I recently shared a collaborative praise poem I wrote with my students at the end of the semester. I loved that class. I love that poem. I love those students. But I don’t love my job, and days after the end of the semester I am really struggling with the question of how much longer I can do it. Vicki Davis wrote a great post about this last year. Her post encouraged me to share my struggle.
I am worn out and worn down. I know I am not alone as all around me teachers are finishing up their school years, but I cannot help resenting my college peers who have been sleeping in for more than a week and spending leisurely days reading (or so I imagine). My professional identity is split between teaching at the college level and directing a National Writing Project site which means the end of the semester coincides with a tremendous ramp up to our summer programming (including two summer institutes for teachers and four summer camps for students) as well as a budget close-out. Mix in a state director’s retreat and you might see how overwhelmed I am. I haven’t managed to dig my way out of the clutter and to-do list that accumulated during the end-of-semester onslaught of grading and immediately followed by the retreat (which generated a whole new set of tasks to take on). Technically I am off contract and on summer break (or at least the break between spring and summer semesters), but in reality I am working like crazy and stressed beyond belief.
I know it could be worse. Once upon a time, I would end the semester and then hop a plane to Lubbock, Texas, for a two-week intensive May Seminar and then get back home just in time for all the June craziness of summer institutes, camps, and budgets. I don’t know how I did it, but I suspect it was because I was foolishly optimistic then that all the hard work and stress would lead somewhere. I ridiculously believed that it would lead to opportunities. Opportunities that never materialized due to a perfect storm of academic market changes, economic failures, and personal decisions. Was there one point when my career went wrong? I don’t think there was one single decision that derailed everything, but that point is moot now. Now I am stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place and I need to consider the question so eloquently posed by The Clash: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
I have always loved that song and writing this post made me revisit it and I am struck again by how many lines resonate with me:
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
That is exactly how I feel right now. When I deliberately chose, for my own sanity and for my family, to stop searching for a tenure-track job, I was content with my professional position, so it didn’t seem to be a terribly difficult or brave choice. I had many of the advantages of such a job while avoiding many of the disadvantages. It was not perfect, but life was pretty good and I had the freedom to focus on the work that I loved. And there was a tremendous sense of joy and freedom, then, about giving up the onerous grinding burden of the academic job search. But a number of forces have combined to steadily erode the quality of my working conditions and I continue to feel, here in Kentucky, that we are in some sort of death spiral. Things just keep getting worse and I have no idea when we will hit bottom – will it be in my lifetime? And that is, in part, what makes the question about staying in teaching an even bigger struggle. Where I live there are a number of colleges and universities within commuting distance and, so, there was always the comforting notion that I could always leave my current position and move to a different institution, but, with layoffs and hiring freezes all around me, the sound of slamming doors is terrifyingly deafening.
This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me, set me free
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?
And so I return to The Clash for more inspiration. Which clothes even fit me? After all, I don’t need to leave teaching even if I leave my current position. I could get my teaching certificate and teach high school. But what district wants to hire a teacher who has been out of the high school classroom for more than two decades – especially at a Rank I pay rate? Sure, I’ve got skills including my journalism background, my professional writing training and experience, and I can teach whatever writing class they want to throw at me from remedial to college credit, but what district will hire me to teach all the gravy classes that more experienced high school teachers have been working toward for years (and even if they did will those teachers push me down the stairs in revenge)? Actually, it is not the classroom that terrifies me but all the other demands. I know just enough, thanks to my high school teacher friends, to be petrified. Will I be jumping from the frying pan into the fire? I know too many amazing teachers laboring under even worse conditions than those currently plaguing me to think that simply jumping from one school to another will make my life any easier.
Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
This is a terrible time to be a teacher (as I’ve noted before). The public and media revile teachers at every turn for a number of failings (many of which are beyond our control). The pay and lack of respect is near the bottom for all skilled and educated professions. And, to compound these problems, politicians have seen fit to consistently strip our independence from us by deciding what, when, and how we will teach – often with little or no consultation of any actual practicing classroom educators. These problems have been seeping more and more into post-secondary education, but they have seized total control at the K-12 level and only the most savvy and experienced teachers with the protection of superhero administrators have managed to maintain a sane classroom experience.
But I love teaching. I love watching students discover new ideas and talents. I love supporting students on their journey as writers and learners. I love teaching and just thinking about giving it up makes me want to cry, but there are too many days when I cry because I am just so tired, so worn out, so frightened, so frustrated, so angry. I love teaching but I worry that it is killing me. But how do I weigh this decision when I fully expected to teach until I needed a walker to negotiate my classroom?
What are my options? What should I do: Should I stay, go, or is there an option c? Maybe if I start a Clash playlist on Pandora something will come to me. Are you also struggling with the question of when to walk away from the classroom?