When I was a first year teacher in Baltimore, MD, I recall sitting in my principal's office one day and making a commitment that would shape my life. This man was a saint to me, one of my earliest professional mentors — heck, professional father would be more accurate. He was asking me how long I planned to teach in Baltimore (my family is all in Michigan, and he knew I wanted to get back some day), and I remember telling him that I planned to at least see my current sixth grade students through middle school, to the end of their eighth grade year.
“All right then,” he said. “Sounds like a plan.”
Those first three years were so intense and so beautiful. Looking back, I see myself guessing at just about everything, making up for a lack of understanding with an abundance of effort. I literally took every kid I ever taught at that school on at least one small-group, after-school restaurant trip — every year I taught there. We read Diary of Anne Frank one year (even though it wasn't on the curriculum and wasn't supposed to be an “accessible book” to my “accelerated* readers”), and then I organized a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in DC. We read and acted out Romeo and Juliet. Even though the district had purchased a multi-million dollar scripted phonics program that my middle schoolers and I had been prescribed, we started a Nancie Atwellian reading/writing workshop (a la In the Middle, 2nd edition). And since I looped with the kids, this rich tapestry of shared experiences developed — I started to get to know and love the families of my students.
During those three years, I saw some kids change trajectories — some for the better, and some not. Plenty of them remained impervious to my best efforts as their teacher. Virtually all of them got imbalanced, disorganized instruction. For my survival, I leaned heavily on mentors — both those assigned to me by the system, and even more so those who I sensed were just good at their jobs. I didn't even know that the professional literature on teaching existed — I just thought there were the lifeless teaching textbooks I had been assigned in my college courses, and apparently this Nancie Atwell book that one of my professors gifted me upon graduation — and so I just read and re-read a couple of the books in the “teacher superstar” genre. In particular, Rafe Esquith's There Are No Shortcuts, which I still recommend, and Ron Clark's The Essential 55, which I don't.
The culminating moment of those first three years of my teaching career came when, at the annual eighth grade graduation ceremony, a student named Brianna that I had had a really hard time with for years all of a sudden came on stage and read a tribute to me that she had written. It was one of those rare moments when you get recognition for your work in teaching, and at that time in my career I was still pretty chained to a Dave-centric way of thinking about the work — teacher as savior versus teacher as professional — so it was a hugely gratifying moment.
That's when I quit.
My wife and I — we had been married for a year at the time — needed to move to New York City so she could finish an undergraduate degree she had started there. I didn't tell myself that I was quitting teaching as we packed our stuff into boxes and carted it up to a tiny one-bedroom in the nosebleed section of Manhattan. Rather, I said, “Well, there's no sense starting a teaching job in a place I will probably only live for one year.” And so I went out and hustled: I answered phones through temp agencies, I did some subbing in charter and private schools,** I bused tables at a fancy steakhouse, and I wore the Mighty Green Apron on 168th Street. Heck, there was even one day where I answered a shady Craigslist ad and ended up being one of those people in Times Square trying to sell comedy club tickets by yelling at strangers. (Here's a guy kind of explaining that type of thing.)
The thing is, as that year in NYC progressed, I started realizing that my thoughts for the future didn't involve secondary education. I dusted off some creative writing stuff from college and started building a portfolio for MFA programs. Inspired by my respectful and well-spoken pastor in the city, I visited a couple seminaries while considering an MDiv. I made my first dollars as a writer by landing a few successful freelance queries.
I still wasn't telling myself that I had quit teaching. But I had. Functionally, I had quit.
Thankfully, providence didn't let me have my way.
When Crystal received her diploma, she was significantly pregnant with our first child. I was exhausted from working so many jobs, and our finances had dwindled to nothing. As we set our sights on moving back to Michigan, I was thinking more about providing for a kid than about following my perfect and fulfilling career path. So, teaching. I could teach for a year while we got our feet under us, and then I could go on to do something that actually fulfilled me.
I applied for tons of teaching jobs in West Michigan, hoping especially to land one in Grand Rapids Public Schools. I had loved the urban environment of my Baltimore days, and I really loved New York City. But GRPS was in the midst of a hiring freeze — they weren't hiring. And then in the interviews I was getting, I was bumbling and inept. My lack of teaching wisdom must have been obvious. Sure, I had found innovative ways to reach kids in Baltimore — but what about a coherent approach to teaching them? How was I going to put forth superhuman teacher work hours with a young family? I think prospective hirers saw that, despite my own high appraisal of my teaching abilities, I was lacking in key areas.
Finally, I squeaked into a long-term subbing gig in Cedar Springs, MI — a small town an hour from where I grew up that I had never even heard of. Different culture, different grade level, different colleagues, different everything — I felt like a new teacher all over again. Most of the tactics I used in Baltimore didn't work — mostly because they were just a random grab bag of tricks and tips. I had no coherent understanding of my work, no transferable sense of the few things that mattered most, regardless of course details or grade level or curriculum. And now, I wasn't a bachelor anymore who could eat up all his nights doing overtime teaching work — I was a husband and a dad, and I felt a strong duty to do those callings right.
You can see why, even in those early months as a Cedar Springs High School long-term sub, I wasn't planning on sticking around in teaching. It wasn't sustainable. It didn't make sense. It was frustrating.
Either something had to change, or I had to stick to quitting teaching.
More on that next time.
*”Accelerated” was a euphemism for the class kids got put into when the annual state test, in all its piercing wisdom, identified them as “Below Basic” readers.
**Including a few days at Convent of the Sacred Heart, an elite private school for girls overlooking Jackie Kennedy Reservoir in Central Park. Lady Gaga used to go to that school!