When I was hired to teach English Language Arts at a highly ranked middle school north of Boston last year, I felt as though I’d won the career lottery. I believed teaching was my passion: the job I was born for. But then, at the end of the school year in June, I was laid off due to cutbacks related to the restructuring of my department. And here’s the surprising thing: I wasn’t disappointed — I was relieved.
At the age of 27, this is far from how I envisioned my career path unfolding. After college, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in teaching. It would mean an investment of more time — and more student loans — but it would be worth it.
I started the job as many teachers do, full of optimism. I believed I could take the most mundane part of a middle school English curriculum and spark student interest. I wanted to be that English teacher students remember years after they leave school. We have all had them (or at least seen Robin Williams play one in Dead Poets Society). Even if you had absolutely no idea why they were so enthusiastic about a writer — even Chaucer — their energy was contagious. They could make you consider actually doing your work, maybe even start caring about it.
But as the year wore on, it became clear I’d made a serious mistake. Before you write me off as some starry-eyed optimist, consider some numbers. Researchers estimate that 40 percent to 50 percent of teachers leave the field within five years of starting. The attrition rate among first-year teachers has increased by a third in the past two decades. Nearly 10 percent of new teachers leave before their first year is even done. Clearly, something in the system is broken.
What went wrong? The first problem was a single-minded focus on testing and assessment. In a high-profile suburban community, there were test scores that needed to be maintained. While I understood this to a certain extent, graduate school did not prepare me for how much my curriculum would be dictated by teaching to a test. The year began by taking last year’s MCAS scores and analyzing what percentage of students did well with each type of question. From there we were going to readjust assignments and time spent on material accordingly.
Initially, I believed I could use this focus as a tool to give me insight into my students that I never had before. But this was before I realized just how much of the year was going to revolve around test scores and data analysis. My life soon became a cycle of issuing a test, scoring it, analyzing results, and repeating. Knowing students learn differently, I had previously given assessments with varied options for students, but I didn’t have the time to continue that on a weekly basis. I tried to incorporate unique learning opportunities where I could. It just didn’t feel like enough.
As you can imagine, students were quick to share their opinions on how these assessments — constantly preparing for and taking tests — were ruining their education. Many of my pupils informed me that their parents wanted them to go to private high schools so they would no longer be subjected to such a one-dimensional education.
And that brings me to my biggest unexpected challenge: parents. I found students were rarely a problem, but the disrespect about teaching that they’d heard at home seeped into the classroom.
Some teachers have it much worse than I did. During a dispute in Arlington in June, for instance, a father allegedly showed his child’s elementary school principal his firearms permit (he called it a misunderstanding and no charges were filed). But parents did hinder me from doing my job in jaw-dropping fashion.
During my first parent-teacher conference, I had several parents simply yell at me for the duration of the meeting, enraged by their children’s grades. One mother said her child had never earned a grade as low as a B+ in any class and implied poor teaching must be to blame. Although the student ended up with similar grades the following term from other teachers, I had suffered the brunt of her anger.
I had parents rip grading rubrics out of my hand and tell me the grade their child actually deserved. Another parent questioned me on how English Language Arts was relevant to his daughter’s life. At this point I’d had it, and I told him it was probably the most important subject his daughter was taking. Knowing how to communicate effectively is vital in the world outside the classroom walls. Parents who forget that in their blind push for undeserved higher grades do their children a grave disservice.
When the news of my impending layoff came to me in February 2014, my fellow teachers and the school’s administrators couldn’t have been nicer. I left with wonderful references, as well as offers to help me find a new job in a different school district. But I haven’t taken them up on it, and I doubt I will. I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life, but I don’t think it’s going to involve teaching.
Colleen Hughes is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.