Two years ago I made the almost unbearably painful choice to leave my dream teaching job and become a “stay at home mom” (although these days more like, “stay in the car mom” #justsaying). More seriously: Since the transition from full-time middle school English teacher to full-time mom/chauffeur, I’ve met many moms who had to make the same tough choice between their kids and careers, in some capacity and for a variety of reasons (pre AND during the pandemic). But what’s been particularly shocking, and lately, increasingly infuriating to me, is how many of those moms left the teaching profession specifically.
Imagine you’re getting to know someone and ask them what they do for work. The exchange goes something like:
“Oh, I used to teach (insert grade level here), but I stopped teaching before I had (insert baby #1’s name here).”
“Really? I had to do the same! I used to teach (insert grade level here), but I quit because my entire salary went to cover the cost of childcare.”
There’s so much discussion and judgment about what makes a good school, especially in Arizona where parents have the ability to open enroll their children almost anywhere. You know what makes a school “good”? I’ll give you some leading hints. A school is not good based on its location or facilities, its organic lunch program, or its special curriculum or language immersion program. These things are nice, but grass-fed hamburgers at lunch or flexible seating PALES in comparison to what I believe and found truly makes a school good: its teachers.
Recently, I discovered Arizona ranked 46th in the nation for education. Forty freaking six! And it’s made me so, so angry because of all the women I meet who would have been–as I believe I could have been— strong, even outstanding, teachers. But they chose or had to choose to leave the profession–and by proxy, our struggling schools– because, for most of them, the untenable demands and insulting salaries don’t allow them to support their own families, physically or financially. (PS, this plight affects male teachers too who can’t sustain teaching and support their families either).
We are failing our schools and children. We are failing our schools and children because we treat teachers like crap— and that’s a PG/PC word for how I really feel. Our teachers are educating our kids. EDUCATING OUR KIDS. And yet, we throw more and more demands on them– literally taking their sweat and tears, and in turn, repay them with what? Starbucks cards and hugs?
I was a good teacher, and from what many students and parents and former administrators told me, I could have been an exceptional one. I am a masters-educated summa cum laude graduate, but that’s just paper. More importantly, I also have a fiery passion for teaching English, for teaching students that their words MATTER– for teaching students that THEY matter. I taught students that we read to understand and we write to be understood. And it still physically pains me to think of all the stories and words I’ve missed reading and discussing with my seventh and eighth grade students.
But I couldn’t handle the demands of the job and the demands of my own home and three young kids. I nearly had a nervous breakdown trying, and at one point near the end of my rope, I was told by one administrator that I was “too stressy”. Too stressy? I was barely sleeping and I started suffering debilitating and dizzying panic attacks in the classroom. My blood pressure rose (although, before I saw a doctor, I thought my dizzy spells were the result of too much coffee).
It felt as if I was drowning and instead of coming to my aid with a buoy, a person who was supposed to support me, instead, used their hand to push me farther underwater.
Why are we drowning our teachers and sinking our schools?? The teachers I’ve come to know as a colleague and as a parent, are amazing, but they’re suffering so much. They are in boats with holes and no life jackets, and sooner or later, many give up trying to paddle and stay afloat. We are hemorrhaging teachers in our state and nationwide. In a recent survey, more than 50 percent of teachers say they are considering or have considered leaving the profession earlier than intended due to stressors. We are asking too much and they are giving up on the journey.
Not to co-opt a line from a few good men, but I know that the powers that be— and the powers that deny teachers higher pay and better conditions— want me and all the other former teacher moms I’ve met in those classrooms (i.e., on that wall). They need us in those classrooms.
We must do better. I don’t know how, and I apologize for the lack of a solution to end this with, but I am hoping that sharing my story of a certified, credentialed, experienced teacher who wants to teach but emotionally and financially can’t afford to will help shed light on all the teachers we are losing. The teachers we could probably keep with higher salaries, mental health support, benefits, protections, but most of all, respect.
Whether you agree or disagree, I hope that sharing my story makes you feel something, especially if you’re in my boat: a former teacher and now enraged parent. I hope it makes you feel something and start a non-politicized discussion about how we can change things. Because one thing is clear: We need a better boat for our teachers and for our kids.