I've sat on this article for over a month — not because it's long, but because it's risky.
In the last six months, I've seen at least three people leave education — people who, prior to March 2020, I had expected to be teaching alongside for the next couple of decades. Two have shifted into education-adjacent work — ed tech copywriting for one, instructional design for another — and one is still contemplating all the options available. These people were and are friends — people I deeply respect and admire. I wish them godspeed and good things on the journeys to come.
But with that said, their departures challenged me.
They remind me of a conversation I had recently with my math colleague, Mr. Chris Painter. Painter is one of the most accomplished math teachers I know, but like all of those who engage in teaching thoughtfully, he often wrestles with the gap — the distance, felt in the soul, between what our work should be and what it is. And here he was one morning not long ago, buzzing with an energy I'm not used to seeing this school year. It was all because of a conversation he'd had over the weekend.
Apparently, an engineering friend had been telling Painter about how perfect he would be for a project management role at his company. Analyzing data, working with teams, communicating concepts to different groups of people — these skills that had become secondhand to Painter in his various teaching and leadership roles were all sorely needed in this guy's engineering company.
“All I need is your resume,” his friend had said. “I guarantee you I could get you a job in project management.”
It left Painter filled with wonder.
Really? Me? I would be qualified to do work outside of teaching — even when I'm so deep into my career?
He had always assumed that ship had sailed — that he was too far into his career to make a change.
There is something deeply injurious to the human spirit about finding ourselves in spots bereft of meaning and agency. You and I were made to matter — and to choose. Viktor Frankl discovered this in a Nazi concentration camp; meaning and agency, he writes, can be found even amidst the harshest brutality.
But without meaning and agency? Even relatively benign circumstances become suffocating.
I think that's been one of the hardest things about this last year — this overwhelming sense that you get teaching in a room full of masks or on a square-checked screen that you don't control the things you used to, and there's nothing you can do about that.
And that sense has been accurate in key ways. We haven't controlled what we used to. There are some big things we can do very little about. No matter what path(s) your school has taken in the last year, the context is different, so the work is different. After all, teaching doesn't happen in a vacuum.
But the reality of our agency is as durable as ever. It's just become extra good at hiding. There is still work that matters most — altered in form but not in sense or substance. There is still the inarguable reality that we really don't know all that our work achieves. There is still a timeless nobility to saying, “I'm going to be a teacher to these students today.” There is still absurd power packed into tiny moments.
And there is still this — this thing I've been wrestling with for months while watching colleagues leave and working through the resulting dissonance. There's this thing I've wrestled with, debating in circles inside myself about whether or not to write about it because I'm afraid it might prompt you to do something that I don't want you to do.
But here it is. The truth is this: you and I could do something else. We could do something besides teaching, besides education. And in doing that, we could still hold our heads high.
I don't want to say that or to think that, but it's true and needs wrestling. There just are other things we'd be qualified for — other pursuits that could be plenty meaningful, plenty useful, plenty good. We could paint houses or manage projects or design websites or answer phones. We could write copy for ed tech companies and design instruction in other fields. With the stuff you and I have done, we'd be quick studies at all kinds of things, from managing to marketing to communicating to organizing.
You and me? We could do something else. We really could.
Now, don't for a second think this is me trying to tempt you away from education. It's the furthest thing from that. There's this little guy in my heart, even now, yelling the whole time I'm writing this, “Please! Tell them not to leave!”
But look, the work ahead is going to take whole-souled engagement: intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, volitionally. In order to fully restore ourselves for such work, I think we each need to grapple with the reality that we don't have to do it. No one's making us. There are other ways to retire. Other ways to pay bills. Other ways to build the world and its people. And even other ways to lead massively helpful lives.
That last part is important because almost all of us got into this to be helpful, to contribute, to make an impact. I still think teaching is the most potential-laden work in all the world, but look — there's potential all over the place. Plumbers and street sweepers and factory workers and accountants — they make an incalculable difference. Their impact isn't simply measured, either.
It's like the Einstein equation, right? E = mc² — that is, the (e)nergy of a thing is equal to its (m)ass times the speed of light (c, which equals 299,792,458 m/s) times the speed of light. It is a stupefying concept. Everything is more filled with energy than our minds can fathom. An average-weighted person has the same energy potential as 66,000 nuclear bombs.
I think work is kind of like that too — maybe P = wc², in which the (p)otential meaning and impact of a career is equivalent to the (w)ork the career entails times the speed of light squared. Is education the biggest w on offer? Sure! I sure believe it is. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to live a meaningful life or a useful one. Not at all. Because biggest isn't the same thing as best — and best isn't usually all it's cracked up to be, anyways.
All human life is wrought with thunderous meaning and dignity.
Isn't this a fundamental precept of the work you and I have done this year?
Of course it is.
So, look. I'm a person who has spent the last eight years writing blog posts in my spare time for a single driving purpose: I want you to stay in education. I want you to keep teaching alongside me. Yep — you. Because after all, you're the kind of person that takes a minute out of the insanity of modern busyness to read blog posts about teaching. You're exactly the kind of person I want teaching next to me, near or far.
But I also want you to know — to be told by a person who respects you — that there are other things you could do. Things that'd be profoundly important because you are important and because we all are.
I think you need to sit with that for a bit, take some walks with it, work through it with a trusted friend or two.
And then? Decide.
Because for the work to come, we all need to be here because we've chosen to be. Because teaching, fundamentally, is always that: a choice. That's what it was in my classroom today, and that's what it was in yours.
So let's make it willfully.