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.
Lynn Kameny says
Your most profound post of all time, and I don’t mean this lightly as so many other posts have struck far deep into my soul. Thank you for sharing, for soul searching aloud, for naming agency and choices and the high level of skills teachers have in so many areas. Thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable and honest and most of all, for always showing up with your authentic self.
Lynn, thank you for this my longtime colleague 🙂
Thank you. Making the choice renews my commitment. It’s not hard for me. I came to teaching late. I’ve wanted it for so long that every day I do it (even the horrible ones—and you KNOW we all have those) I am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I do—to be a part of young people’s lives. I have a chance (not that it always happens—but I have a chance) to make a difference in the trajectory of a human life. It takes my breath away. Even on my worst days, I think to myself, “Would you be happier if you weren’t part of this education world?” and I know deep in my heart the answer for me is “No.” At this point there is no “job” that is more essential than ours. I am grateful for it and not ready to leave. Teaching right beside you, Dave.
For those who make another decision, I get it. We all have to follow our hearts. We do our best work where we feel we belong. It can change over time, and recognizing that is a good thing!
I just want you to know this post bolsters my pre-existing beliefs. It does not challenge them at all. I’m pretty sure that was the “author’s purpose.” I got it. Thanks for this post. 😊
It sure was the author’s purpose, Isabel 🙂 You nailed it!
Anne Mackie says
Thank you for reminding me that this is a choice and one that I am choosing to make. Thank you for teaching alongside me and creating a space where we can all commit to thinking carefully about the craft of teaching.
It’s my pleasure, Anne.
Tom Windelinckx says
Thanks, Dave, for another stellar post.
“Apparently, an engineering friend had been telling Painter about how perfect he would be for a project management role at his company.”
Hey, that’s me! Except I was a project manager in a previous career, and it gave no fulfillment. It’s hard to see the value in making better gizmos… In education I found it easier to convince myself what I do is meaningful.
I also keep going back to Paul Graham’s essay Keep Your Identity Small: “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.” You are not your job.
Hey there Tom! Greetings from around the planet. And thank you for the Paul Graham mention — that helps with a piece I’m working on!
Zach DeLoach says
Thank you so much for this post, Dave. This 20-21 school year is my first year of teaching and, honestly, it has been one of the hardest, most anxiety-filled, unenjoyable years of my life. Of course, some of that is due to the pandemic, but I have been constantly asking myself if I made a mistake going into teaching. And even now, I am contemplating if I should stick it out for another year to see if things get better or just to cut my losses and try something else. This article did not convince me to decide to stay, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. Whether I decide to continue teaching or do something else, there is limitless meaning to be found in whatever I choose. Thank you, Dave!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Zach, I’m so glad! It does get easier as the first year goes into the second and third — the competency bottleneck is a son-of-a-gun — but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
Best to you.
Definitely a deep topic, but one that creeps into my mind now and then. I’ve chosen time and again to stay over the past 27 years. This year has been hard in ways I’ve not known before. I think about next year and those to follow, knowing only that education is going to be different. But every time I’ve tried to picture myself in another job, I can’t. I can’t imagine not working with kids, not trying to make a connection, settling for something less challenging or less meaningful. Unless God has other plans, I’m going to teach to 30 years, full retirement. That’s 3 more years after this one… challenge accepted!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
I’m glad to hear that, Laura — it’s always good to hear from you and I’ll take as many years as I can get!
John Robert Reynolds says
Thank you, Dave, for this. It also got me thinking about how many of the “Paradoxical Commandments” apply to sticking with teaching:
“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.”
I’d add something like:
Teaching can be soul wrenching.
Keep teaching anyway.”
Patricia Helwig says
Thank you for your post today. You’re right I have thought about what else could I do besides teaching. I thought four years ago I would be in administration, but that didn’t come to be. It’s all good. I love my job when I am doing it and even when I say I am taking the weekend for me, I find myself reading blogs and finding ways to further engage the students. I know this is what I was meant to be…. a teacher <3
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Dave Stuart Jr. says
I appreciate you John.
Gerard Dawson says
I’m so grateful I got to shake your hand in Baltimore at NCTE 2019, a few short months before the world changed. It was like meeting an old friend for the first time.
As I read this post, I was excited, then scared, then engaged – of course you know why.
A few months out of teaching, I’m only beginning to realize the emotional weight of the profession by feeling its absence.
Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings are when it hits me most. I have a lightness that’s unfamiliar after the experiencing the familiar flow of the exhaustion at the end of the week followed by the Sunday-night intellectual juice-up for the upcoming five days.
I’m just starting to recognize the chunk of my identity I had tied to my job, too, which had both benefits and costs.
In the months leading up to resigning, and in the time since, I’ve imagined a world with no financial obligations, no time constraints, and no bureaucracy. Just time in the classroom with students.
In that world, I’d still be teaching.
But it’s not like that, and that’s ok, and I’m happy with my decision.
For a while, I thought I was failing myself, or failing the greater good by deciding to leave. But as you said above, teaching isn’t the only way that I can live a meaningful live, as I’m learning now.
If anything, I’m excited to see what the new chapter of my career will bring. Excited about how I might one day share these lessons with students. Though I don’t know what the class or classroom where those lessons would take place will look like.
Your reliable honesty and level-headedness were a beacon of light for me while teaching. I often had multiple tabs from this blog open while planning, especially in the beginning of the year.
Reading this post was an intense experience. But seeing how much sense you make in a time when it’s so hard to make it, I’m excited to keep learning from you, and continue trading ideas with you, for a long time.
Thanks for everything, Dave.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Scheduled to share this on Twitter, Jerry — thank you for such a loving addendum to this article. Just wonderful. Can’t wait until next we meet.
Amanda M. says
I agree, Jerry. Quitting teaching was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If teaching was not so heavily burdened with bureaucracy causing such dissonance within me, I would still be teaching. How can I continue to put so much into things I just don’t believe are right for my students? That has been the pervasive question on my mind the past few school years. Likewise, the pandemic (as well as some much needed extended sick leave for mental health reasons) has shown me just how teaching was affecting my life in so many negative ways. Of course, there are so many positives. We all just reach a moment I suppose when we must measure those two sides against one another. For me, the past few years teaching have proven overwhelmingly more negative on my soul and heart. I know I was making a huge difference in my students’ lives. I know that I was born to be a teacher. I know that wasn’t enough to combat the stress, dissonance, and lack of balance in my life. End of the story is I feel so free and happy now without the weight of teaching, but my heart is still broken for all those moments of beauty and connection that I’ll be missing. Let’s hope the next chapter can provide even a modicum of that beauty without so many of the negatives. And if it doesn’t, I can return to teaching with a hopefully refreshed outlook. Much love to all my teachers and to Dave for sharing this perspective. ❤️