Novice teacher Jess Lyons has been an enthusiastic member of our CTQ New Millennium Initiative in Colorado, where she and other young colleagues have been considering the policies and practices that are most likely to help teaching evolve into the full-realized 21st century profession that all of our students deserve.
When Jess let us know that she’s decided to take a break from the classroom and consider her future career options, I asked her to write about her decision. It’s clear in what she has to say that Jess is still emotionally attached to teaching and her kids, but as she considers her likely career path in today’s profession, she’s not finding all the intellectual satisfaction she craves. Would the promise of hybrid roles that allow teachers to blend teaching, leadership and policy work be an answer for Jess? That’s the question I’m pondering as I read her words here, written just before the end of the school term in Denver. — Barnett Berry
Teaching With All You Have
By Jess Lyons
I love kids. As each day draws closer to my end of year, there’s usually one moment where my heart stops. Just for a second. Then an intense feeling of dread — “What am I doing?! Why would I leave this?” — washes over me and sets my heart racing.
My fifth graders will be moving on in eight days, and so will I. Michael won’t be there to give me an elbow shake to start my day. In eight days, Miriam won’t pop her hip and tell me “Miss Jess, I’m unique.” Girl, don’t I know it. I won’t get to read with Kristen every day, moving her from a level 6 in September to an 18, and pushing for more.
All of this, of course, leads to the obvious question: Why are you leaving teaching?
I spent all of last summer and most of the fall, while completing my Masters’ in Education, trying to figure out what was the right decision. In January, after I turned in my resignation letter, when my principal asked about my reasons for leaving I told her that I felt as if the four walls were closing in on me. I don’t learn in the environment that I am currently teaching in, so how can I expect my students to do so?
As I try to coherently explain why I feel the need to leave teaching, or why teaching has “lost me,” I have to be honest and say it’s not teaching. Sure, there are a number of things that I don’t like. I love planning, but I hate that really good planning takes so many hours. I usually do it out of guilt that my kids won’t get as good an education without it. I hate learning in four walls. MY best learning never happened there, and honestly, neither will theirs.
I hate the professional development that is useless. I dislike the scripted curriculum that I have to teach with “fidelity” when I know that it might not be best for my students. I don’t like that everyone wants to tell me how to do it better, and that so much is based on numbers and data, when it’s people (my very individual students) that walk into my room.
Let me clarify that I don’t feel like society’s image of an older jaded teacher. I’m leaving at this juncture because I love children. I carry the belief that you can only be around that type of glowing energy, filled with possibility, if you yourself carry those same feelings. So far, I still do, and I don’t want to risk losing them.
Three things that might have made a difference
I believe there are three very important criteria that would have strengthened and lengthened my time in the education field.
First, great leadership in a school setting is absolutely necessary for beginning teachers to be successful. My first year, my principal and vice principal were new at their job, and it was apparent. Not to a first year teacher, of course. For me, I thought it was normal that 15-year veteran teachers cried on a daily basis, just like me, and it just wasn’t going to get better. The staff was not supported and the demands were high without clear expectations of what needed to be done. Those pressures add up, when the staff, the students, and the community are asking challenging questions and left hanging without the answers.
I really didn’t know how I was going to make it through my second year. When it came, the leadership changed. My current principal took the position and she’s incredible. She’s extremely organized. She’s fair and just in her dissemination of consequences and rewards for students and staff. This woman is a do-er, in every sense of the word. I view her as an unbreakable umbrella. She protects the teachers from as many mandates as possible, so that we can do our job effectively, and she trusts our professional ability to do our job right. It feels like a true team, working together for our students. But the experiences of that first year when the leadership was lacking are hard to forget.
Second, professional development is USELESS unless a teacher can make what he or she has learned applicable to their classroom and students. This takes time. During my first and second year, I was required to take a number of classes — provided by the district, by Teach for America, or for my Master’s degree — that did not improve my day-to-day teaching. In some cases, it was because the PD was lackluster and I could have read the manual myself. In other cases, it was because I was forced to take particular sessions that were either irrelevant (and so I couldn’t infuse the content into my teaching), or there wasn’t time to absorb what I was learning and infiltrate it into my planning. Imagining a situation where I could have selected professional development that I thought would best suit me and expand my teaching practice excites and motivates me even now.
In the end, it was the restrictions of the setting where I worked that metaphorically choked me out of teaching. Working in a school district as large as Denver Public Schools means that there are more mandates than you can count on your fingers and toes. Following a scripted curriculum leaves little room for expansion and creativity. Having to have a scripted curriculum for every subject meant that I couldn’t be as creative as I wanted or needed to be around units of study.
Trying to prepare for standardized testing in a bilingual school is frustrating and scary. Spending too much time showing students how to properly fill out the tests takes away from what I should be teaching. Learning how to learn, what you like to learn, and how to show others what you have learned does not happen during bubble-test prep.
Imagining hybrid roles
Outside of the restrictions around my profession responsibilities, I felt stifled intellectually. I need intellectual discourse throughout the day. This might be found in teaching another grade level or another subject area. This could also happen if hybrid teaching roles were to be effectively established. My skin tingles when I imagine what my day MIGHT have looked like in a hybrid role where I was able to both teach students and spend time impacting education beyond the four walls of the classroom through collaboration, research and policy work.
I’m not sure yet that I am done with teaching. I only know that right now, I don’t have the same passion as others. When I walk into a room of members of the Denver New Millennium Think Tank, the air crackles. It’s alive with spirit, enthusiasm, ideas that are tangible and pushback that is building new structures on top of solid foundations. There is some life force being exuded by these individuals, and when they come together, I can almost physically see the changes happening, as we speak.
When I’m there, I feed off of that energy. It livens me, drives me, pushes my thinking and my questions. I want to solve the problems and push out the solutions. When I leave, I can’t figure out where my energy has gone. That’s when I know I’m not doing the right thing at the right time. Teaching, as I’m doing it now, is not my passion. It doesn’t make me tick. It doesn’t excite me in the way that — for example — creating American Policy around stopping Joseph Kony from abducting child soldiers in Uganda and Congo has the power to do.
Still some searching to do
There’s no simple answer for why I am leaving, at this juncture. I still have some searching to do as I consider the next step in my life and career. This summer, I will be volunteering with the international group Mercy Corps in Portland, OR. I have applied for a teaching fellowship with Orbis Institute in India for the coming Spring, but that will not be determined until late summer. Ideally, I am looking to go back to school for NGO management and policy study around international conflict and peace negotiations.
Maybe I’ll take this year off and discover just how much I miss the students, the lifestyle, and the discussions. Maybe I just need to try teaching in a different context; a different district, a different school, a different population. The beauty of teaching is that it happens all over, in so many environments.
For now, I’m comforted by the fact that if and when I do come back to teaching, I know that it will be with all my heart.
Jessica Lyons graduated from the University of Delaware with Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, specializations in Development and Africa, and minors in History, Economics and French Studies. She was accepted into Teacher for America’s Denver 2007 Corps. She taught fifth grade for three years at a DPS elementary school.
In a recent note to us, she wrote: “I do think I am looking for another field that brings out my passion. However, being away for just a few weeks, I’m still incredibly drawn to teaching.”