The Courage to Leave

“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story,
leave.
(…unless you can change the story from within, of course. But if you can’t? Please leave, I beg of you.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert

Well, I finally went ahead and did the thing I’d been terrified of doing for a very long time: I officially walked through the threshold that appeared so threatening and resigned from my teaching position.

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I had been struggling with this dilemma for a few years. The scale finally tipped, and my inner knowing that it was the right thing to do outweighed my fear. I don’t know what’s next, but all the energy that went into “Should I or shouldn’t I?” is now freed up to figure that out. I feel a tremendous weight has been lifted. That weight is a double whammy called the Common Core and New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) teacher evaluation system. Together, they have at least tripled both the teacher workload and the amount of testing young children are subjected to, and ultimately turned kindergarten into something unpalatable to my soul.

I apologize in advance for what will probably be a lengthy post. But I have a story to share and want to emphasize from the beginning that this decision was not made on a whim. I was passionate about teaching and had to work hard and overcome many obstacles to become a teacher. And I am not in a financial position to just quit my job.

I entered the teaching profession relatively late in life as a divorced mother of two, after staying home for several years to raise my children. Prior to having children, I had been working on an MSW degree, specializing in hospice care.  After becoming a mother, however, I was drawn to working with children and felt called to be a teacher. When my youngest child was in kindergarten, I began substituting in our local school district prior to pursuing a career in teaching. I had a long, complicated, expensive path ahead of me that involved obtaining a Masters degree, completing extra academic and internship requirements necessary for multiple teacher certifications, gaining experience, and finally landing a job in a highly competitive job market. The investment of time and money would be huge, but I knew I would have regrets if I didn’t pursue my dream. So I embarked on the long journey fueled by passion and focused on one step at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the complexity and immensity of it.

There was a variety of unforeseen obstacles that I overcame along the way. For instance, in the middle of my graduate program, my ex-husband lost his job, and child support payments ceased. In order to proceed in the program (which that year consisted of a semester of full-time, unpaid student teaching), it was necessary for me to rely on student loans to cover basic living expenses. But I did it because I was passionate about teaching and anticipated it would be a lifelong career. One step at a time, I made my way towards my goal, not only for my own fulfillment but also to model to my children that when it comes to actualizing your dreams, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The day I was offered my teaching position was one of the happiest days of my life. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week straight and was so excited I could barely sleep!

Eight years later, at nearly 50 years old, I have very little in savings. I do not have an inheritance of any sort. I do not receive child support. I do not have a spouse who carries health insurance, holds full-time employment, or has any kind of retirement plan. I do not have a nest egg or safety cushion. I need to generate income to pay the bills.

The fact that I left my job despite all that speaks volumes about how my career has changed in recent years.

I had been contemplating leaving for a few years and did a great deal of reflection to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether resigning was the right course of action. I inhabited that possibility all summer, trying it on for size to determine whether it was a choice I really could live with. Any time I imagined myself returning, I knew doing so was not a viable option. My work environment had become a desert with a hot, unrelenting sun beating down every day, and my soul had moved on in search of sustenance.

Over the past seven years, I have grown and learned so much as a kindergarten teacher. My life has been enriched by so many wonderful children, families, and colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of knowing. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to educate their children, share my knowledge and passion, and be a supportive, compassionate, creative – and hopefully inspiring – presence in their lives.

This June, I received a tremendous gift. During a quick trip to my car during my lunch break, I ran into more than half of the students from my very first (kindergarten) class. They were all dressed up for the Moving Up ceremony (which marked their transition from elementary school to junior high school), which would take place later that day. They ran around the playground in search of kindergarten classmates, and about a dozen students gathered around me and shared their favorite kindergarten memories. It filled my heart with joy to see the light in their eyes as they spoke of: the Eric Carle seahorse collages we made, our “Gingerbread Baby Travels the World” (multicultural celebrations) unit, retreating to the Peace Table, the interactive and artistic alphabet books we made, watching a monarch caterpillar transform into a butterfly, being the Star of the Week, and more. Many of them echoed what I’ve heard from numerous parents of former students through the years: That the book all their classmates contributed to during their “Star” week (to celebrate what is wonderful and unique about the Star student) remains one of their most cherished possessions. It has been a most incredible journey, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a positive, nurturing force in the lives of so many children and families.

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So, what compelled me to resign after only seven years? To be candid, the way the Common Core has been implemented in my district at the kindergarten level conflicts with my core values and beliefs about early childhood education and has made it increasingly challenging to teach from my strengths and passions. As I expressed during my last post-observation meeting with my principal, I feel I’ve been working in an environment in which my talents, strengths, and passions are no longer valued. Kindergarten has become a whole new ballgame that differs radically from what I signed up for eight years ago. Veteran teachers insist that the decline began with No Child Left Behind, and I recall subbing for devoted teachers who returned from meetings in tears, distraught over foreboding changes that already were set in motion. Despite putting forth my best effort, I ultimately found it impossible to keep my passion alive in the new kindergarten culture. Working in an environment in which teachers’ professional experience and expertise was micromanaged, disregarded, and bypassed was demoralizing – and exacerbated by budget cuts and several changes in administration during the shift to the Common Core. Since I started teaching, we’ve had two principals and an interim principal, two superintendents and an interim superintendent, and two assistant principals (and a period during which that position was eliminated).

In my last formal observation, the evaluator entered my classroom unannounced in the midst of my most challenging student having a complete meltdown. Within a few minutes, I was able to calm her down enough to have her sit next to me as I taught a math lesson, and she followed along every single step of the way. That was an incredible accomplishment for this child, and it was completely unacknowledged in my observation write-up. This is an example of what is so disheartening and frustrating.

Early childhood educators are responsible for both teaching a more rigorous curriculum and keeping a handle on misbehavior that I believe is fueled by the more demanding expectations we now put on our youngest learners. When you are the only adult in a room of 20 or so kindergartners, and disruptive and/or dangerous children are sometimes not removed at all, or removed only for a brief time (i.e. 5-10 minutes) before returning to the classroom – only to repeat their disruptive and/or dangerous behavior – it is hard to adhere to the curriculum map. And that is what happens when school psychologist and classroom aide positions are reduced or eliminated due to budget cuts. Such lack of support becomes exhausting and demoralizing on a daily basis. It takes the wind out of your sails.

What looks good on paper and in theory often doesn’t hold up when real, live children are involved – especially when the policymakers and powers-that-be lack actual classroom or grade-level experience, and early childhood educators are required to do more with less, year after year.

For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water and have questioned how much longer I could continue. I realized it came down to making a choice between changing my mind and leaving my job. Prior to deciding on the latter, I tried in earnest – for years – to change from the inside. I attended conferences and enrolled in (self-funded) online courses aligned with my professional passions, values, and beliefs in hopes of reigniting my enthusiasm and finding ways to reconcile my personal and professional values with the new realities of public education. I returned to my classroom with renewed energy and optimism only to have them drained by the day-to-day, rigorous, and developmentally inappropriate demands of the Common Core.

So much that is important to me and that I believe is beneficial to children has fallen off the plate because it has been edged out by the Common Core curriculum and the excessive assessment that accompanies it and APPR. It became clear to me that I must leave in order to express and grow my soul.

I was thrilled to be appointed as a Kindness Club Advisor when the club began in 2012 because social-emotional learning is one of my greatest passions. However, it was anguishing to have to step down from that position because the workload resulting from the shift to the Common Core that year was so overwhelming.

Through 20 years of parenting and teaching experience, observation, and study, I have developed a personal philosophy of education concerning the nature of childhood and the importance of play and developmentally appropriate practices. I included my philosophical statement on my teaching résumé. Here are two excerpts:

The ultimate purpose of schooling is to cultivate the whole human being. School is a place for developing intellectual and technical abilities along with the social-emotional factors, creativity, and strength of character necessary to use them wisely.

Ideally the end product of education is an individual who loves to learn and is engaged with life, and in whom the healthy seed of self-respect has blossomed into respect for others and an attitude of social and ecological responsibility.

I believe early childhood education should focus on the whole child and be developmentally appropriate. Pushing an accelerated curriculum down to kindergartners can be detrimental to children who, for example, are not ready to read at age four or five. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners who come to kindergarten with a wide range of background knowledge and exposure. I always told parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up by the end the year and be where they are expected to be.

Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine and are able to meet higher standards when the bar is raised, I am concerned that this approach may diminish the self-esteem of youngsters who are struggling. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding and accelerated kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I showered my students with empathy and compassion, and still, those lagging behind were aware that they were not measuring up and felt bad about themselves. It breaks my heart to see children break down and cry because they are not able to perform at the level that is now required of them…and they know they’re not measuring up, no matter how much I try to ease the pressure and emphasize their strengths. I worry about future, unintended consequences (i.e. stress-related illness, drop-outs) stemming from this early push to achieve and don’t want to be part of a system that I believe, in my heart of hearts, is harmful to young children. I aspire to work in an environment that respects professional experience and expertise and offers greater freedom to honor and trust children’s developmental rhythms rather than pressure them to perform at a level that might not be appropriate for their developmental rhythm.

Given what I have explained above, it seemed quite clear that the most responsible and honest action was for me to move on to new opportunities that more fully embrace and utilize my particular skills, talents, and values and make room for an educator whose principles and philosophies about early childhood education are better aligned with the direction the school district has been heading in recent years.

And so it was with a heavy heart and a strong inner knowing that I submitted my official resignation letter last week.

Now all my personal teaching possessions are stacked in a storage unit. It saddens me to take inventory of all the materials I made and purchased with my own money to facilitate joyful engagement and provide authentic teaching that honors and inspires young learners. This includes a library of literally thousands of children’s books and materials that have gathered dust for the past few years because they have been muscled out of the curriculum by “non-negotiables” and time-consuming assessment.

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As word got around, I received an outpouring of communication from parents of former students who expressed gratitude for the special connection I had with their children, the seeds I planted in them, the confidence I instilled in them, and how I awakened them to the beauty and wonder of nature. They also expressed sadness for their younger children and all the other children who will miss “such an amazing experience and journey through kindergarten with you.” They said I’m one of those “special teachers” who entered the profession for the right reasons at a most unfortunate time. I believe the relationship between student and teacher is the true curriculum, and these parents expressed gratitude for elements that can’t be measured but are ultimately more important than any test score. They knew I loved their children as if they were my own, that I listened to what was on their mind, and celebrated their special strengths that often weren’t represented on report cards – just as my special strengths as an educator were absent from observation checklists. No rubrics can measure what is ultimately most important in the student-teacher and home-school relationship.

People who know me best have unanimously expressed joy that I finally had the courage to follow my heart’s wisdom and release myself from something that weighed so heavily on my soul and compromised my well-being. They expressed relief that they will not have to continue witnessing me being tortured by anxiety and returning to a broken system that is driving out many of the best teachers. A system that, instead of backing up teachers, reprimands them severely and accuses them of “stirring the pot” when they act with integrity and look out for a student’s health by sharing relevant information with a concerned parent.

For a couple days after submitting my resignation letter, I was thrilled that I finally had the faith and courage to follow my heart and leave what had become a poor fit. Then I felt angry. Angry that it had to come to this. Angry that politicians hijacked the career I felt so passionate about, taking children and teachers hostage. Angry that (as another colleague put it) something I was so passionate about was squished and torn right out of my soul.

And sad. Sad for the former students who would come to my room first thing in the morning for a few kind words, a hug, and a smile only to learn that I’m no longer there. Sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know a lovely little girl who would have been in my class this year and whose sister had been in my class three years ago. (I hadn’t seen my class list prior to resigning, but her family had received the letter, and her mother sent me a lovely, heartfelt message that hit me hard.) Sad for all the other children I wouldn’t have a chance to fall in love with and nurture this year.

But below the anger and sadness was a much greater, abiding sense of peace at my core.

When I was floating in my kayak on the river earlier today, I visualized myself teaching in an environment that is not bound to APPR and the Common Core – and felt hope arise in me. An environment that honors and educates the whole child. A holistic environment in which the arts, social-emotional learning, awareness and mindfulness, and nature are integrated uncompromisingly throughout the curriculum. I know such schools exist because I have been in the presence of teachers who work in them. When I attended a conference recently, I was blown away by what some innovative schools are doing and how they prioritize and weave into the curriculum uncompromisingly all that is in alignment with my heart and soul. Hearing these educators and administrators describe their schools with such love and gratitude brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my soul…and propels me onward.

And so a new journey begins.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

  • Trish Taylor

    I am so happy for you to make that decision. If it is right in your heart of hearts, then it surely is the right decision. When one door closes, I so believe, another one opens. Blessings to you! XO Love you, Trish

  • elihusmom

    Thanks for writing about this – my heart breaks for so many children, and for your having to leave. It’s a crappy situation. Hope a new path emerges for you soon. xo