I was done being a teacher. I had said that I was done with teaching as I cried hysterically in my car many times before, but this time felt different.
This Was Different
I’d had bad classes before, with kids who seemed to get a kick out of making the teacher cry. But I never had an administration that supported the misbehaved kids, validated every outrageous complaint they had, and blamed the teacher entirely for their awful behavior.
“This is it!” I screamed into my phone through tears. “I’m done! And don’t try to talk me out of it! I am smart and capable, and I can find another job! I can’t do this anymore!”
“Okay,” my husband said calmly, knowing that it would mean doom if I detected any emotion in his voice other than complete support. “You don’t need to do it anymore if you don’t want to. We will figure it out. It is going to be okay.” He had learned the hard way that trying to point out that this little outburst was seasonal for me and that I would get over it in a few weeks only made the situation much worse.
“Good!” I declared while drying my tears. “Because I really am done this time!”
Just One More Class
I tried to get through the rest of the school day. I worried that if I just walked out and didn’t come back, I might ruin other future opportunities for myself, even if they weren’t in teaching. Teachers who suddenly resign, with no real reason other than “I just can’t take it anymore!” were seen as weak.
Breaking your contract was like breaking a cosmic law. Teachers who resign in the middle of the year weren’t to be trusted ever again. I have learned that the rest of the world does not see this the way the educational world does. Other people and employers will even truly respect the fact that you refused to take any more abuse and put your own mental health first. But the school system brainwashes you about many things to keep you in your place, and it is very effective.
Just get through the last class. That was all I had to do. I was not returning, but I needed to finish the day, at least.
Rowdy But Sweet Kids
My last class of the day was rowdy, as kids often get at the end of the day, but they were sweet kids, and they meant no harm.
If I didn’t have to get them to listen and produce work, we would have had a great time together. They were fun and funny, I just couldn’t really get them to shut up for very long.
I announced that it was time for them to put their things away and prepare for their little 5 question reading quiz, the one I had talked about every day for two weeks (They had 2 weeks to read 25 pages, but they were lazy as hell.) They immediately started to push back, as kids often do.
“You never told us about a quiz!”
“I didn’t have time to read!”
“Can it be open-book?”
“I read it two weeks ago but can’t remember anything!”
“It’s not fair!”
A group of the more spirited ones surrounded me and continued their badgering.
Typical Crap on an Atypical Day
This was their typical crap. They usually tried to play this little game just to see if I would somehow give in. But this time, I was so fragile that it seemed like too much. I sat down in my chair, and I started to cry. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Out it all came, and the room went quiet. The kids who stood near me slowly backed away.
“Are you okay?”
“We’re sorry. We’ll just take the quiz!” one called out.
“It’s okay, Ms. Morris!”
But I couldn’t pull it back. I went into the hall and grabbed a sub who was passing by, and asked her to cover my class. She saw the state I was in and immediately agreed. I ran to the bathroom, sat down on the floor, and continued crying until the bell rang and the day was over.
You Have No Idea
Let me back up for a minute. “What had happened before this class took place and how bad could it have been?” you might be thinking. It does seem like an overreaction to fall apart the way I did, doesn’t it? Let me tell you a little bit more about it how my day had gone before this.
It was my 15th year. I had seen a lot and dealt with a lot (if you’ve read my books, then you know just how much I dealt with.) I had cried in class once or twice before and had announced that I was quitting a dozen times to my family. But this was different.
I was used to having an administration and coworkers who had the attitude of “if those kids are messing with you, we will handle it together. We’re a team. Let’s go!” We comforted each other, and most importantly, we validated each other. It’s incredible just how far the words “I’ve been there, and it’s not your fault” can go.
When I’ve had poorly behaved kids, the head of my department, or an assistant principal, would pull them out of class and conference with them (with or without my presence- whatever I preferred.) I’ve had coworkers confront entire classes for me, and I’ve done the same for them. We got to the root of the problem in almost every situation together.
The Kids Can Do No Wrong
In the school I was currently in, everything was our fault, and the kids could do no wrong. And kids, as perceptive and manipulative as they can be, knew they had the power. It caused complete chaos. And it broke the teachers down like nothing I had ever seen.
A group of kids in this one class, in particular, came in with their minds made up about my class and about me from day one. I’ll spare you the details, I’m sure you can imagine what the behavior was like. After two weeks, I was ready for backup. I had tried contacting parents and speaking to each kid individually, which only seemed to make matters worse.
I almost never asked the administration for help because I knew they can see it as bothersome, but I was desperate. I asked the new assistant principal to come and speak to my class about their behavior. “There are a lot of well-behaved kids in this class who are suffering because of the others,” I explained. “I hope a strong message from the administration about behavioral expectations and consequences will help.”
“Sure, no problem,” she responded. “I’ll see you then.”
Likes and Dislikes
I started class with a little introduction about why the assistant principal was there to speak with them, and I moved aside. “I can tell that many of you are unhappy in this class,” she said. “Can anyone tell me why?” This was not what I expected, but she was a young, new administrator, and I figured she was using some new strategy to make the class feel comfortable. No one answered.
“Raise your hand if you like this class,” she said. Half of the class raised their hands, some sat there with blank looks on their faces, a few were on their phones, and the ones who hated me sat with their arms crossed, looking angry. “Raise your hand if you don’t like this class,” she continued.
“Who cares if they like the class?” I thought. “They don’t have to like it, but they do have to act like human beings.” The angry group proudly raised their hands to agree that they did not like the class. “Okay, can you tell me why you feel that way?” she asked. No one answered.
“Ms. Morris,” she said. “Can you come here?” I walked over to her, and she whispered into my ear, “Can you wait in the hallway for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” I responded. This was strange, but I did as I was asked and waited in the hallway next to the door. Before the door closed completely, a student yelled, “I hate that b****!”
What a Fun Thing to Listen To!
And so began a very inappropriate debate between the half of the class who tried to stand up for me and the small group that hated me. It lasted almost 30 minutes. From what I heard, the kids who hated me used curse words the entire time while describing their feelings about me, and the assistant principal never told them to stop. She validated everything they were saying.
“She’s a great teacher!” one girl yelled. “They don’t listen!”
“She’s not a great teacher!” one responded. “I haven’t learned sh**!”
“Well, that’s because you’re always talking and running around the room!”
“I asked for help, and she won’t help me! She’s a b****!” another said.
“That’s not true,” another chimed in. “She tries to help you, but you won’t let her!”
I couldn’t take it anymore. All she did was try to moderate the debate so they could insult me one at a time. Never once did she tell them that their language was inappropriate or that it didn’t matter how they felt about me, they still needed to be respectful. I slumped down to the floor and tried to block this all out, but I was shaking with anger. Other teachers walked by and asked me what was going on. When I told them what was happening inside my classroom, they all thought it was strange.
After quite a while, she stuck her head out and said, “You can come back in now.”
“I don’t feel comfortable coming back in after that,” I said, which was true.
“Okay, you can stay out here then,” she responded. The bell rang soon after, and I stood by the door. The angry kids flew by me while others looked at me with pity. A few students were standing around the assistant principal in a circle, still pleading their cases that I was a good teacher and very nice and that the other students were the problem.
She was barely listening as she pushed them out the door. When all the kids were gone and the door closed behind them, she looked at me with a little smirk and said, “Yeah, some of them really hate you.”
“I don’t know why, honestly,” I said. “I’m a very fair and easygoing teacher. I don’t usually have issues like this.”
“One of them kept saying that you refuse to help him,” she said. I immediately responded. “That is not true at all! I ask him multiple times per class if he needs help, and he always says no.”
“Another girl said that you said she could choose any book to write her paper about, and you told her that her book choice was bad, and it hurt her feelings.”
“I told them that they could choose any book that was an appropriate level and subject matter for them and that they should clear their choice with me. She took a Dr. Seuss book and slammed it on the table in front of me. When I said it was definitely not at the right level, she yelled and cursed at me!”
“Well, I think they were just unclear about expectations.”
“What!” I said. “I explained several times, and it was written on the assignment! I also had the librarian review how to pick an appropriate book.”
Why was I having to defend myself against these insane accusations from a bunch of 14-year-olds?
“Well, some of them have attention issues. You have to be more patient. I have to go now.”
“Wait!” I called out. “Please don’t leave yet. I am very confused about where I stand with this class. It seems to me that they were validated in their behavior, so how will I get them to listen to me now?”
“I have a meeting. I can’t stay here. Just re-establish expectations tomorrow. Pretend like it’s the first day,” she said as he walked towards the door.
“Do you have time to meet after school?” I asked desperately.
“No, I have another meeting,” she responded with mild irritation. “You’ll be fine.” And with that, she was gone.
More Information Please
I sat and thought about this for a while, and I just couldn’t imagine being in that class after they were allowed to talk about me like that. I needed more information from her about how the discussion ended. I emailed her and asked if she had any free time the next day to meet with me and strategize about the class. A while later, she responded with, “I am completely booked tomorrow, but I’ve forwarded your email to the head of your department and the rest of the administration. I’m sure one of them would be happy to help you with your classroom management problem.”
After that came emails from every administrator saying that they needed more details about the situation. The head of the department popped her head in not long after and asked me to explain the situation. I did, and she said that I needed to greet each and every student by name at the door every day. I needed to “teach bell to bell with absolutely no downtime,” and the students needed a timed and graded warmup every day. “I understand that the students need structure. And I can assure you that I am giving them that. They are working on a writing assignment (the department mandated that), so I am not necessarily teaching bell to bell. But I am on my feet, helping them, every second of the class.”
“I will be coming by to observe, and the other assistant principal will observe every day for the next two weeks.”
And that was that. It was all my fault, and now I was going to be monitored. Then came the next class, where I broke down and cried uncontrollably. And then the phone call to my husband that I was done.
Do It For The Kids
But here’s the thing. The next day, the class I had broken down in front of threw me a party. There were balloons, several cakes that were my favorite flavors (they had asked around), many bunches of flowers, and many dog stuffed animals (anyone who knows me knows how much I love dogs).
More importantly, they had all written me a card about how much they appreciate me, how wonderful I am, and that I just cannot quit because they need kind teachers like me. A lot of them had written individual cards too. The most surprising part is that the most heartfelt cards came from the students who never seemed to be paying attention.
This was really something. A bunch of 15-year-olds got together to show concern and appreciation for their teacher, whom they didn’t even know well. It was absolutely amazing.
And that’s the thing about teaching. It will break you down, tear you apart, and make you feel like you desperately need to get out, but then something wonderful will happen, and it draws you right back in. The problem is that the administration couldn’t care less if you have a genuine concern for your students or how hard you are working to connect with them or engage them. They want the kids controlled, and quiet, and they want you to be quiet too, because otherwise, they might actually have to do their jobs, and most really don’t know how to lead.
This essay originally appeared in Morris’ book What It’s Really Like. If this resonated with you, you’d probably also like Unexpected Feelings When I Quit Teaching.
Jane Morris is the author of several comedic memoirs about her teaching career. She recently left after 17 years. She lives in the DC Metro area with her extremely patient husband, two little girls, and a scrappy puppy named Clover Bean McCloverson.
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