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Why I left a profession that I love

After teaching in a high school classroom for 9 years, I left. Not because I didn’t still love teaching, and not because I didn’t have a vibrant classroom where students wanted to be. Not because I still didn’t feel like there were 1 million things to try and 3 million lessons my students still had to teach me.

I left because I couldn’t figure out how to learn what I wanted to learn while shouldering the all-consuming mantle of “high school English teacher.”

There were lots of reasons to leave. I could rattle them off, and you will recognize them because many teachers have shared their stories of leaving and many articles have been written about why teachers leave the profession. Here are some of these reasons: consistently increased expectations with consistently less time and resources provided to meet them. Lack of teacher expertise informing educational decision-making. Repeated emphasis on the importance of professional collaboration without consistent time allotted to do so. Ridiculous hours spent filling out paperwork for compliance reporting, new accountability, and increased budgeting scrutiny. So much time wasted on standardized tests and an outdated, damaging 100 point grading system. All with the paradoxical verbal message trumpeted that learning, not grades, should be the focus. 

But if I’m honest, those frustrations weren’t the real catalyst for leaving. Teaching is a (mostly) awesome profession where I had the honor of  leading 110 unique souls every day. I left not out of frustration with the bad, but instead to follow a passion, to pursue a dream. I left because I want to change the system. The whole thing….I know. And I didn’t know how to do that while living up to my own expectations for guiding 110 souls every day. Some teachers have figured out how to both manage a full-time teaching load and pursue systems change. But I couldn’t. I faced a choice, and decided to take my road less traveled, throwing my undivided energy at a new dream.

So, I left my classroom to seek a new kind of education.

My current role has me neck deep in thinking, writing, dreaming about schools, teaching, and, most importantly, learning. I work for a small nonprofit with huge, audacious goals, which is a perfect fit for me and my huge, audacious dreams. One of which is to open a school. That sounds bold, even to me. But someday I know that I will.

In this new working environment my time is no longer dictated by bells and marking periods. And without those as scapegoats, I’m learning about what truly holds me back. My own foibles and weaknesses become glaring when managing my own schedule, my own time, and often, my own work. This autonomy, as it turns out, is sometimes harder than having others manage all of that for you. I have to set my internal metrics of success beyond the familiar goalposts of papers graded, lessons delivered, and students engaged.

So, I left my classroom to get uncomfortable.

Since leaving, I’ve had some time and space to reflect more deeply on the systems and cultures of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who push on these systems day in, day out--asking the hard questions, and then rolling up their sleeves to propose answers. I’ve been affirmed by colleagues and supervisors as much in the past 6 months as in the previous 6 years in the classroom. I want that not to matter so much, but it does. 

I’ve also had the distinct privilege to see some of the awesome teachers and schools and states taking bold steps to create the systems we need for teachers and students. For example, there are over 90 schools in this country who have self-identified as TeacherPowered. That means that teachers are making the critical decisions about budgeting, scheduling, hiring, teaching, and learning, And that’s messy, it’s hard, it flies in the face of the hundreds of thousands of traditional schools operating all around them. However these teachers and schools shine on, and I get to be a part of sharing their stories. How freakin’ awesome.

So, I left my classroom to gain new inspiration.

It has taken me six months to write this post. I was scared to share the real reason I left. In fact, I’m still scared to put my audacious goals and aspirations out into the world. I also still grieve for the classroom I surrendered and the students I’m no longer in contact with. It’s still sometimes a tug-of-war for my heart, which I swear to you is a teacher-heart through and through.

But I left. And I’m learning and I’m uncomfortable and I’m inspired. I know that this is the right path for the right reasons. As a dear friend and mentor writes in her own story of leaving: “Let's agree to leave our guilt at the juncture where we made our choice, where we boarded one ship instead of the other. Let's write that guilt down on paper, roll it up tightly, bottle it, then throw that bottle out to sea. Let's realize that our impact may look different, but each part we play in education is vital. And no matter which ship we have boarded, it is where we are supposed to be.”

Onward.

20 Comments

Carl Draeger commented on September 16, 2016 at 7:47am:

We can't leave it to serendipity.

Audacious. Relentless. Game changer. The high school world is less because you left, but the smart money is on your impact on the emerging revolution. I've been a fan of yours for some time, so I am encouraged that you're stepping into the breach for us all. Bold moves do not come without cost, but being intentional in planning next steps is crucial to ongoing success. Thanks for 'takin' one for the team' and godspeed.

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on September 15, 2016 at 3:34pm:

Thank you isn't enough!

But I will thank you anyway. Your comment humbles me while also giving me a burst of energy to DO THIS WORK. Thank you for that and for the work you do and the boat you row every day in schools and with students and teachers!

Taylor Milburn commented on September 15, 2016 at 3:17pm:

A new ship

What a beautiful piece! Thanks so much for your transparency and willingness to address the reasons you decided to move out of your classroom and into uncharted waters. As a fellow shipmate who made the same decision, I resonated strongly with your words--but mostly your heart. It's a joy to work with you and I'm proud of you for finally writing this, no matter how long it took!

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on September 15, 2016 at 3:36pm:

In this together

We've got to encourage each other right? To not lose sight of the children we STILL serve in our work. To remember why teachers need us to beat the drum for change. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, friend! So glad you are with me on the new journey. 

Jon Eckert commented on September 16, 2016 at 4:31pm:

Thanks for Daring Greatly!

Brianna,

Your post reminded me so much of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. Thanks for embracing the vulnerablity of sharing why you left and how uncomfortable it makes you feel. I know you have a teacher heart and that will always inform what you do. Thanks for what you are doing at CTQ, and I can't wait to see the school you open! This was a great Friday afternoon jolt.

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on September 22, 2016 at 1:33pm:

You know the way to my heart!

By including Brene Brown in any conversation with me :) Thanks for taking the time not only to read, but respond to my story here. I know we share a conviction that our time in the classroom is the most important factor informing the work we do outside of the classroom. 

Barnett Berry commented on September 17, 2016 at 2:43pm:

Brianna - you teach us so much

Brianna. Your blogs informs us deeply about the complexities of finding and keeping the next generation of teachers. I wish you were able to speak at the convening of the Learning Policy Institute this past week in DC — with its focus on #SolvingTeacherShortages. I was there with researchers, practitioners, and policy wonks of varying stripes -- who came together to examine the best available evidence and discuss both prevailing problems and potential solutions. (Check out the array of high quality policy papers at www.learningpolicy.org)

There were excellent discussions. But you would had added much more richness to the deliberations. 

Reflecting on your words of wisdom, as a 30-something, I can’t help but lament the prevalence of policy myths that often get in the way of seeking and creating answers to vexing teacher recruitment and retention questions.

One myth in particular surfaced during a LPI plenary panel when it was suggested that new millennials, like you, will just not teach for a 30 year teaching career. It was implied that retaining teachers of your generation for the long haul is impossible.  It is assumed you have too many different things you want to do. Well you do, but a major issue, one that could revolutionize teaching, was ignored.

I had to respond, because you, and many other young teachers, would teach for a full career — under the right organizational conditions.

“Why can't teachers teach and do other things?,” I said. “Teachers in top performing nations do so. University professors do so here in the States.”

We can restructure the profession so you and others do not have to leave your “classroom(s) to gain new inspiration. We can create more hybrid, teacherpreneurial roles, where part of your time is devoted to teaching students, while the other part is incubating and executing new policy and pedagogical ideas. (You played this role recently as a CTQ teacherpreneur, but your district’s administrators did not really know how to use your skills and passions and access to innovations across the nation and the globe.)

We can fund these teacherpreneurial roles —  at scale — with the clever re-thinking of how we allocate personnel dollars, and supporting the idea of some significant proportion of administrators and supervisors could teach something so more teachers can lead in some way. We also can create cool ways for teachers to lead, if the federal government surely would support more innovative leadership from the classroom models, with the billions of dollars that have gone to moribund “merit pay” and lock-step Teacher Incentive Fund programs.  You should not have to fight in a “tug-of-war for (your) heart” and policy leaders need to own up to their responsibilities to create the conditions for you to lead without leaving.  And not just assume you would not teach for a 30-year career.

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on October 15, 2016 at 1:40pm:

Visionary

Thanks for this supportive and visionary comment Barnett! This kind of big thinking is exactly what gave me the courage to leave the classroom and embark into the unknown of systems change and entrapreneurial endeavors. 

I absolutely believe evolving our profession is a must in the face of our current and worsening teacher shortage as well as the generational divide that you mention. Millenials want to be part of vibrant, flexible, and innovative environments. They will stay and commit if they see a long future with many paths and opportunities. Millenials have a strong desire for their jobs to hold deep purpose and they want to feel part of a larger change. From my experience and reading, they despise a acceptance of status quo. Teaching is inherently a purpose-driven and dynamic career. If the system can evolve to refocus on our core purpose: creating safe, vibrant, challenging learning environments for students and can position teachers as agents of change rather than compliance, we will become an attractive profession for young bright minds and we will retain early/mid-career teachers like myself. 

Martha Binns commented on September 18, 2016 at 2:36pm:

It Took Guts

This was well thought out and well put together. Don't cry over spilt milk. The damage is already down and also renewed. You need not worry because you have paved the way and is still paving the way for your students. You are a born teacher leader. I would love to be a part of your team some day. Great inspiration coming from you. Keep striving for the best and follow your dreams.

Martha

Kiley Jackson commented on September 18, 2016 at 7:41pm:

WOW

Brianna -

          You are very brave. I agree in changing the educational system. It is broken across our country. We need more teachers like you who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and speak up for what is right and make a difference. Kuddos to you. 

Kiley

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on September 22, 2016 at 1:37pm:

Bravery: It is subjective.

Although I'm flattered by your compliment, I have to reflect that bravery is a highly individual and contextual thing. Some teachers may exercise bravery to leave the work of the classroom to embark on a new path while for others bravery rests in the decision to stay. Those who are most brave are willing to speak out when it is difficult, act when it is easier to remain passive, and advocate for those who are suffering from injustice. For each person, following these guidelines may result in different decisions, but all who do this in big and small ways are brave. 

I find inspiration from teachers who choose to stay, but refuse to stay quiet. I find inspiration from teachers who choose to leave the classroom but refuse to leave their passion for advocacy at the door. 

Shelby Gee commented on September 20, 2016 at 6:44pm:

I agree with the reasons why you left.

It is understanding as to why you left your job because you didn't want a boring life where everything was the same. You wanted to make a difference to the world of education. I agree that the educational system needs to be changed and that the grading system should be updated. If it weren't for people like you whom are brave enough to say "enough is enough," then nothing would ever be changed. Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the next step into trying to change the education system.

J.J. De Simone commented on September 21, 2016 at 10:47pm:

"Lack of teacher expertise

"Lack of teacher expertise informing educational decision-making." Yes! This is such an important point that is ALWAYS lost in political conversations -- especially in election years. I understand policymakers recruit teachers and administrators to serve on committees; unfortunately, what these groups often say is ignored in favor of political grandstanding. I completely understand your perspective.

Farrell Jenab commented on September 22, 2016 at 2:10pm:

huge audacious goals

Brene Brown also came to mind when I read this blog.  I'm particularly struck by what you said about autonomy, that freedom can be more challenging than having others managing and dictating your time and efforts for you.  Teachers need this freedom.  They need to be allowed to get messy and uncomfortable.  That is where the magic happens!

 

 

 

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on September 26, 2016 at 11:11pm:

Affirming

It is so affirming to have people bringing in one of my "from a distance" mentors into these comments! Having this piece remind your of Brene Brown makes me so happy because her work has been tranformational to me. Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts. 

Also, I love the visual you shared and have shared it myself with others. The reminder is always relevent and refreshingly helpful to calm down and realize that all great accomplishments have uncomfortable pathways and frustrating obstacles. 

Jessica Weible commented on September 30, 2016 at 8:31am:

YES

I know we've talked about this before, but I want to show my support publicly.

Since we reconnected a few years ago, I've been inspired by what you are doing and delighted to discover the parallels in our lives. So, I FEEL your sense of loss and disorientation as you take off your teacher hat to see what else fits. However, I also understand 100% (I can't stop grading things!) why you needed to leave. I think we both loved what we were doing so much that we needed it to be more. I don't mean that we wanted to be more than a teacher because I think we both have such a profound respect for the profession. What I mean is that we need to stretch and redefine what a teacher can do so that it matches our aspirations. 

You are taking this head-on right now. I'm...taking a detour! But I follow your progress with an invested interest because I know that the work you are doing now will not only hopefully pave the way for me, but for many others out there who want to evolve past the limitations of our current public school roles. 

This choice that you've made required a combination of boldness, introspection and innovation that- I think- is hard to find in public schools. Please accept some much-deserved accolades!

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on October 6, 2016 at 2:27pm:

Parallel Paths

Thank you so much for stopping by to leave this wonderfully supportive and empathetic comment! I too have loved reconnecting and finding our commonality in passion for a profession we love and a system that doesn't seem to fit us. I look forward to when we can reconnect around a project or even a school (dreaming big!). Your path is perfect for you for this time, and I'm trusting that so is mine. Can't wait for them to converge again. Until then, tracking with you and sending my gratitude for staying connected! 

Lisa O'Doherty commented on November 9, 2016 at 9:26pm:

Empowerment!

It is understandable why you left the classroom.  With expectations, pressures, and accountability increasing exponentially for teachers without the appropriate time allotted to complete these tasks, many teachers are reaching frustration levels.  Congratulations on following your passion!

The TeacherPowered schools are new to me.  I am not familiar with them and am curious how they are run.  How is it that the teachers at these schools have the time to be decision makers, policy makers, and leaders while also teaching in the classroom?  How have these schools found a way to make it work while others cannot?

 
Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on December 27, 2016 at 1:45pm:

TeacherPowered

Lisa,

What great questions! You can find some amazing models and examples by going to this site: TeacherPowered.org

There are interviews with teachers working in schools that are Teacher Powered. There is also a resource kit if you are inspired to push your school in this direction. 

Ashley Webb commented on December 29, 2016 at 2:38pm:

You are in my head!

While reading your post, I could not help but relate to EVERYTHING you wrote. It has been hard to put into words what I have been thinking, and you have done so, beautifully. I recently left public school teaching as well and believe that I will be a part of systematic change in our schools. I too have had a dream of opening up a school or learning environment of some kind. I am currently working as an instructional designer for a small compnay and am creating unique web-based learning experiences for youth and families, but I miss the classroom tremendously. Thank you for your words and passion. I will continue to follow your journey and be inspired by the way you are "Daring Greatly" (I love Brene Brown too). 

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