Two years ago I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I quit teaching. Because so many people in my life knew me as an educator, I decided to explain why in a blog post. I poured out my heart and soul in that post, shared it with my Facebook friends, and then went to bed. The outpouring of support that I woke up to the next morning, and that continued over the next two weeks, is still unbelievable to me.
As I mentioned in the original post, everyone who knew me well told me to do it. They understood why. However, I had a whole group of family and friends who I didn’t see or talk to on a regular basis that I needed to tell about this. That was my intention behind the post. That and I’m much better at expressing myself in writing than I am verbally. And as Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The support from my family and friends wasn’t a surprise. Although, it was welcomed and needed. Those words of love from those I love have gotten, and continue to get, me through my times of self-doubt. The flood of support from complete strangers though blew me away. The number of times the post was shared and commented on was crazy! It showed me that many people do support our teachers. Those people aren’t always loud enough, but they are always there.
I don’t like to address negativity but I will here briefly because I think it is an important lesson on how we treat our educators. There were several strangers (and one “friend”) who judged me for why I quit, when I quit, how I quit, etc. And as much as I tried to ignore it, I couldn’t. No one judged me more than me. They weren’t saying anything that I hadn’t already said to myself. What concerned me was that this type of judgment of teachers is exactly what puts unrealistic standards on the profession and makes them feel like they can’t speak up for themselves or their students. Teachers are people; they are not infallible. And we should never expect them to be.
What I didn’t share was that for about two years while I was teaching, I was on medication for anxiety and depression. I was having severe panic attacks frequently. One morning, the panic attack I had caused me to not be able to get out of bed for work. That’s when I called a doctor. She told me that many of her patients were also teachers. That was a very dark time for me. Sometimes I didn’t think I would get out of it. Medicine definitely helped but it made me feel like I wasn’t myself and it caused me to gain 50 pounds. After about two years, I was able to change my situation a little and get off the medication. However, before I made this decision two years ago, I felt myself sliding into that dark place again. I absolutely could not go back there. I could not continue to set myself on fire to keep other people warm. And we should not ask teachers to do that either. Many teachers deal with this on a daily basis. We definitely shouldn’t judge them when they feel like they can’t anymore.
After I quit, I spent about 5 months looking for a job while also trying to help save my high school from being closed. It was a stressful time and I was glad to see it end. However, I did learn a lot during that time. About education, about my community, about myself. For me, this time further confirmed that if you have a voice, you should use it. Especially where children are concerned. I began to speak up more often, particularly about the conditions of education in my own community. I’m ignored quite often and I know there are more than several folks who would love for me to shut up. I have even lost a few acquaintances because of it. But it doesn’t mean no one is listening and it doesn’t mean that I should stop speaking. This time also showed me that quite often teachers still in the profession who remain silent do so because of fear of retaliation. Until we start actually empowering teachers to speak up for themselves and the students they serve, nothing much will change. Listen to them. We will be better for it because they are the experts.
In April of 2016, I got a position as a Research Analyst in the Institutional Research department at a local community college. I was excited to be part of an educational institution again but in a different capacity. So much of my life at that point was about sharing my views and opinions that it was a welcome relief to just deal with the facts. I could leave my feelings out of the information I was asked to share. That was a welcome break for me.
But I’m an educator and I soon found myself seeking opportunities on campus to work with students and serve on committees with faculty and other staff members. When I had downtime in my job, I filled it with work that benefitted students. Since quitting teaching, I had always said that I missed teaching. And I did, still do, but what I came to realize was what I missed more was students. So, I applied for a position as a Completion Coach at my college. A position where if a student encountered a barrier on the path to their degree, then there would be someone there to help them overcome it. A student advocate. I’m only a little more than a month into this new position, but I am happier than I have ever been in my work. This role is important for the success of students and I am thrilled that I get the chance to do it.
In his book What Unites Us, Dan Rather describes community colleges as “one of the unheralded backbones of our educational community”. I couldn’t agree more. The work that is happening in our community colleges is something that I wasn’t privy to before I started working at one. I love that anyone, particularly in Tennessee, can get an education at a community college. As my new boss said to our May graduates, an education can change not only a student’s life but their family’s lives as well. Powerful. I also see community colleges leading the way in many needed changes in education including empowerment of educators, advocacy for students, and equity. We aren’t where we need to be yet but I am grateful to be part of the journey. I am hopeful that K-12 systems will follow their lead. If you are looking to support education, your local community college is a great way to do it. Many of them have foundations that you can contribute to that will directly benefit students.
Because of my eternal hope to see public education succeed, I continue to attend our local school board meetings each month and try to stay involved in our local K-12 schools. I still feel like what I have to say about K-12 public education needs to be heard, particularly in my own community, so I am toying with some ideas about how to do that best. I don’t know yet if that means running for school board or starting a nonprofit or something else entirely. We shall see. I encourage all of you to be a voice for public education as well. Get involved. Support a school or a teacher. Tutor. Attend schools’ sporting events, plays, and musical performances. Write your elected officials. Vote for candidates who are student and public education advocates. Everyone deserves an education and even with all of its flaws, our public education system is a wonderful thing. We must support it, so it can become even stronger.
Two years ago, I ended my blog post with this quote, “Be OK with not knowing for sure what might come next, but know that whatever it is…you will be OK”. I don’t know what the future holds, but two years ago I didn’t know that either. The past two years have been stressful and scary at times but exciting and wonderful at others. And sometimes all of that at once! I expect nothing less of the next two years and beyond. That’s how life is supposed to be I think. If you have supported me, loved me, prayed for me, laughed with me, cried with me, hugged me, encouraged me, or listened to me these past two years, please know I remember it, I appreciate it, and I value your role in my journey. The number of people who have done those things for me is literally too numerous to list. I’m a lucky girl. And because of your support, I would say that I’m a little bit better than “OK”.