I Regret Everything: Being A Teacher

Ten years ago, I was a college freshman, obsessed with the plan I’d made for my life. I wanted to work in an inner-city school, then go to law school, and then figure everything else out. For some reason, I believed the first two goals were stepping stones to a promised land of self-knowledge.

Actually, I know why I made this plan: because programs like Teach For America and graduate school are a great way to spend years of your early adulthood not doing something else. I really wanted to be a writer—original, I know—and I didn’t know how.

In the meantime, I majored in English and Education. I balked when I got a B in a class. I never drunk-dialed anyone. I didn’t even really drink until I was 21! But my worst college offense—besides being really boring—was that I financed it all by myself with scholarships, loans, and work study, yet I still let other people influence my choices. Any time I mentioned the writing bug (and really, it’s no bug; it’s an incurable disease), someone dissuaded me. Didn’t I know that being a writer was a hobby, not a viable career? And most people with creative jobs have no insurance and can’t afford to ever own their own home? Why get an expensive university diploma, if I was going to make less money than someone who’d completed a welding course at the local technical school?

They had me at “poor.” I wasn’t going to be a high-rolling schoolteacher, but that job was noble and would look great on law school applications. I should also make it clear that I loved teaching, especially when I got to make creative lesson plans. I worked as a literacy tutor for a year before interning in different classrooms around Austin. My student teaching semester was completed at a local high school, where I taught “Antigone” and “Julius Caesar,” and no one fell asleep.

The Teach For America application process is competitive, but I got accepted in the first round. I got placed in New York City, my first choice. I ended up with an English Language Arts position in a Harlem middle school. Until this point, I’d always had a supervising teacher, even if he or she wasn’t in the classroom with me. Now I didn’t.

You know what else I had? Thirty-four students. And thirty-two desks. And only twenty-five textbooks. I was told I’d never have a full class, so things would work themselves out.

The majority of my eighth-grade students were fifteen and sixteen. They’d been held back for not passing the state test. Some just had too many absences to get promoted. These kids were high schoolers in a middle school classroom reading at an elementary school level. Someone had neglected their learning needs early on, and it was too late to play catch up.

People asked if the kids were bad. I’d usually say, “They’re more sad.” But yeah, they were bad, too. Like many new teachers, I struggled to manage my classroom. At some point, the only way to focus on the kids who want to learn is get troublemakers out. My school didn’t work that way, though. There was no place to send students who were misbehaving. Parents weren’t receptive. Many wouldn’t pick up the phone or attend conferences, even though most of my students lived in a housing project on the same block as the school.

I only worked in my own classroom a few weeks before I knew I had to get out. I was offered a classroom support role working with kids on the cusp of passing the state test, and I took it. I still worked with difficult students and experienced plenty of meltdowns, fights, police visits, etc., but I worked with small groups.

After a year of nightmares and going to work nauseous every morning, I took another teaching job at a smaller charter school. The situation wasn’t as dire, and no fifteen-year-old there ever threatened to hit me or told me to eat his ass. It still wasn’t an easy job. The kids were still troubled, the parents mostly uninvolved, and the administration not that supportive. This particular school had a strict curriculum that catered to the state test. You don’t need to have seen Waiting for Superman to know that this is a sorry excuse for a real education.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t fleeting moments of success with my students. I had some breakthroughs. There were a few good days. Mostly, though, I felt like my students weren’t reached early enough. They’d grown hard and were biding their time in school until they could get out and run the streets. Every time a student did something amazing, another two got suspended. Most of my job was social work and crisis management, not teaching.

I’m not a teacher anymore. I got the hell out of education and started forging my own path. I still want to be a writer when I grow up. My resume would say I’m already there, but I’m not convinced. The writer Anna Quindlen once said, “They say it’s never too late to become what you might have been. But it’s never too early, either.”

She’s right. Now I feel like I’m playing catch up. But at least I don’t regret having gone to law school, too.

Share This Post:
    • Jay Rowsey

      Wow! I knew your experience in education was bad from reading other things you had written but didn’t realize it was that bad I guess. As a teacher myself, I’d say it’s not for most people. It’s very frustrating and you have to have a sense of fulfillment with those moments when you do reach the student that has checked out already.

      But I also don’t teach in Harlem so I can’t really relate. Most of my students dont want to be in the class and would rather be on Facebook or texting, but for the most part they like the class, and me, well enough to do what I ask and are learning what they should and sometimes I even have the kid in class that decides to minor or major in Spanish and that is always cool.

      Unfortunately the state of education today is not good. Parents often blame the teachers, and never themselves, for tje behavior problems or lack of work ethic of their children. They think we are too highly paid. Don’t get me started.

      But teaching was the vehicle which landed you in NYC, right? Do you think you would have been able to head off there without a job right out of college?

      I’m happy for you that you are finally doing what you love. And I’ll say that you are very good at it. I always enjoy reading your work. Take care!

    • Mike

      I like the quote at the end, but I think that it also applies to the kids at the school, not just you. At some point, hopefully, they’ll realize that in order to do anything with their lives they’ll need an education. The earlier, the better, yes, but it’s never ‘too late’, even if your experiences in Harlem, and the upbringing and education of these kids, was bad.

      I’m glad that you’ve moved on to something that makes and keeps you happy!

    • Charley

      When I read the title, I was like “how weird would it be if the byline is “Amanda Green”.

      I have two friends who teach and numerous acquaintances through them and I truly don’t know how they do it. I also don’t know how the ladies who work in my daughter’s pre-school class do it – especially because I know they don’t make more than minimum wage and do not get benefits (aside from dealing with my perfect and sparkling child on a daily basis, of course).

      While I understand that teaching wasn’t necessarily a good match for you, I am still in awe of all those who choose to do it.

    • Allison

      Wonderful post. Most people don’t have the courage to admit they made a wrong turn. Kudos to you for doing so and for writing about it. This was just what a I needed to read.

    • Caroline

      I love this post, I feel like I’ve written it myself and I haven’t even completed my undergraduate degree yet.

    • tonjiboy

      sounds like you had a rough time of it. i don’t envy the experience but at least it gave you some direction and now you’re in a place you’d rather be.

      still, i’ve got to wonder if you’ve also missed an opportunity to live like all these fat cat teachers i keep reading about. you could be living large(?)

      holla!

      keep writing. you made the (w)right choice. or the (w)rite choice. whatever.

    • Mrs P.

      I’m a second career teacher and if it wasn’t this late in the game….
      I’m online, so I won’t comment further.
      God bless you for being honest.
      Any teachers are FAR from being ‘fat cats.’ Fat cats don’t buy supplies out of their own pocket or take 7% pay cuts after earning a Master’s degree in Education.

    • Luckyangel

      Thank you for this post. I’ve been teaching 27 years enjoyed 22 years of it. Whoever thinks teachers are fat cats is crazy. I’ve been teaching 27 years and make $50,000 which is entry level salary for most jobs that require a college education. People I know that make more money than me and have worked 5 years or less at their job: an associate at Enterprise Car Rental, a cashier at a grocery store with a good union (the secret? Overtime pay and there’s always over time!), a Nail tech at a high level salon (this includes underdeclared tips) and sideman musicians.(firends fill in at 2 to 3 gigs a weekend at $350-$500 a pop)

      So teaching will not make you rich. I now regret my career because before we got respect but no more. We’re greedy cheaters who hate God and rip pictures of Jesus in half in front of the class. (you’ll hear this on Christian talk radio or Rush Limbaugh etc. ) I’m a Christian but I work at an ungodly secular school..etc. I digress. Thank you for your honesty. I can relate….And..you are a great writer.

    • Charley

      I am guessing that tonjiboy was either being sarcastic or possibly referring to the school administrators here in Arizona who are getting rich off of the pension system. (http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2011/03/22/20110322phoenix-isaac-superintendent-carlos-bejarano.html)

      It is an unfortunate issue.

    • Stephanie Zhao

      That sounds horrible! I’m extremely grateful, now, of my wonderful middle school.

    • Destiny

      Great post, but sorry to hear about how crap that job was. I coach high school kids in a wealthy area and it doesn’t change a thing. Parents are still uninvolved or too bothered to care about something their child actually loves to do! There are those golden parents, the wonderful exceptions, but getting true support is a total drag.

      Teaching is actually something I vowed I’d never do and now I’m finding it hard to stop. I’m moving to NYC next year and the kind of team I coach doesn’t exist up there. I’m thinking I can’t give it up now, so I might have to start a team when I move there. But then…maybe I should use the change as a vehicle to try something else I enjoy (writing, directing, etc…).

      Anyways…great post!

    • Tobi

      Been there, done that. I completely feel ya’. I taught for several years and now people constantly ask me if I’ll go back. Probably not.

    • KC

      I could have written this post. I tried teaching for two and a half years and after my second teaching job where I was (again) waking up sobbing at the thought of going to school, I finally quit. I too have a degree in English education and I will never go back to teaching. I actually chose to be unemployed rather than keep teaching because I was just that miserable. The majority of my stress came from no discipline plan at the school so my students could say or do whatever they wanted with no consequences, and the incredible importance placed on the state standardized test. I literally can’t even think about education without getting worked up about it. I’m now 23 and looking for another career, preferably something with books, reading or writing. I completely regret getting an education degree and wish I could do it all over.

    • David

      I’m glad you’re gone.

    • David Ainley

      Glad you’re gone.

    • empathy

      Wow, I love to hear that there are people who are going through the exact same thing I am. I hate teaching. It is terrible and it is not worth it. Life is too short to dedicate yourself to trying to make up for the mistakes of other parents.

      Wouldn’t it be great if we could look around and say, “They’re all God’s children and they’re perfect”? They’re not. It is not their fault—their parents should have never given birth to children.

      But I’ve given up on these kids. I don’t care anymore. Yes, they are children with unlimited potential. Parents can be potential cappers for their children. They determine their futures. These children have no future. We’re fooling ourselves. We should be like China and require abortions.

      After all, what’s the point? Seriously, WHAT IS THE M(#U)(#* F(*#$( point?

      • Andre

        Sorry to hear that you feel like this, but it’s never too late to change.

    • Empathy

      By the way, David Ainley, you’re a helluva person. I bet you’re the like the best teacher ever! I bet you touch kids, too.

    • iknowdude

      wow. ur article’s refreshing (and more), considering i’m going through the same thing, except i really love some parts of teaching (getting to know the kids, my good and bad experiences with them, etc). it’s just that i love to write, too. it is my first and one true love and i will continue pursuing that dream no matter how many people will try to discourage me, so all i can say is: keep it up, man. pursue your dream! maybe when you’ve reached that star, you’ll become a writing teacher after a few years? :D

    • Justin

      I taught for nine years. I hated it so much I would drive to school white-knuckled from gripping the steering wheel so hard. Many of my students were apathetic, disengaged, and more interested in their Iphones than in class. I was constantly blamed for their poor performance. I have resigned after coming to the place where I am unwilling to be blamed for the refusal to work on the part of lazy and irresponsible kids. Public education is a farce, a fraud, and most school administrators and school officials know this yet they perpetrate the fraud at the tax payers expense. I will never go back to teaching. There are easier ways to earn $50, 000 per year than abuse, disrespect, and useless meeting after meeting and mounds of pointless paperwork. I’m a JANITOR now and I get more respect than I did as a teacher. I would never encourage a young person to teach. The profession is dead. The politicians and policy makers killed it. If you are 19 and idealistic, get into another profession. If you want to be a state-financed high-priced baby sitter for arrogant and spoiled talentless teenagers then be a teacher.

    • Another abused teacher

      Unfortunately, I’m in the same situation: over-aged junior high school kids reading several grades below grade level, fighting, cursing, constant chaos…
      I think today was another ‘aha’ moment. Not the exciting kind when a kid learns something; the ‘aha’ moment when a kid brings a knife into the classroom, but that’s not the most pressing issue. So, a-ha, because I’m the sucker who is in danger and ha ha because no one cares. No one cares until someone gets stabbed. There is no discipline at school and deadbeat parents don’t do sh-t. The problem in society is lazy, ignorant, loser parents that don’t give a rat’s a@@ about their kids. So of course us teachers get blamed for these loser, deadbeat parents’ lack of concern and support for their kids. Good job society, for vilifying teachers for circumstances waaay out of our control, as in several years out of our control.