follows are real observations made by a real educator grown frustrated with the current educational climate. And guess what? You know this story. We all do. We have read about it in books and articles, seen it played out in movies and television shows. We know the issues and we know the narrative. And that is exactly the problem: My experience is in no way original; in fact, it is all too unoriginal.

The sentiments shared hereafter are held and expressed behind closed doors, in offices and break rooms, by various stakeholders throughout the educational realm. Certainly, it’s not the only narrative out there, but I believe it is a common one, and therefore worthy of at least some attention. Because if we as a society truly value education, then educators  —  the ones in the classrooms every day, the conduits of educational content, the ones supporting and inspiring our students — need to be listened to.

That said, here’s my story.

I don’t think it was ever my plan to be a life-long classroom teacher  —  though there were certainly moments where I dreamed of one day channeling the tweed-jacketed inspiration and wisdom of Mr. Feeny, Mr. Keating and other television teachers whom I knew and loved. Fueled, though, by naiveté and perhaps a willing and prideful ignorance, I convinced myself that, even if it wasn’t my end goal, teaching English in a high school classroom was the BEST [period] JOB [period] EVER [period]: talking about books, inspiring students, changing lives, and shaping the future  —  what more could I ask for?

And for a while, things were good, really good. Then, all of a sudden, sometime in my fourth year, they weren’t. Suddenly, the rose-colored glasses came off and I realized that this job that I loved was eating me alive. Even worse, I realized that I was not alone, that, in fact, teachers were expected to feel this way.

I realized that this job that I loved was eating me alive. Even worse, I realized that I was not alone, that in fact, teachers were expected to feel this way.

I knew that something had to be done. After nearly a year of intense personal and emotional contemplation, and with great remorse, I arrived at the decision to resign. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make, one that I, at times of weakness or self-doubt, still find myself questioning. For most of my life, education has been something that I believed in, something that made sense to me.

As a student, I was fortunate enough to have a handful of amazing teachers who instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and an appreciation for the learning process. Their passion and dedication inspired creativity, collaboration, and progress, which became central pillars of my professional philosophy. Captivated by their expert example, I was transformed. Years later, I longed for the opportunity to have a similar impact as an educator: I wanted to change lives.

When I was finally given a classroom of my own, everything felt right. My days were charged with an electric energy. Students loved me, my colleagues and I worked well together, and admittedly I was good at what I did. Electing to spend weekends in my classroom, I pored over curriculum, finding ways to best deliver instruction to diverse students. I viewed the world  —  and the news  —  through a teacher lens in hopes to connect everything back to content. Teaching quickly became my identity, my life  —  a reality that is in retrospect quite troublesome.

Never, though, had a job so perfectly aligned with my personality, skills, and abilities, so those personal sacrifices seemed justifiable. The excitement of this reality moved me to develop a senior capstone “This I Believe,” in which students were asked to understand, express, and defend their own personal beliefs. My aim was to then encourage students to showcase those beliefs in their lives after high school  —  advice which coincidentally came to contrast with my own life trajectory and professional dilemma.

The Classroom vs. Everything Else

As time moved on, however, and as I became more immersed in the world of teaching  —  joining committees, taking on leadership roles, overhauling curricula  —  I began to realize that perhaps my ideals of an education focused on genuine instruction and growth, on creativity and collaboration, were disconnected from the day-in and day-out reality of teaching.

In the classroom, we emphasize to our students the importance of collaboration and divergent thinking; we encourage them to seek out opportunities to think critically and grow in their passions.

The reality, though, is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most teachers to put these ideas to practice in their own lives.Certainly, there are some who do, on a regular basis, work to create effective educational experiences not only for their students, but also for themselves. Many, however, do not. Amidst the increasing amount of mandated meetings regarding frameworks and assessments and other agenda items that seem so disconnected from the actual classroom experience, and in the absence of any real accountability, the system encourages these very dedicated and sacrificial teachers to become complacent.

If we are expected to change and progress together in our curriculum and instruction, then teachers need time  —  flexible, unstructured, use-however-you-need-it, time  —  to change and progress together. 

The brunt of instructional and curricular responsibility is thrust onto a very small, over-dedicated, group of educators

When the system does not actively support the needs of its teachers, when complacency reigns unchecked with no sense of collective accountability, people become resistant, or at least reluctant, to change. In turn, the brunt of instructional and curricular responsibility is thrust onto a very small, over-dedicated, group of educators, willing to sacrifice without compensation their lives outside of the classroom, their energy and time, to make education better. They will do this, and they will do it well.

And yes, in the end, this small band of passionate educators will create change, and it will be effective, but this does not mean we should preserve the status quo. These ends do not in any way justify the means.

The Choice

After five years in education, I found myself in that smaller, tired population of teachers, and I realized that I had to make a choice. If the system would not support me, if it would simply rely on my willingness to blur the line between who I am and what I do, to sacrifice my personal life for my job, then something had to change. Though I was wholeheartedly thankful for the colleagues, administrators, and friends who have helped me accomplish and experience all that I have in my educational tenure, I had to leave. Not out of anger, nor out of sadness, but out of a genuine desire to find an opportunity that will allow me to create, collaborate, and grow, and one that will encourage my colleagues to courageously do the same. Unfortunately, education no longer fulfilled those professional criteria for me.

If the system would not support me, if it would simply rely on my willingness to blur the line between who I am and what I do, to sacrifice my personal life for my job, then something had to change.

Though I have now left the profession, I will never stop believing in the importance of education. While the concerns expressed herein are limited to observations from my own experiences , they are without a doubt indicative of larger systemic issues within the current education system. Certainly, there are many areas where this system succeeds, but there are so many others where it tragically fails. I strongly contend that these issues are worth attention and action now, especially as we quickly encounter widespread teacher shortages. Moving toward the future, I sincerely hope that these problems are addressed with urgency, and that such a societal effort would lead to the development of real and lasting educational change.

Again, while this is my story, the sentiments expressed are in no way original: countless educators feel the same way. Furthermore, what is said here just begins to scratch the surface of the issues (emotional support, organization, financial compensation, unions, administrative disconnect, lack of value, physical safety, poverty  —  the list goes on) faced by educators slogging through the trenches of our current education system.

If we truly value education, if we care about the future and the success of our students, then we must listen to these stories.

If we truly value education, if we care about the future and the success of our students, then we must listen to these stories.

We must learn from them. They will challenge what we know and think about education; they will shatter paradigms. But listening to and supporting these educators  —  the people in the classrooms every day  —  is the only way we will ever make permanent and effective educational change.

___________________________________________________________________

Where am I now?

I recently moved to San Francisco to search for a career opportunity that will allow me to continue my efforts to make education (content, experiences, products, and so on) more effective, relevant, and applicable. I also moved here to bake bread, but that’s a whole different story.

Please feel free to contact me (nick at nickcalvin.com) with any questions or comments.

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