Every tough decision comes with some measure of remorse for what could have been. As I finish out my 20th and final year as a teacher and prepare to move into an office to serve as my district’s federal programs and grants manager, I am having all the feels, as the kids say.
This is about to get real honest. I spent 15 years being the best teacher I could imagine being. Wholly committed to students and designing learning experiences that would reach them in meaningful ways, I picked up a history endorsement to offer expertise in new contexts, learned as much about the reservation where I live and teach as I could and went out of my way to connect with families. I traveled to sporting events and attended student weddings.
About five years ago my commitment to my classroom and kids started to weaken. The daily rigors of solid lesson planning began to feel onerous and unwelcome, and lesson planning had always been my favorite part of teaching! I did not want to think about daily lessons, teach anything that required a lot of forethought or planning, such as research projects or complicated activities with kids, or worry about teaching hard stuff like grammar because I know how difficult it is to both explain and convince kids it’s worthwhile to learn.
That’s just the planning part. I also was unenthusiastic about grading or even being a classroom leader. I felt tired and uninspired most days I went to school. I figured my students could see right through me.
It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but how I felt is how I became. Unmotivated. Apathetic. Slow in planning, hasty in grading, sloppy in providing feedback. A complainer. I could imagine in the not-too-distant future a professional existence filled with frustration and disappointment on the part of everyone connected to me. It was time to do something new.
Becoming that burned out, ineffective teacher terrified me, but I still had a lot to offer the education world. I applied for jobs in the education field—but out of the classroom—and cheered on my friends who had done the same. But I got no offers, no callbacks. No new doors opened. I was stuck.
An Opening to Help Kids in a New Way
Then two years ago, I spied an opening in my district, a crack where some filling was needed. We lacked a grants manager and the English department was bloated. I offered to manage grants on a part-time basis, in order to keep my classroom and still be able to call myself a teacher. Now, two years later, the half-time gig has expanded to full time and I’m moving into an office.
It is a mark of vanity, but I think everyone who leaves the classroom probably feels a little twinge of regret because they don’t get to call themselves a teacher anymore. Yes, coaches are still teachers of a sort, and principals can rightfully call themselves educators. But let’s be clear: When you’re out of the classroom, you’re not really a teacher. The second this school year ends, my street cred with other teachers will begin to erode. On top of that, I may lose respect for myself. I may be tempted to say, “You gave up. Shame on you.”
As I pack up the last of my professional library, give away binders of instructional materials to colleagues, and agonize over what to do with student work I’ve kept over the years, my feelings are in conflict. I take comfort in the fact that I knew when it was time to go, but it’s impossible to put an exclamation point on these two decades. It’s hard to pronounce, “Yep, my work here is done,” or, “I have completed my professional journey and I gave everything I had.” I guess it’s a little like when your kids grow up and inevitably move away. All you can say is, “I mostly did my best. I hope it was enough.”
When I close my classroom door for the last time, I’ll have to flick those slivers of remorse and shame off my shoulders. I’ll be prepared to heave some good sighs as I try not to think of myself as a sellout or a failure because I couldn’t make it to retirement inside the classroom walls. I’ll remind myself that I can still do good work on behalf of students and teachers using my experiences as guides. And that may be the balm for my guilt—knowing that what was left behind is also coming along to grow me and others in a new way. I hope it will be enough.
Anna Baldwin is a high school English teacher at Arlee High School and has been teaching on the Flathead Indian Reservation for the past 17 years. She designed and teaches Native American studies for the Montana Digital Academy and taught English methods courses at the University of Montana for four years as an adjunct assistant professor. She has been selected as a 2016 Classroom Teaching ...