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I Quit Teaching

By Dave Stuart Jr.

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!

4 Responses to I Quit Teaching

  1. KARYN July 10, 2018 at 3:46 pm #

    In particular, Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts, which I still recommend, and Ron Clark’s The Essential 55, which I don’t. Thank you for saying this. I have had much difficulty attempting to disavow much of the Ron Clark worship I have seen among colleagues; finally, this.

    • davestuartjr July 10, 2018 at 9:02 pm #

      I’m so glad, Karyn.

      I think it’s easy to fall into the idea, especially early on in one’s career, that Ron Clark has it figured out. The reason I don’t recommend his book is that it doesn’t give me a strong sense of how to other-centeredly teach, or even how to teach in general. If the long-term flourishing of kids depends on Clark-esque displays of zaniness and intensity, then I don’t see a way to reliably supply a 3.5 million teacher workforce (US only) with that kind of teacher. It’s got to be simpler and more down-to-Earth than that. But I do not negate the great impact he has probably had on a ton of kids — it’s just that it’s not a path forward.

      Esquith, on the other hand, demonstrated for me, and still does, how easily we all fall into underestimating what kids can learn and can be super-motivated to learn. It’s not because Esquith is zany or over the top — it’s because he casts the vision for kids clearly, and I think he instinctively builds the five key beliefs in kids.

      Thank you, Karyn. Woe to us when we place too much stock in approaches to teaching that can’t be efficiently replicated. That’s not a path forward for a nation with millions of teachers and tens of millions of important kids.

      • Michele July 11, 2018 at 7:20 am #

        Dave, bless you for saying this. Ron Clark spoke in my town last year, and I left his talk thinking that the pressure to maintain that kind of entertainment culture in a classroom is a fast path to burnout. I feel for the people who believe that this is the pinnacle of instruction. There is no classroom dance or song or gimmick that can out-muscle the tailor-made entertainment students have at their fingertips 24/7/365. Thank you a million times over for being the king of keeping it real and sustainable in our classrooms!

        • davestuartjr July 12, 2018 at 3:23 pm #

          Michele, I LOVE that title — the king of keeping it real. XD Haha, I’m laughing out loud. Mm — yes though, we need it, so bad. I always say to myself, “Dave, is it reasonable to expect 3.5 million people to do something like this?” Because if it’s not, it’s not worth talking about because there are 3.5 million teachers in the USA. And they’re not all willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of teaching success. Most of us are multi-vocational — we feel grateful to be called to teach, but also we take seriously our callings as friends or parents or spouses or children or violinists or ______. You know what I mean — thank you Michele!!!!

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