Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Should I Quit?

I've been there. A little over a decade ago, I was a local union president through contentious contract negotiations that started with contract stripping** and ended with a strike. I learned just how little some community members valued what we do. I learned it because some of them stopped me on the street or called me at home to tell me. And not just the foaming-at-the-mouth angry ones-- those were actually easier to take because I knew they were angry and upset by the situation and, hell, so was I. No, the tough ones were the people who wanted to explain to me in cool, calm, rational terms why teachers just didn't deserve the kind of money, autonomy or support that we were asking for.

So I stared into the abyss for about three years, and when it was settled, I started looking-- seriously looking-- at other career options.

I have asked that question-- should I quit?

I'm offering this piece today as a balance to yesterday's column, which some saw as too sunny. I heard from many people who would tell any aspiring teacher to give up that dream. And we all hear daily about the teachers who decide it's time to get out. I can't tell you how to answer that question for yourself, but I can tell you how I did, and didn't, do.

I didn't stay because I didn't want to be a quitter. Quitting doesn't make you a quitter, and staying in a situation that is toxic does not make you noble.

I didn't stay because I had to do it for the kids. I am not indispensable. I'm a pretty good teacher, and I can be replaced with another pretty good teacher. Some day I will have to be.

I would not quit because teaching made me unhappy. My job is not responsible for making me happy. My students are not responsible for making me happy or feeding me emotionally. The person responsible for my emotional health and happiness-- well, that's my job.

Quitting or not quitting, for me, came down to just one question-- can I do the work that I set out to do? I got into this profession to help students get better at reading, writing, speaking and listening. I got into this profession to help students become a better version of themselves, to help them find a way to be fully human in this world. So my question was, could I still do that work?

There are many things that can get in the way. A district that starves the classroom of useful resources. A set of rules that makes employment contingent on working against those goals. A building environment so toxic that the atmosphere prevents any growth. An environment so riddled with obstacles that simply getting past them leaves no energy left for actually doing the work.

In the end, being unvalued and disrespected didn't factor in my decision. Dealing with people who didn't get it didn't factor in. I could still do the work I had set out to do, and so I stayed.

My relationship with my job changed. I became more protective and feisty about my personal teaching mission. I became more willing to challenge authority or (because I have passive-aggressive behavior down to an art form) more willing to defy the system quietly to do what I believe is right. I got out of union leadership, which had brought me all too often in contact with the most difficult people both outside and inside the profession. And I became more deliberate in cultivating support systems and rewarding activities in my life outside the building.

It took a good three years for me to come back from the edge, to stop scanning employment ads and thinking, "Hmmm, maybe..."

As I said, I can't tell anyone else how to make this decision. I know lots of folks face it. I know big urban districts bring a level of bureaucratic cray-cray that my small district can only dream of. And I know most of all that the people who used to stop me on the street or call me at home now sit in state and federal capitals and even in the superintendent's office of some districts. The people who can make teaching miserable have unprecedented power. I don't begrudge anybody the decision to quit, and I try not to judge. It is an ugly new world. But no matter how ugly the world gets, it still needs teachers, and I still want to be one.

**Contract stripping is a negotiation technique where management proposes to cut off your arms and legs and then pretends that only cutting off your arms constitutes a "concession." It's a great way to negotiate without giving up a thing. In our case, the opening salvo of negotiations was to strip dozens of language items from the contract.

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