When you leave teaching, beware. You are more powerful, capable, and resourceful than you could have ever imagined possible. Though we endeavor every day as teachers to be the super human beings who sacrifice sleep, sustenance, and hydration, hurtling ourselves at the massive challenges facing our schools and students, we doubt our own efficacy. Suspended in the motion of moments too intense and important to be anything other than 100% present, we accept the mere feat of making it through each day, each year with dignity, poise, and humor as a tremendous accomplishment. Few of us work in schools or districts organized and run effectively, and we know that every day we are fighting a battle against inequity, racism, classism, otherism–a battle that leaves the students and families we love most vulnerable to the whims and fancies of policy makers and the torrents of the global economy. We love our students, and if we are lucky, we love our colleagues and the communities that support and sustain our schools. We trust somehow, somewhere we are making a difference that will be felt more tangibly than we experience each day in schools.
One of the things I realized when I stopped teaching was that the relationships I had with “these kids”–the ones I left behind in June–would be “my kids”–the ones whose graduations and weddings I attend, the ones who call me when they need help or are alone.
This afternoon I spent a couple of hours calling some of “these kids,” a select group of my kids: my debate team as well as a group of rising 10th graders I recruited for the debate team for the upcoming school year. My phone call was completely out of the blue on their end. For me, it was a scheduled chunk of emotional and physical energy to call and check in on them, make sure they are committed to attending debate camp at the end of the month, and set up a time and place to see them before I leave while introducing them to their new debate coach. I make these type of calls as part of my work as a teacher. No big deal once I actually set myself up to do it and start calling.
But I’ve left teaching. Consciously. On purpose. These phone calls are not part of the work of doctoral students, not part of my move to New York, not part of my job and internship search. But these kids are part of my life, and their belief and trust in me a tremendous source of pride and affirmation. Our identity as teachers is wrapped up in persisting despite encouragement, status, or recognition. Even though we believe we are powerful and teaching is valuable, we are barely able to utter or type the words and sentences that claim that power. We catch glimpses of it in our work with students and colleagues, but as teachers we are so engaged in problem-solving and creation that we can’t see ourselves or our work in their entirety.
We are powerful beyond measure and well beyond the glaring shortcomings of our schools and districts. I left teaching because I felt powerless. I am a doctoral student because I want to study power. I want to be more effective at changing our broken educational system. I want to see that my intelligence and my efforts amount to something measurable and substantial. And it took me leaving teaching to see that they already had.
In my first years of teaching, I knew I was a good person. Over time, I evolved and knew I was a good teacher. This afternoon, I realized that good people evolving into good teachers say the right thing at the right time more often than not. In doing so, they become the most powerful and positive forces of change imaginable. I am in awe of myself and my profession. I am so proud to be a teacher. I may have left teaching for now, but I can’t help myself. I will always be a teacher, and I realized this afternoon that I will always be blessed with the opportunity to say the right thing at the right time to the students I adore.
Funny that we seem to need to step away from things to see them clearly. I’m appreciating profoundly the new closeness and understanding that distance affords.