Education Memoir

Contemplating Quitting The Classroom

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I have been thinking that this will be my last semester in the classroom. It’s been a hard year for a variety of reasons, but I have been thinking I just am not connecting with my students the way I used to. Part of it may be that I am getting older. I have somehow become an “old-fashioned teacher” who doesn’t show movies, rely on Smart Boards or Power Point presentations. In other words, I have always been able to “be my own show,” create my own bells and whistles, and that was enough. I was enough.

This year is different. I don’t like how my students seem less prepared each year. I don’t like having to repeatedly tell adults to put away their technology/toys. It’s exhausting. I haven’t lowered my expectations with regard to their assignments or how I grade them, but I have a lot of students with D’s and F’s. That doesn’t feel good to me. Part of it is the 15-week gig: It doesn’t feel long enough to get my students where they need to be. I don’t understand why some of my students come to class without full drafts of their papers when I tell them they need to come to class with completed papers. I don’t understand why they leave their books in their cars. I don’t understand why they come to English class without pens or paper, even though it is clearly stated as a basic expectation on my Course Information Sheet. I don’t understand their lateness, why they don’t recognize walking in late as a terrible act of rudeness and incivility. I don’t understand why they struggle so much with citation. Except I do: it requires meticulous attention to detail  – and, based on this last essay I collected – about 7 students out of about every 22 possess the ability to attend to detail. Here’s a newsflash: some students don’t attempt to write papers at all. They take zeros, and they seem fine with this.

Me? I’m not fine with any of this, so I’ve been feeling run-down.

There is a bit of ego in teaching, maybe more than teachers might care to admit. I can’t speak for all teachers, but I think it is fair to say we are willing to take the ridiculously low pay, work the long hours, plan our lessons, grade the papers into the wee morning hours – as long as we see progress. Positive change. Forward movement. Progression. I need to feel as though I am helping my students move from point A to point B: even better if I can take them from point A to point Z! That said, it’s been a little light on that this semester. So I’ve been thinking about jumping ship and hopping onto a different boat.

And then I received a poem from Niquette Kearney.

Niquette in 2010

I taught Niquette in New Orleans back in the mid-1990s at Metairie Park Country Day School, nearly twenty years ago. When I first met Niquette, she was in 10th grade Honors English while struggling with some big life stuff. Big. Life. Stuff. And she was floundering. Because it is hard to focus on writing papers when you are dealing with Big Life Stuff. I suggested Niquette drop out of her high-pressure Honors section (with me as her teacher) and pop into another section of Regular English, (also with me as her teacher.) Poor Niquette. There was no escaping me that year as I taught the entire 10th grade! Boy, was she pissed off! I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill me; instead, she agreed. (Really, though, what was the alternative?) And the Regular section was easier for her. She got her work done, earned stellar grades, and she was able to focus on herself.

From the beginning, I adored Niquette. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Nikit (the nickname I began to scribble on her papers) was beautiful and smart and funny and strong. How can you not love that? She was the whole package. She just didn’t seem to realize she was the whole package. But then, honestly, in high school, who feels they are “all that”? Nikit and I spent lots of time on a beat-up old couch in the English Department. Sometimes we talked about papers, but lots of times, we didn’t. Sometimes I just listened to her talk about her life, her experiences. Sometimes she cried, but mostly she didn’t. Her voice always quavered a little, as if she lived right on the verge of tears. That year, Nikit found herself at a crossroads. Without sharing her secrets, let’s just say, because she is beautiful and smart and funny and strong, she has managed to survive this very difficult year – maybe even thrive despite the adversity.

So here I am thinking of leaving the teaching biz, and I get this piece of correspondence.

Niquette’s message read simply: “Here’s a poem I wrote recently and thought I’d share with you, as you were in my thoughts.”

In a moment bigger than I knew,
At a time which could have been many,
I glanced at myself

In the mirror of my own eyes,
As if greeting a stranger for the first time,
I introduced myself with wonder
At the amazing sight of me

After so long without looking,
I finally saw
What I thought they’d lied about
Suddenly, it covered my reflection, overcoming me
So bright, I shuddered, reaching out my hand,
Welcoming the newcomer,
The one I thought I’d seen before

It was then, that I saw myself
And what I’d never even looked for,
And I blushed when I knew
That it was there the whole time

What a rare sight,
To view myself that way,
As a stranger meets another pleasantly, then parts
This moment passed but was mine
I saw what I did, and it was precious; beautiful

It was me.

Niquette Kearney, 2010

I am pretty sure I am one of the ones who tried to convince Nikit about her strength, her smarts, her internal and external beauty. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the one’s she assumed lied to her about all her fabulousness. I’m just so happy to know that she saw it, felt it, if only for a moment. And I’m even happier to know that she sat down and recorded it – as if it had been an assignment for English class – so she can have it to hold on to. I love that, after all these years, she is still writing poetry.

And then, thanks to Nikit, I remember this is the reality for teachers, especially college educators. We do our stuff. We try to shimmer and shine and get our junk into our students’ heads in 15 short weeks – and then, if we are lucky — maybe — 10, 15, 20 years later, someone reminds us that we helped them along the way. Someone might send us a poem, or a card, or run into us in the grocery store and give us a giant hug and tell us how much we helped. Teaching is like parenting; it involves a lot of delayed gratification. Folks shuffle in; they shuffle out, sometimes without so much as a smile. Sometimes it’s really hard to wait for gratitude.

I am happy for my sweet Nikit. She is going places, that one.

Me? I’m not so sure if I’m jumping ship. Time will tell.

For now, my course is set, and I will continue to power ahead through these choppy waters, full throttle.

56 thoughts on “Contemplating Quitting The Classroom

  1. After reading this and marvelling at the poem, I hope you continue and see a great deal of progess – you most certainly deserve it and your students most certainly need you.

  2. I know the feeling. I have lectured where you teach. The “pc” response would be that one Nikit makes it all worthwhile. But that is disingenuous. It does not. Having to start a class with the admonition to take off baseball caps and no texting says a lot. The fact is many of these kids should not be in college to begin with.

    1. Yeah. You know the drill. Well, imagine doing that day in and day out. I have settled for having them turn the caps around so I can see faces. It’s exhausting.

      And you are right: many of these students should not be in college. I think this is the area in which I would like to focus: some kind of education reform. I’m not sure how to do it quite yet, but I have ideas. Big ones.

      Talkin’ ’bout a revolution.

      1. I will join you in this revolution! I could have written your post! In fact, I am currently trying to distract myself from a growing sense of anger as I continue to grade papers from students who don’t care enough to even do the “simple” stuff.

        The educational system in America continues to slide downhill–not because teachers are terrible (though the media likes to highlight the bad ones and blame them for the state of education), but because students are no longer accountable for their own futures. Until students learn to “own” their educations, our system will continue to fail everyone. Until we allow students to fail, the system will continue to spit out entitled students. And until we allow teachers to actually expect the best out of students, we will continue to dwell in mediocrity.

  3. As you know I was a high school teacher 34 years. In those closing years it was very demoralizing. 10% did homework and half of that twas copied. No book to class? What did they expect we would do without a book? Poor attendance, dysfunctional kids from dysfunctional homes, violence, and a profound lack of concern that adulthood was right around the corner and they had no skills for employment characterized their attitudes and left me demoralized every day. Our country faces a future with a population with a miserable work ethic. I felt I was invisible in my class with very few listening. I felt I was a funny, empathetic, easy going teacher with a classroom that was relaxed and comfortable.

    At a certain point, I felt no more “connecting” either. Thirty four years is just too long, esp. in inner city minority schools. Then I saw Jennifer at Walgreen’s. She became a pharmacist. And Thomas became a policeman. And Richard went to Harvard. I have no more energy or stamina for this any more. I’m drained and burned out. It was a life well spent, however, and my joys far outnumber my regrets. It is important to be able to realize it’s time to go instead of being the last one on the faculty that thinks so. There are many other things one can do to be of service to young people. I do spend time working with teen addicts with no pay, but I have my pension.

  4. Well said and well written. Nikit was lucky to have you for a teacher as are your students this semester. I guess some take longer than others to realize it though. Keep marching on – they need you, even though they may not know it!

    1. I was the lucky to have Niquette and start my career at Country Day School.

      Unfortunately, I can’t connect with my current students the way I did when I had kids every day for 50 minutes for an entire academic year. I only have these students for 15 weeks, 3 hours a week. It’s hard to fix a lifetime’s worth of bad habits in 15 weeks. It hard to teach civility in 15 weeks. I’m exhausted from trying.

  5. Renee,

    Whether you continue teaching or not, don’t forget that your teaching continues to resonate with students. We all have the occasional lame class, but make no mistake, you are getting through to your students.

    Here’s some proof in reviews of your teaching from “Rate My Professor,” a website where students evaluate faculty members. These are all pretty recent:

    Really good professor, gets things done. Asks a lot from you, but involves herself completely. Organized, fun, interesting. Also hot.

    She is a great professor with a high energy level. She keeps you involved and is very helpful.

    I absolutely loved her! The class over all wasn’t that fun, there were a lot of essays to write one after the other. She puts her students first and is willing to do just about anything to help you. I really recommend her.

    Over all a good teacher. She’s upbeat and fun. She really cares about her students and puts in one on one time. She was also willing to help students outside of campus.

    1. I have looked at that site once or twice. It’s nice to know that someone out there thinks I’m hot. Maybe if someone posts at the end of this semester and insists I’m hot, I’ll keep going. If not, I’m out. How’s that for a litmus test? 😉

  6. You aren’t a quitter! It’s not who you are! Throw in the towel? Are you kidding me? Get off the floor, dust yourself off, and get back in the game! Nikit, isn’t the only STRONG, SMART & BEAUTIFUL woman out there! You too are the whole package my friend! You make more of a difference then you think, and not always just in the classroom! You’ll never stop teaching; it’s who you are 😀 The audience may change, but you’ll always be a teacher! Love you!

    1. I guess I shouldn’t say I’m quitting — although it could turn out to be the end of things — but I know where I am right now. Time to try something new. And you are right: teachers can’t really stop teaching, so I imagine I’ll end up teaching somebody somewhere something. (Do you think there should be punctuation in there? Hmmmm.) 😉

  7. Through my years as a teacher and as a counselor I noticed there were years of difficult classes and years when the classes made teaching a JOY; sounds like this was one difficult year. Who knows if you give it on more year your blogs just might be totally different. But what ever you do I know your heart, brain and soul will be involved. Much joy to you in the New Year.

  8. You are wonderful. Love the post. I get it and understand the pull of each direction. It’s true what you say about the frustrations of the modern student citizenry. Slacking is a way of life for many. Also true about the potential rewards of lives impacted. This job sure ain’t about the money. Taking a little time away from the classroom may lead to a lot of time away, like forever. Then again you may just feel the urge to get back at it when you consider the reality of alternatives. Either way, you’re a great teacher, thoughtful and gifted.

  9. Kay McNeer.
    Third grade.
    I’ll never forget her: her fuzzy socks with sandals, her even fuzzier hair, or the way she accidentally taught me to love learning.
    I clearly remember how she had each member of our class write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
    The she followed them to the letter to make said sandwiches.
    That was when I saw clearly the importance of writing, not just to get 500 words on a piece of paper, but to accurately convey information.
    I’ll always thank her for that.
    I understand that those moments are becoming more rare, and only you can decide if they are worth it.
    Just know that they are also fewer Kay McNeers out there than there used to be; it would be a shame to lose another one.
    Good Luck,


  10. HI RAS, just thought I’d chime in. Most teachers I know have seen the same thing: student interest waning, complete inability to pay attention for more than five seconds, no sense of the social contract, etc. And I agree with Steve: the PC teacher response is supposed to be that great students like N. make it all worthwhile. I think that’s martyr-ish BS, designed to wring the most work out of teachers before they collapse. I’ve had some fantastic students too, but given the low pay and lousy average, the occasional bright light just wasn’t enough.

    I’m sure you are a great teacher; the student comments say as much. But you shouldn’t stay because the school or students ‘need’ you, because that’s downright codependent. In non-teaching professions your self-preservation would (and should) be the first priority. You might want to check out today’s Post Academic post, which is all about determining whether you’ve hit irrevocable burnout or not. Perhaps that’s the question you need to ask?

    Good luck with your decision, however it turns out. It’s always hard, even I admit that.

    1. I took the test. Super interesting, and thank you for suggesting the site! I got a 48, which implies I’m on on the cusp of burnout, which is how I feel.

      I am not saying I’ll never return to the classroom, but I can feel I need a break. Preferably in Maui. 😉

      1. Glad to help. Planning on mentioning your post in tomorrow’s rant — not about you quitting, about how $#@! hard it is to teach. Hope that’s okay. For the record, I think that if you want to finish your book, it makes total sense to take a break from the all-consuming classroom!

        1. Honestly, the book is the biggest reason for the reprieve. I just can’t get it all done, and I am stretched waaaay too thin. Thank you (in advance) for the nod. I plan to give a pingback to your awesome post about leaving grading until the end! I love that entry. Brilliant! So happy to meet you, WoPro. (Anyone who is a friend of Clay’s is a friend I want to have.) 😉

  11. Full Steam Ahead Renee. Whatever you do….don’t become invisible. You are a fine teacher with wonderful organization plans. Sometimes one needs a simple break to realize it. Stay Positive and follow your heart. Things work out for the best. I, for one, will be in your corner whatever you decide.

    1. Mom, how did I learn any grammar when you insist on random capitalization and use ellipsis in lieu of commas? Seriously. Do you think that my ridiculous attention to detail was — somehow — a strange act of rebellion against you? In any case. Thank you. 😉

  12. What a lovely letter to have received. It’s heart warming when a blast from the past tells of success that you had a hand in inspiring.
    Good luck with staying/leaving/doing something different.
    Maybe you should consider sticking with the teaching, but in a different school?

    1. This has been suggested to me by several friends outside of the blogosphere: folks who tell me that community college is not the right place for someone with my “high standards” and outstanding credentials.

      I like teaching at community college.

      I’m telling you, it’s me. It’s like this year, I’m old. I struggled to learn ANGEL. I had planned to have a hybrid classroom or possibly teach an online class, but I realized that the technology did not agree with me. I was trained to use Smart Board technology, and then I was given a classroom that did not have a Smart Board! Frustrating? Sure. But I know how to use chalk, so I did. I am so proud of my students who have made it through my classes. They are warriors because — they will tell you — I am tough.

      I just know it is time to try something new for a while. I’ll be back.

  13. There are several teachers that I can say had a huge impact on me, both negative and positive, however, the ones that I did the best with were the ones who took me from where I was and believed in me. I didn’t have to change – I wanted to change – for them, for myself. I wanted to show them that yes, I did have potential, I could do this.

    I especially remember my 10th grade English teacher. I was placed into a “higher” level English class for the first time in my life. I took a look around the room and proudly stated that I was in the wrong class. The teacher asked me why did I think I was in the wrong class? I said look at the kids in there, they were the “smart” kids. She assured me I was placed correctly and handed out The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. I read the first page, and at the end of the class told the teacher I was in the wrong class. She chuckled and said, “Lisa I admire you for your convictions, however, do you think that maybe you are here because I believe in you?” It was like I was slapped in the face. I thought, wow, she thinks I’m “smart.” I worked so hard that I scored my highest English grade ever. In short, she took me from where I was and I worked hard to prove her right. I don’t know if she even knows the impact she had on me, but Ms. Landfear – you rock!

    Teachers have an impact on their students and often they have no idea. Never underestimate your power and use it wisely.

  14. Hi !

    I really liked your blog, it was just… true. I am a teacher too and I do struggle with the same students. It’s not the teacher, what’s missing is coming from the first circle of education and on that on we have no control or reach.

    My parents taught me being late wasn’t an option and it was rude. They kept an eye on me and made sure I was on time and kicked my ass whenever I was bullshitting around. I am ready to gamble your students ever had parents like that or never listened to what they had to say. It is just so common today to be rude, to be late, to respect nothing or no one, to behave with violence or with zero education or etiquette, the doors are so open, some people tend to think they were never closed. They are not striving towards excellence but swimming in an ocean of mediocrity.

    And you know what ? Never give up. You are bringing to them what they lack: values and honor. You are living those in your flesh.

    The best thing we can do is not agree to the shit around and keep striving because if everyone is sitting on his bum then the world’s not gonna be a better place, far from it.

    The poem you received is just absolutely beautiful! You deserve it. Just as NIKIT couldn’t see her potential, it is hard when we are tired to see ours.

    All the best to you, wherever you’re gonna teach, you’re gonna bring the light of your fire to!

  15. Oh. Em. Gee. I cannot believe that you are thinking about quitting?? Mrs. Jacobson, I am so saddened by your recent revelation. You are worth so much more than those 2 useless words: “I quit.” I must admit I understand that you are only human and as you have said many times before: “Sometimes you have to put the paper down, take a break and come back to see where you need to fix things.” or not. Mrs. Jacobson, quitting means you are never to return and I don’t agree with that. It would be selfish of me to ask you to pummel through this and just make it work, but I see this is really taking a toll on you. You are searching for a spark and/or a purpose to keep pushing on, but here you sit stuck in a dark room without any windows or doors to jump out of. What you fail to realize is that there IS light in this room and you need to stand up and guide your hands against the cold walls to find the light switch! “WE” need you. The 1 or 2 or 7 NEED you! If one person could save the world we would all be better off, but as we know children from the best upbringings can turn left. Accept the things you can’t change Mrs. Jacobson and change the things you can. We need you at your best so take a break, rest your mind and spirit, come back and kick ass! This teaching gift g-d gave you, did so because he knew you were the one for the job! Please hold fast to your blessing and never let go!

    1. Odelia:

      I retract my “I quit.” I am taking Spring semester off to finish my book and pursue some other things. I just need a little time to try something different.

      Please know I adore you. You are another NIKIT. You are Odelia 2010. I am so proud of you and all you have accomplished this semester. You can do anything, and I intend to watch you do it. 😉

  16. You Betcha Renee. You keep that correct writing and I will do all the uncorrect writing. Your one and only.

  17. So why are kids are ending up this way? It’s a systematic killing of any interest in learning by our test-centered and standards-based educational philosophy. It’s kids who are taught that they do not have to be responsible for anything because we don’t even trust them to know when they have to go to the bathroom. It’s a system that does not follow the Golden Rule.

    The good that comes from schools comes from good teachers. It’s hard to do – physically, mentally, financially. It’s why we need you to keep doing it.

    1. It’s not only about trust. It’s also about not allowing kids to fail. Kids simply cannot fail anymore. They get endless chances to succeed, and this is really hurting our children, especially when they hit college. They are shocked when I tell them I won’t accept a paper late. And they have good reason to be shocked: their teachers have given them endless chances to hand in their assignments all along the way.

      I don’t know about you, but I actually got some low grades in middle and high school. I can tell you that my parents never put my report cards on the fridge. I didn’t get serious about my academics until college. My husband had a similar experience. His parents threatened to send him to military school as a result of his poor grades. He straightened up and started doing his homework.

      In my son’s middle school, a 79.5 is a B-. Um, since when is anything in the 70s considered to be in the B range? I would consider a 79.5 a C+. So grade inflation is another problem. Students have an inflated view of their abilities, and they are shocked when they learn that — no, they are NOT using punctuation properly (or at all); that they do not understand the function of paragraphing; that they do not know the difference between their homonyms like there/their/they’re (etc.), that they don’t seem to understand how to integrate quotes as support for their ideas… and they swear that no-one ever told them these things before.

      It’s gotten so I believe them.

      I think it is easier for teachers to keep promoting students than to really look at individual student deficiencies and address them, perhaps even give the kids very low grades that reflect the deficiencies. (And here’s the shocker, I think that if you asked around, truth be told, most parents don’t want to see low grades, and neither do administrators.)

      1. I agree with everything you’re saying here, especially the part about kids not being able to fail. (Hell yeah, I screwed some stuff up in my life!)

        I find it entirely believable that teaching, while always a demanding job, used to be easier than it is now, and maybe that’s why people have such a hard time understanding the exhaustion that it brings. But the constant struggle with this stuff is what I hear teachers complaining about over and over and over, and it’s what’s wearing them down faster than ever. This is part of why I don’t encourage people to think of teaching as something they’ll do for their entire lives — I think it’s just impossible, especially if you want other things from life! Teachers simply cannot be responsible for ‘fixing’ this immense lack of life skills.

      2. What I’ve found as far as failure goes is that it is random and capricious. My children will randomly lose a lot of “points” because of something silly, like not putting their name on a homework assignment. But if it’s something important they get multiple chances. Or, even better, the teacher deciding not to collect the summer homework essay because only a few kids did it.
        And don’t get me started on the concept of getting “extra credit” by participating in fundraisers or, my favorite, for turning something in on time.
        Then there is the parental attitude that if a kids screws something up that it is the school’s fault, not the child’s.

  18. Maui? The blogging conference? Sweet!

    I’m going against the grain of the commentary here. Renee, you’re a smart and talented individual. If teaching isn’t doing it for you, go try to find what will.

    That’s the beauty of an education: it opens doors and keeps them open. You have the degrees: teaching will always be there.

    But sometimes a person just needs some fresh juice. Get some.

  19. I’ve had to read this post a few times, it’s got a very bittersweet tone in it. I don’t know you extremely well but what I do know tells me you’re a great person and a fantastic teacher.

    The decision to stay or go is yours alone and I have no advice one way or the other. The only thing I have to say is don’t feel bad if you realise it’s your time to move on.

    There is a real issue with the way children are coddled to the point of pure apathy in my opinion. It’s as though there’s almost no way at all to learn a real lesson or understand the need for a self-motivated desire to succeed and achieve.

    My best wishes are with you RASJ, no matter which direction you decide to take from here.


  20. Don’t give up on teaching – you have the natural energy to change their lives! (i.e. Nikit) Perhaps you should teach up a level at a school where the students are just as comitted as you? Just a thought….

  21. I think every experienced, caring teacher has felt this way more than once. I know I have. It seems like just when i reach the point of seriously looking for a different career … something happens (like the letter you got) that reminds me why I teach. Education needs help … experienced teachers with high expectations are the people that need to stay and fix it. I hope this student’s note to you has given you the boost you need to continue.

    1. Hi Bearyweather:

      While this student’s letter is undoubtedly fabulous, I know where I am: burned out. I am taking time to pursue some things that have had to simmer on the back burner for far too long. It’s possible that one day I’ll be back in the classroom, but for right now, I know that if I went back I wouldn’t be able to give 100%, and that isn’t fair to anyone.

      1. From your post, I assumed you were still juggling with this decision. I hope your new endeavors invigorate your life … and re-lights your burned out candle.
        … and maybe you can even find a way to improve our education system from the outside?
        Good luck with your new future.

      2. Now that the semester is over, and I did not request any sections for the Spring, my decision not to teach for the winter-spring 2011 semester has been made.

        We’ll see what the fall brings. Maybe by then my book will be published and I’ll be on a fancy-schmancy, all expenses-paid NPR book tour. (*wink*) But seriously, today I edited pages 1-31 which felt really good.

      3. I hope that when I reach that final burn-out stage (which I know will come) that I can be brave, do the right thing and walk away from it (at least for a little while) like you are doing and delve into something new.

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