I’ll always think of myself first, as a teacher
By Katie Huber
June 2023, I locked the door to my 2nd and 3rd-grade classroom, returned my keys, and walked away from teaching. I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll be back, I just knew I couldn’t continue like this.
I entered the field of education bursting with the desire to spread my joy of learning with kids, as many other teachers do. As someone who connects well with elementary-age students and cares deeply for their futures, I know I have a lot to offer as a teacher. I also invested heavily in this career, completing a master’s degree in elementary education in 2022. Yet, the 22/23 school year was difficult for me for many reasons.
I feel that categorizing the work I did that year as “teaching” is a stretch. I would consider it more “behavior management” with a side of teaching, to be fair. This feeling is echoed by other teachers post-pandemic, as one expressed feeling more like “counselors, babysitters, or even mothers.” Between breaking up fights, calling the office to help me track down a student who eloped, and consoling one of my many emotionally fragile kids, there were glimmers of hope that my students were learning something. I came home every day feeling exhausted and even defeated.
I was new to California, and I anticipated the challenges of teaching at an urban, high-needs school. As a third-year elementary teacher, I was accustomed to the chaos that often seemed to coincide with under-resourced schools. However, I was not prepared to navigate a cross-country move and a devastating loss in my family alongside a teaching role that left me feeling wholly unsupported.
In January, my mom unexpectedly died of a brain tumor at the age of 57. The district gave me three days of bereavement, and I quickly exhausted the total ten days of PTO that I had left untouched up until that point. I couldn’t fathom the idea of being personally responsible for, let alone teaching, 23 2nd and 3rd graders at a point when I could barely control my frequent sobs.
The meager bereavement policy was just one way that I felt shorted and undervalued by the district. Consider these policies (or lack thereof) that also seem to fail public school teachers before they are even able to focus on the role they signed up for:
- Access to health insurance; as a new hire who began employment in August, I was not officially enrolled in my elected health insurance plan until April and have not been reimbursed for medical bills the district stated they would cover due to their errors.
- Unreliable payment system, as evidenced in this one California district.
- No COVID-19 PTO, but a required quarantine for employees who test positive.
- Lack of hired/funded paraprofessionals to cover mandated minutes on students’ IEPs, therefore failing students with arguably the highest needs and pushing teachers to pick up the slack.
- No full-time nurse or social worker forces teachers to play these roles despite not being licensed or trained.
- Split lists, requiring students to be split into other classes (not necessarily in their grade level) when a teacher is absent, and a substitute is not secured.
This is my experience, and I can only hope that this is not reflected across districts nationwide. I also don’t mean to offload complaints and come off as bitter, but if I do, please know that my bitterness is not directed at the school. I give the school and all its employees credit for doing their best despite scarce resources all around. I believe the root of the problem causing teachers to leave the profession at higher rates does not lie with individual schools, but rather, with districts, states, and the nation. I share my experiences and grievances with the hope that these problems can be solved before even more teachers walk out the door.
So, what would it take for me to return to the classroom? That’s hard to say. I miss the kids, but I don’t miss feeling undervalued, overworked, and unsupported. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the factors causing many teachers to feel this way have to do with funding, funding for social workers, paraprofessionals, and even teachers. Vacancies or unfunded positions within the ecosystem of a school cause unequally distributed weight, putting a burden on the employees. If these roles are rightfully funded and compensated, maybe then these difficult but incredibly important positions in high-needs schools will be filled, and teachers will be able to do just a little more of what they’re passionate about teaching.
Despite what the next few years have in store for me, I think I’ll always think of myself first, as a teacher.