Today is my last day as a teacher. After 15 years as a high school English teacher, I am calling it quits.
I know I’m not the first to do so. Sometimes, quitting teaching seems like the trendy thing to do, sadly. I read this article and pretty much EVERY WORD rang true for me. Teachers are overworked and underpaid for sure, but there are definitely other reasons I’m leaving the profession I’ve loved so dearly for nearly two decades.
I’ve got a lot to say about my journey up to this point, and I’m starting now.
This is also my first blog. I’ve been meaning to start blogging for a while now, so here I go…
If I were to think of my teaching career as a love story of sorts, then I should really start at the beginning:
As a student, I’ve always had really great teachers. Beginning with Miss Luckey in kindergarten and first grade (We made donuts and fried zucchini sticks! She painted our names on visors that lit up and had rainbows on them! It was 1980, after all.), to Ms. Moore and Ms. Yandall in grades 2-4 (Both encouraged me to be creative. I remember putting on these wacky one-act plays for my class.), and Mrs. Davis in 5th grade (My all-time favorite!! She helped me rise above some bullying and teasing at a time when I really needed encouragement.), to Ms. Gulan in 6th grade (She pushed me academically, helped me stay focused, and was very supportive.) – I have some great memories of elementary school.
In junior high, I had mostly great teachers, but even the ones who weren’t great had something to teach me. In junior high, there was Mrs. Fox, Ms. Hay, Ms. Cappos, Mrs. Burks, Mrs. Montierth, Mr. Moseley, Mrs. Latham, and Mr. Medina who stood out to me as favorites. They taught me, of course, but they also encouraged me, helped me be a leader, inspired me to do my best. And in high school, there was Mrs. Zambruski, Mr. Lakin, Mrs. Syverson, and others who were invaluable in helping me reach my potential and encouraging me to be better than I thought I could be.
Mrs. Zambruski, my English teacher in 10th and 12th grade, in particular, really made me love reading and learning. I knew in 12th grade that I wanted to be a high school English teacher just like Mama Z (as we affectionately called her). English was my favorite class, and the time we spent in a circle dissecting the themes and symbolism in what we read was what I loved most. Looking for meaning and discussing what things meant to us had a strong effect on me. I came to see that literature held the keys to the secrets of the universe. That may sound a bit dramatic, but I truly loved learning and interpreting and being inspired by what I read. So much so that I knew I wanted to share that feeling with others by being a teacher.
Aside from loving English class, I also really loved the experience of high school. It was mostly a fun time, full of wonder and uncertainty and lasting memories. I liked feeling part of something special, even if I was the only one who felt it was special. I knew I wanted to be part of that something special again as a teacher. I wanted to help inspire my own students to live their own unique and wondrous life to its greatest potential. I wanted to teach.
After college graduation in 1996, where I had majored in English, I had to find a job to support myself so that I could go back to school in the evenings to earn a teaching credential. There are many, many hoops one must jump through to become a teacher. But by spring of 1998, fresh-faced and ready at 24 years old, I was ready to complete my semester of student teaching. This was a big step for me, a chance for my career dreams of teaching students and inspiring a love of reading and writing to come true. It was also a semester of working full time and not getting paid for it, but such is the life of a student teacher. I made it through and felt ready for the big time.
After student teaching was complete, I was ready to look for a real teaching job. So I went back to the school district that I had attended and applied for a job. The idea of going back home into my neighborhood and giving back to the community that gave me my education appealed to me greatly. I was proud to be an alumnus of the district in which I wanted to teach. And I was lucky enough to score an interview in the fall of 1998 with Dr. Louise Phipps, who had been my principal back when I was in junior high and was now the principal of Mar Vista High School. She hired me immediately, and I was to start the following Monday.
My teaching schedule for that first year sounds completely crazy to me now, and I wonder how I managed to survive: 1 period of English 9, 1 period of English 10, 1 period of English 11, and 1 period of ELD 8 (that’s English Language Development, otherwise known as ESL). So 4 periods total (I was not quite full time for that first semester) AND in 4 different rooms. I had a big cart (my mobile classroom) that I wheeled with me to each room with all my supplies. My average class size was about 35 students. It was nuts, but I was super happy to be a teacher! I really was like Pollyanna when it came to teaching – nothing could upset me! By the second semester, I was only teaching 3 different grade level classes, or “preps” in teacherspeak, and I had my own classroom! I was full of such joy about my job at that time. I truly felt I was in the right place.
I stayed at Mar Vista High for 10 years, working with some of the best leaders. Dr. Phipps was selected as the California State High School Principal of the Year at some point in that 10 years, and that honor was well-deserved. What I realize about her now was that she did so much to encourage teachers to be leaders. She listened and empowered and encouraged and led from a place of wisdom and love, but boy, you definitely did not want to be on her bad side. Her gift was that of empowerment and vision – she helped teachers see what was possible and then encouraged them to go do it. I was so blessed to be part of her team for 10 years. From my vantage point now, I realize that her style of transformative leadership is so very valuable but unfortunately rare, and that makes me sad because we need more leaders like Dr. Phipps.
Another inspiration was Marieanne Perrault. She is the embodiment of teamwork and leadership. When you picture what a perfect coach should be – high standards, demanding, tough, inspiring, capable, caring, and on and on – Marieanne fits the bill and then some. She has this quality about her that feels like God is smiling at you through her when you do good work. She makes you want to do your absolute best. She was a joy to work with.
There were ups and downs during those ten years. But I was part of something special, which was that initial feeling I had wanted when I decided to become a teacher. I was part of a team, a family of caring educators who really wanted the best for our students. It was magic.
As an English teacher in the beginning of my career, I had the freedom to teach whatever I wanted. I remember asking my department chair what exactly I was supposed to teach and being told, “Here is the textbook we use. Here is a list of novels that we have categorized into grade levels. What you do with this is up to you.” That freedom was a little scary but also pretty exciting. In my classes, we were doing all these cool projects and reading a ton and engaging in all kinds of writing in those early years of my career. It was energizing. And also exhausting.
But things were starting to change in education.
Stay tuned for Part 2…