For teachers who couldn’t take it any longer
When they tell us why they quit, it's a gift and a warning
I have a few public engagements to mention up top. If you happen to be in Charleston this weekend for Spoleto Festival USA, you can catch me reading a new piece of short fiction on Saturday, June 4 at 5 p.m. in the alley beside Blue Bicycle Books (420 King St.). This is part of a long-running tradition in the local lit scene, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Click here for more details (it’s free, no tickets required).
If you would like to help resist mass surveillance and over-policing of low-income and minority communities on the frontline of gentrification, please sign this petition I helped write against North Charleston’s proposed dragnet of surveillance cameras, automatic license plate readers, ShotSpotters, and facial recognition tech. Some friends and I will be speaking out at the next North Charleston City Council meeting on Thursday, June 9 at 7 p.m. and would love for you to help us pack the council chambers. Sign up here to speak, and click here to email City Council members. You can click here to peep my goofy mug on the 6 o’clock news last night railing against the surveillance state.
Out for summer / out forever
This is the last week of school in our district and it’s got me feeling all kinds of sentimental. We’ve been marveling at our kids’ progress, stashing this year’s art class projects in the accordion box, and generally appreciating the loose and joyful vibe on the cusp of summer break. The kids watched Encanto in the school cafeteria and they came home singing. Our son brought home a perfect sunflower from his substitute PE teacher yesterday (?). The girls got a pass to leave class and attend an ice cream social with their favorite teacher from back in their pre-K days.
At the same time, this is a somber season in a long line of somber seasons. Every year around late May and early June, we find out which teachers declined to renew their annual contracts, whether to leave the district or leave the profession entirely. Increasingly, they’re leaving the profession.
I’m 33 and I’ve lost track of how many friends and family members quit teaching because they couldn’t take another year of abuse. They quit to preserve their mental health, to protect their physical wellbeing, to find a job that would allow them to make rent and feed their kids. They quit in frustration with incompetent administrators, in exasperation with the growing burden of tests and pointless paperwork, in fear of vengeful and litigious parents, or in utter despair at the ceaseless attacks on their profession by neoliberal privatizers and hard-right Christian nationalists. When a teacher told me she was quitting in the fall of 2020 because she didn’t believe her district would protect her from an outbreak of COVID-19, I couldn’t argue with her. We aren’t abandoning teachers, we are chasing them out of the profession.
When teachers quit, they don’t owe us anything. When they choose to explain the reason for their departure, I take it as a gift and a warning. This week I spent some time revisiting the open resignation letters that have haunted me the most.
Here is one that Steve Nuzum wrote last month. Steve is a talented and thoughtful high school English teacher in Columbia who also serves as director of research for SC for Ed, a teacher-led advocacy group. His Twitter account @mr_nuzum and his newsletter Other Duties (As Assigned) are essential reading if you want to track the Republican-led siege on public schools via the South Carolina Statehouse.
Steve didn’t renew his teacher contract last month. It’s our loss. He explained:
As I told my principal, who was very understanding, I am “emotionally, physically, and spiritually tired”. For the past several years, I have been pushing myself hard at work, hard in my advocacy, hard as I near forty and consider what I want my life to be about. Along with many of my colleagues, I’ve tried to balance a full-time teaching job with summer work like AP scoring and work on a set of state English Language Arts standards which may or may not ever come out, and with very time-consuming unpaid activism on behalf of students and teachers. It was not extraordinary this year for me to teach all day without a lunch break, go to a Senate hearing or committee meeting until 8 or 9 PM, wake up at 6 AM the next day, and do it all again. Maybe I just need a break, but state law and district policy won’t give me that.
But my spiritual exhaustion is the result of the message, sent loud and clear, over and over again, from political officials at the state and federal level, and from the minority of parents and other community members they have duped into following them, that I am part of a kind of enemy class. That I am “indoctrinating” students, as Representative Morgan said in one of the hearings on SC’s school censorship bills, after he visited my classroom and stood where I stand every day. That I am “grooming” students if I acknowledge the reality that gay and transgender people exist. That I am lazy and don’t want to work, as I have been told repeatedly on social media when I have raised concerns about health and safety in schools. That even in a year with a once-in-a-lifetime budget surplus, I don’t deserve a raise, and that my school doesn’t deserve better funding. Those are hard truths, and I have really struggled with them. I’m glad that others are finding a way to persevere in the face of the attacks and neglect, and I hope I will be able to do it at some point, too, but although I do not regret speaking with legislators and attending hearings and trying my best to do what they, themselves, have told me to do, the process has worn me down to a nub at times. It may be time to let someone else take my place, if there is, in fact, anyone who wants to do my job next school year.
You can read the rest here.
Here’s another letter. This one is from Samantha Rainwater, also of Columbia, writing last month in a blog post titled “A letter to my students on my last day of teaching”:
This letter is to let you know that today is my last day as your teacher. As a teacher. But I need you to know that this choice was made in spite of my deep love and commitment to teaching you. In fact, making this decision is the hardest and bravest decision I’ve ever had to make. Since I was your age, I knew I wanted to teach. For my entire adult life, teaching has been more than my job: it’s been my identity, my passion, my commitment to my community. It is hard to walk away from that, especially as I still believe that education–a free, quality, public education–is a public good that can transform our society and the lives in it.
Sometimes, there are things that we love, that we are good at, that are important, that also require boundaries for our wellbeing. This has become true for this job, in this part of my life, for me.
For too many teachers and students, this academic year was marred by violence, sickness, fear, loss, and grief. I see no reason to believe next year will be different.
Before the plague years, before the critical race theory panic, Sariah McCall quit her job at a public Montessori school on James Island. She published her resignation letter to the district superintendent in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column in April 2019, and I followed up with her because I was covering the local education beat for the Charleston Post and Courier back then.
When I found Sariah, she had moved to Savannah, Georgia, and was waiting tables at a bistro by the river. She told me the hours and pay were better, and she didn’t even need her master’s degree to do it.
“I don’t have to go home and call my tables’ parents and discuss how they tipped me. I don’t have to analyze the data of the appetizers my table has been ordering to see what I could be more effective at selling,” she said, laughing into the phone during our interview. (She did not, as I recall, intend any shade against food service workers, who face their own sets of stresses and problems.)
We spent some time talking about a trite slogan she’d seen on Pinterest boards and cutesy teacher-appreciation gifts: “A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others.” What a grim little proverb. It taunted her from the cover of a day planner that she kept on her desk.
She turned that bad cliche on its head in her resignation letter to the district superintendent:
Please understand that this has nothing to do with my children, Ms. Wallace, or the rest of the faculty and staff at Murray-LaSaine. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect fit for my class, administrator, and school. I thought I had found my forever school. In fact, the only things keeping me from resigning until now were the love I have for my students, the love I have for the act of teaching, and the heavy guilt I feel for my children being negatively impacted by this in any way: emotionally or academically. However, I cannot set myself on fire to keep someone else warm.
The systemic abuse and neglect of educators and other public service workers in the state of South Carolina should have its citizens so enraged. The unrealistic demands and all-consuming nature of the profession are not sustainable. I am still a human being. There was no time to be a functioning human being and give this job all the attention and love it deserves. This career with its never-ending list of “extra duties and responsibilities” that we are not given the resources for completing. I cannot let a career dictate and demand all of me for another minute, and I will not be bullied into continuing to do so out of misguided guilt for possibly neglecting the children. It is unrealistic to expect this much from people. We’re teachers, but we’re still people.
Looking back on the dream career she left behind, McCall did not sound optimistic for the future of the profession. She kept returning to that hackish candle analogy.
“It’s like an idealistic martyrdom that isn’t helping anybody,” McCall told me. “The way that some people looked at the job, they said, ‘You know, you have to do this in order to be a good teacher,’ and I can’t. I can’t completely burn out, because then who’s going to teach the kids? What happens to me and my family?”
There is one more resignation that I return to every June. This one came from my friend Jeremy Cantrill, a former high school history teacher and boys’ varsity soccer assistant coach who only ever wanted to teach for as long as I could remember. He had returned to work in the school district where he grew up and was doing great work by any metric you could choose. His students’ US History end-of-course scores were improving, he had earned the respect of his department, and the soccer team had even made it to the state playoffs.
When he quit his job with the Berkeley County School District in the spring of 2017, he was bold and gracious enough to attend a school board meeting, rise to the public-comment lectern, and tell the district’s elected leaders why he was leaving. He starts around the 24:45 mark in this school board meeting video:
I am someone who this district should desire, by its own metrics, to be in the classroom. However, this past year was also my last year. I will not be returning to the classroom. After four years, I no longer have the motivation or willpower to teach, and beginning in August will be making a career change via graduate school …
I offer forward some of my suggestions, six of them, straight from the frontlines of education.
It is up to the district and school board to fight on behalf of teachers against continual increases in standardized tests. During the 2015-16 school year, if every test would have been given in my classroom, I would have been testing 1 out of every 3 days in a school week. This is far too much.
Give more autonomy to teachers, number 2. Teachers with more freedom are given more time to express their creativity and therefore better results are achieved.
Number 3, raise hiring practices for the district. Alternative routes to certification are unheard of in the top-performing countries of the world. My Finnish teacher friends, for example, have at the very least a master’s degree.
Raise teacher pay, number 4.
Number 5, work with the idea in mind that teaching does not provide measurable hard results for a community until students have graduated, furthered their educations, and come back home to the communities that they love. This takes years. Measuring student success at the end of the year is not only a waste of time, but it measures something that is incredibly fleeting.
Number , eliminate the option of school choice. When taxpayer dollars disappear, the schools suffer. School choice advocates fail to see that this benefits the upper socioeconomic groups in our district while it further disadvantages the lower-socioeconomic students. To continue this downward spiral is a mistake that will show its nasty head only in the decades to come.
In conclusion, trust your teachers, raise hiring standards, and give teachers the chance to teach, plain and simple. Thank you very much for your time today. I have appreciated my colleagues and many of my students. However, I cannot come back to the profession of teaching until there are some much-needed changes. Teachers cannot be simply expected to suffer on behalf of the whole without due recompense.
Without pausing to comment or thank him, the Berkeley County School Board moved on to Agenda Item 4A - Financial Services.
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