Just ask me: Inside America’s great teacher resignation
In response to The New York Times, Opinion Video, Nov. 18, 2022:
Empty Classrooms, Abandoned Kids: Inside America’s Great Teacher Resignation.
Room 222, Welcome Back Kotter, and The Secret Life of an American Teenager were among the television shows I watched that depicted school. Among the books that included chapters about school were Little House on the Prairie and All of a Kind Family and I poignantly remember sitting in class watching Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. That still gives me chills to this very moment.
Somewhere along the line, I chose to become a teacher. I say chose because that is what it was, a choice made by a 20-year-old girl, away at college, deciding what to be for the rest of her life. That is how it felt for me in 1982.
So, you may be asking yourself, why does that matter in 2022? Because it does, for me and to you, too. The social media forces, the people behind the headlines, the microphones, the videos and the megaphones are a scene from Jackson’s The Lottery.
For these reasons and a few more that I’ll keep to myself for this moment as I craft this post, I have been trying increasingly often not to click and read or view the various articles and visuals about the teacher shortage, teacher rants, teacher vigilantes and accusations. Without Dinah and a Cheshire Cat, why go down that rabbit hole?
I am venturing there, today, because of three words, “write about it.” The power of an editor’s email has struck and so I am at my laptop, sitting by the not so roaring fire in the fireplace, collecting these thoughts about the recent Opinion column and accompanying video by Agnes Walton and Nic Pollock, “Empty Classrooms, Abandoned Kids: Inside America’s Great Teacher Resignation” that appeared in the New York Times the week of November 18, 2022.
For this Opinion piece, Agnes interviewed teachers, and a few appear in the video. I read the paper and watched the video twice. Once, to understand why my editor sent it to me and twice to digest it. The third time is the charm or disarming as I started to take mental notes and then share the link with a handful of people.
What hit home for you? What hit home for me? Yes, what Anna Sutter shares is real beyond the borders of Indiana. School counselors are unable to counsel because they are putting out fires in the lunchroom and lining kids up for buses and then sitting on hold with their phones in their hands waiting for who knows who to pick up the phone at the hotline. So, while people in the community may count the number of counselors and draw the conclusion that they employ enough staff, those people are not able to do the job they’ve been hired for because they’ve been pulled, told, and placed elsewhere.
Might they want to say, “No”? If they do, then what happens? Charges of insubordination, loss of pay, retaliation, letters in a personnel file or do you envision someone cheering them on because they stood up and spoke out? That’s a TV dramedy, not everyday life. Just ask me.
The scenes of students who want teachers. That hit me. Stop talking about kids being lazy and kids not liking school and kids this and kids that. Our children, as in this video, are seeking to learn. A day without a teacher – that fun gets old real soon. Our children know what’s at stake – their lives and those of the people they looked to and looked for on the buses, around the community and in those hallways and rooms. It’s not about being lazy, absolutely not at all, at least as far as I have experienced as a parent, as a teacher, and as an administrator. Just ask me.
Vanessa, 27 years as an educator, spoke about holding multiple jobs (min. 3:57). Yes, I did that, too. Do you? So, before you choose to rant that the teacher didn’t respond to your call or email within an hour, think first. Did you know that your teacher friends and neighbors hold more than one job? Do you care?
Kareem Neal, 24 years as an educator, named the roles he’s expected to be: a teacher, a counselor, a social worker, a nurse, and to feed, clothe and shelter. (min. 4:47). “They couldn’t handwrite because they had done everything virtually,” Justin Brown. Let that sink in. Eye-hand coordination.
The scenes at the 5:30 minute mark, oh did those hit me. This rage didn’t just happen. It’s been brewing and smoldering; it now has a forum and a medium to spread. I have never thought of myself as a “Stepford Wife,” or as “The Indoctrinator.”
And look around, have you in your job ever been so scrutinized? Do you have to defend yourself day in and day out? Are people asking you why you are staying in your job? Do people speak with a tone of pity when they talk to you?
My first time to reveal this, I went to my primary doctor. We spoke about what was happening in the school district and to me. She looked me in the eyes. She took a deep breath. She spoke firmly and kindly. “Is your job worth being put on medication?”
Pause to let that sink in.
Are you among those kicking people like me? Stop. Why do I need to toughen up or suck it up? Why are you choosing to put so much on my plate or giving me additional plates to juggle and to lose with a splintering crash?
Stop. Do not kill me emotionally, physically or mentally. Should educators be among those on medication because of their jobs and the plates they juggle? The student crises are intertwined with the teacher crises.
We have gag orders. In our contracts are items we are not to talk about and actions we are not to take. Is that in your contract, too? Do you watch TV and read the news to find out how your job just changed before you start for the day? Do you worry about being accosted on the street, in the grocery store or a house of worship? Or are you thanked and lauded with swag and bonuses?
To read about a few of the educational gag orders, follow this link, PEN: America Index of Educational Gag Orders. It is just one source, and look, I purposely did not anoint it as “The One.” It is one where you can read, click through and view. It is a place where no one is the producer or the star of the show.
What is happening is not a show. It is real life. Anna Sutter sums it up in the closing moment of this NYT Opinion Video, that I will paraphrase. We’ve relied on teachers to not care about themselves. We rely on teachers to not know their worth and to not know what they deserve. Now, ask yourself, how long can we let that reliance continue?
It is not the 7th inning stretch or 7th and goal. It is at the seventh minute of the video that it closes with …”It feels like abandonment.”
How do I know? Look around. Just ask me, I stood up and got that boot.
I brought cross curricular projects, engaged with members of the community, walked the halls with smiles, and yes, there were moments I delivered a higher up’s message. Engagement increased as did community participation and conversations.
There were times I adapted, served on committees, asked questions and sought alternatives. Paraphrasing group think, I was told that I was too in touch with the teachers to be an effective administrator.
Let that sink in.
Quiet quitting isn’t what happened. The boot was to quiet the upstander, dismiss the innovator, behind the scenes undercutting, and censorship. In public, here, I will say that I also suspected a drop of antisemitism.
My attendance didn’t falter; I marched on. As an educator, I looked at the data and saw that a few of the middle school students would be eligible to vote in the next presidential election. The hair on the back of my neck tingled.
I dove in with various resources and planned a unit. I dismissed that tingling feeling. Two weeks later, I was dismissed because of the history lesson.
I chose to find another pathway to continue learning, teaching and being of service. You need to acknowledge that this has been smoldering for years. You need to realize that not every teacher and not every family has access to Wi-Fi. In some locals the fiber optics are simply not there, whether you look up to the poles or down to the ground.
So, I ask you to look around.
While people are watching, reading, and talking about teachers, and while some may be cussing and others may be praising, I am working. What am I working at? I am working at teaching and learning. I remain an educator. Yes, that twenty-year-old at the opening of this post has been dedicated to education for four decades and remains so to this day. Someone coined me as a ray of hope, so I am hope4education.com. Find more there and let us stop throwing stones. Let us start a civil discourse rather than disengagement.
What will you do? I do not know the answer to that question. What will I do? I will turn to Barbra, yes that person, Ms. Barbra Streisand. She is a member of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame. Also, in 1997, she was named as honorary chairperson of the board of directors of Hadassah’s International Research Institute on Women. She continues to honor her Jewish heritage, to speak up about women’s health issues and antisemitism. Gathering some of the lyrics from a song she debuted in Yentl, here is my quest or perhaps my mission:
“I will listen to the lessons of the leaves, wrapped in the shawl that learning weaves. I will open doors and ask questions. I will be like a link in a chain, joining me to children yet to be. Because, Poppa, I am now part of a stream, and this is one of those moments.”
Right now, I am not sure that ‘thank you’ are the correct two words. While I am still searching for the “lede in,” thank you to Agnes Walton (@AgnesBridge) a producer with Opinion Video. Nic Pollock (@nicpollock) a documentary producer and editor for creating this opinion piece and to the New York Times for publishing it. Thank you to my editor for emailing me three words, “write about it.” Thank you for reading this post and best wishes for your day.
The author is a member of Hadassah’s Educators Council, a newly formed professional council of Hadassah members who are current or recently retired educators.