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Guilt for going


Acting_out_tom_sawyer'Tis the season for state testing once again, and Texas is no exception. The next wave of TAKS exams are coming up in another week and a half, and my teachers are scrambling, and their students are scrambling, so therefore, I am scrambling along with them. My apologies for not posting earlier.

Over the past few weeks, I noticed a number of comments, some accusatory, other curious, about why I (and others) left the classroom to take on other roles in the field. This is a perennial question with no right answer. While I found myself tired of being asked, the more I pondered about it driving from school to school to meet teachers, the more deeply I felt about my personal decision to leave room B-2 on the Navajo Nation after two years of working as a special educator.

It breaks my heart to field phone calls from former students considering dropping out, and it's a bittersweet feeling when 16-year-olds write me letters using the exact sentence construction techniques we had worked for months on. If I stayed for another year, another decade, imagine all the children I would have had an impact on (hopefully positive). Imagine the years of reading growth, writing rubric improvement, and social skills development. Imagine what it would have been like if I could have been one "outsider" teacher who didn't leave the kids after a year or two.

These were all things I considered, but didn't truly feel, when I made my decision to take on the position as a program director helping develop new teachers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. I cried and I said my good-byes and I mailed math homework over the summer. But it wasn't until I got a phone call in November from a former colleague who mentioned in passing that one of my most severely disabled students, both physically and mentally, wasn't getting any educational services because the new teacher hadn't figured out how to fit him in her schedule. Last year, he learned to count money, grew by three levels of comprehension and could read over 25 life skills words-- after starting from zero with each thing.

I was enraged. I called the school, sent resources to the teacher, he's getting classes now, but mostly, I questioned my decision to leave. I was tempted to quit my job right then, which I felt like I was lousy at anyway. And I felt guilty. I felt guilty, guilty, guilty about dipping out of the front lines and taking a "cushy administrative position" instead.

Well, the "cushy administrative" notion gave me a quick laugh since I was logging an average of 90-hours a week and spending most of that time working directly with teachers or on teacher stuff (imagine a dean of instruction whose job is to entirely to take care of getting their 30 teachers to teach better-- that's my job.)

But the guilt stayed. It faded from time to time as I saw my teachers grow and improve, and as I grew to enjoy my work, but a bit of it stayed. It stayed because part of me always wondered if I'd have been better for education in general if I, and so many of my colleagues who've left the classroom, stayed.

One Saturday morning after meeting with one of my teachers, I casually mentioned this guilt I always feel. And she looked at me in amusement and awe. "In the time that it took you to show me how to write my lesson plans this way, you just helped improve my teaching," she said. "And that's going to have an effect on 150 kids. Multiply that by 30 teachers. That's 4,500 kids you're helping. Why are you feeling guilty again??"

That made me realize the guilt I felt wasn't about leaving the classroom, it was about doing something instead that wasn't worth leaving all my Elroy's, Alvin's and Jenny's back in New Mexico. When cast in that light, I didn't feel an ounce of guilt-- the dramatic growth I've seen and had a hand in with so many of my teachers has made it all worth it. So, no, there is no "right" answer for why people leave the teaching profession. But there's also no guilt in it if it was worth it.

(Note: The argument that all good teachers should stay in the classroom is rather preposterous to me. Yes, it's sad to see a great classroom instructor leave the front of the room, but it seems silly to demand people stay in a role when they want to work in a different capacity. One can only hope it's still working toward the same goal of student achievement. Otherwise we'll just end up with a whole lot of professionally-dissatisfied good teachers! And I've always argued that I would prefer having a good and motivated teacher teach for just two years than a mediocre teacher teach for 20. Naive, perhaps, but this is what principals have told me time and time again.)


I can understand why you'd have that guilt for leaving the classroom. Each kid we have in class (or meet in the hall for that matter) takes a place in our hearts. We want only the best for them and we get upset when we find they aren't getting the best. But honestly, "teachers" exist in LOTS of different capacities--not just in the classroom. I spent over 10 years in other sorts of education (insurance, retail sales, secretarial positions, customer service) and each was important in its own way to society as a whole. Did I love it? No. I hated almost every waking minute of it until one customer/client actually understood what I was trying to help them understand. That "lightbulb moment" is what I lived for (ok, that and days off...). So I left and moved into a traditional teaching role. I admire our coaches, administrators, SPED team, and district admin teams. They have an impact on our kids too--just in a different way and it's needed just as much as my role as classroom teacher is. Right now, I'd never even DREAM of doing anything else altogether--maybe dabble on the side in other areas of elementary ed, but never leaving my classroom. Will I feel the same after 5 years? 10? Who knows. I honestly don't think that anyone can say that they know what they'll want to be doing that far out. If you're called to use your talents elsewhere, go :) That's the beauty of life--you can always come back to wherever you left.

I think this is a really great entry. We should celebrate everyone that tries to make an impact, regardless of their job title. You go girl!

You're still young. You have to realize that not everyone will come to the job you left behind with the same enthusiasm, passion, and vigor you had when you were there, even if only for two years. Likewise, as you work at the administrative level in your two-years'-new job, you'll tackle it with the same enthusiasm, passion, and vigor that you had for the classroom assignment you left behind. Let go of the guilt. It will consume you. Move on. Look back fondly, but move on with confidence. Those you inspire to teach as you taught, will keep their schools' afloat.
Read "The Road and the End" by Carl
Sandbury and do what you do best: teach. Whom you teach is irrelevant in the end. Teaching your pupils wel is all that matters; their ages are irrelevant.

Jessica, I am nearing the end of my career. I have had classroom experience (loved it!) and out of classroom experience as a teacher and administrator. The work is all challenging, exhausting, and worth doing. I am dismayed, year after year, by the hate and accusations faced by the young administrators I'm mentoring (and still faced by me) for having taken these out-of-classroom jobs. Looking way back, I remember when all administrators were former coaches, and we all lamented that we weren't being led by "real" teachers: academic teachers is what was meant. That is when I decided to go for it. I was a wonderful teacher, and I thought I could be the kind of administrator we were all longing for. I believed that until I started to get the knee jerk negativity toward the same me in the new role. It's an enormous failure of imagination on the part of the person who puts down those of us who are taking on other roles. I have found ways to understand and forgive, but it certainly saps the joy out of the hard work I am doing to be so maligned, and it makes me hesitant to recruit new administrators to lead schools and to look out for the best interests of kids from a different desk. But I never want us to go back to the days when all the school leaders were from the football coach ranks. I love the administrators on my team who have been coaches, don't get me wrong. There are things they understand like nobody else, and their ability to create teamwork is phenomenal. But they are also academics, were incredible classroom teachers, and are superb leaders--WHO LEFT THE CLASSROOM TO LEAD in other ways. I hope you will hold in your heart that many of us who are villified are doing good work and have learned to ignore the yammering from the bitter or the envious in the field, as well as the yammering from our own betraying "consciences" causing unearned guilt feelings. You are not alone in those 90 hour work weeks, and I thank you for what you are doing. Jan

You can justify any behavior if you try long enough. There is no justification in my mind for abandoning the students. Go ahead and tell yourself how many others will benefit. It does not wash with the kids you left. You have become part of the "system" that uses excuses to get out of the real job of education. Please reconsider for the students. Don't let others sooth your guilty feelings.


How can I get in touch with you.


You can reach me at TeachForNM(at)gmail(dot)com

Dear John,

Thanks for adding to the conversation. I have to respectfully disagree, however, because I have not left my students behind. I may not be teaching them directly anymore, but my value as a teacher in the classroom was to give them a high quality of learning. Even though my day-to-day role is different, my value in the classroom is the same-- to give a high quality education, especially to kids whose socioeconomic status is keeping them from attaining one already.

It was not as as quick for me to see my direct impact I have as a program director-- I'm not there day-to-day to see the a-ha moments of Taylor or Claudia when their teacher improves her checks for understanding-- but I do have the satisfaction of knowing that without my work as Claudia's teacher's program director, her teacher wouldn't have so quickly changed and improved her checks for understanding for them to reach those a-ha moments to begin with.

It was a tough transition for me, but it's one I'm proud of. It's also made me think back to the individuals who had a real impact on improving my teaching. Those fellow teachers, program directors and, yes, administrators, may not have been in the classroom with me each day, and it may have looked like they weren't doing much for the kids, but by opening my perspective to the many different people and work that is needed to closing the education gap, I see how folks who choose not to be in the classroom everyday are still making significant changes in kids' lives. By making assumptions about teachers, administrators, and everyone else in the education world, we run into the dangerous way of not working together toward the same goal from the many different directions necessary. It takes a village and we can't afford to leave anyone out. Best of luck with your students and your work, and have a wonderful summer!

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  • Jan: Jessica, I am nearing the end of my career. I read more
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