As I rolled into the school parking lot, I ran through the day’s to-do list in my head.
I have to submit data from two recent tests, fill out two data reflection forms, start progress reports and complete the SEL survey about each of my 23 kindergarteners.
I hope no behavioral concerns arise, because if I can avoid a parent phone call I might be able to get some of this done—well, that is if I do a virtual assignment during social studies.
Oh, shoot. I just remembered I have a training during my planning period today. I actually can’t get much of this done.
It’s Friday, and I’ve still not prepped for next week. I’m going to be forced to work through the weekend again.
I took a deep breath to slow my racing heart as I parked the car, still mentally working through the busy—but not out of the ordinary—day ahead. What am I teaching today? With a to-do list this long, do I even have time to teach?
This is how the last year of teaching went for me. As I sized up each day, hardly anything on my to-do list involved nurturing and guiding my kindergarteners. I was always completing tasks for other people—school leadership, district leadership, state officials—at the expense of the students in my care.
Reaching a Boiling Point
With 15 minutes before and after the bell to plan and less than three hours of weekly prep, I’ve never really had enough time to meet the requirements of my job, even before the pandemic. In North Carolina, where I live, teachers are paid for “show time” with students, but there is little regard—and certainly no reward—for the hours of unpaid preparation and lesson planning it takes to keep a classroom running.
I have always put in extra hours outside of the school day. It’s just a reality of the job. But when schools returned fully in person for the 2021-22 school year, my workload increased dramatically. At every level, education leaders were panicking about the lack of information around student achievement since the pandemic began. And it felt like their fingers were pointed at us—the teachers—as the reason test scores have dropped, rather than the once-in-a-century pandemic that turned education upside down for the last three school years.
School boards have kicked things into overdrive to make up for lost time. Teachers have been accosted with endless professional development training, increased testing, and frequent surveys. There’s always been a degree of this in education as the pendulum swings back and forth, but last year, it reached a boiling point.
Attending weekly team planning meetings made me anxious, because usually, that’s where we would learn of the latest effort leadership had come up with. Most of these “solutions” came with hours of training and meetings that ate into my planning time.
There was the NCELI (N.C. early learning inventory), an entirely new grading system for my students—but only for kindergarten and not aligned to the criteria included on the report cards we sent home. Then there was the district social-emotional learning survey, used to quantify the mental health and well-being of children in the district. But since my students were too young to complete it for themselves, I had to do it for them, basically guessing the status of their mental health so that my district could prove that its investment in SEL was working.
Later, it was data reflections on every assessment I gave in class, regardless of the size, scope or whether the whole class had aced it or not.
All of these endeavors—and more—would end up being onerous and time-intensive, stealing from mine and my colleagues’ chance to focus our attention on our students. I lost so much valuable time to futile paperwork.
Teaching With a Broken Heart
They say teaching is “a work of the heart,” and indeed, it is. But it became increasingly difficult to love that work as my heart hardened last year, and as all the bits of joy I once felt from my job were chipped away.
I hated who I was becoming. I was the disgruntled employee during planning meetings arguing against the endless workload. I felt frustrated during staff meetings by inspirational videos shown to get me to “buy in” to the same type of tasks that put me in a bad mood in the first place. I felt grumpy around my students as I ducked behind my laptop, sneaking five minutes here and there to complete miscellaneous work. I felt guilty as I shooed my students away, knowing that what they really deserved was my undivided attention. Instead, once again, they worked on their iPads at the end of the day so I could hope to get it all done. My heart ached as I swapped out favorite classroom activities and traditions for ones that required less prep, hoping the kids wouldn’t notice.
In short, I felt trapped. Here I was, 10 years into my career, grinding as hard as I was in my first few years in the classroom. I used to justify the hours, trusting my hard work would pay off down the road. Now I was just stressed, angry and deeply resentful. All the extra hours were going toward meaningless tasks. The joy I’d once felt in my job was so fleeting. My heart was no longer in it. How could it be, when my kindergarteners had become almost an afterthought? On top of that, teacher pay had stalled out in North Carolina. The message was clear: I’m not valued or wanted here.
When you’re in the business of helping young children shine, you can convince yourself that it’s OK to disregard your own needs. I brushed aside the feeling that I’m not valued by my state for a long time. But this toughest year came on the back of many tough years, forcing me to see that I might actually have had enough.
In 2011, my district extended the school day by 45 minutes without raising teacher pay. When I started in 2012, making just over $34,000, there was a pay freeze for teachers who were in their first five years on the job. In 2013, North Carolina got rid of master’s pay increases. In 2014, the teacher pay scale was overhauled, eliminating longevity pay. It has barely been touched again since then.
The issue of teacher pay prevented North Carolina from passing a budget from 2017 to 2022. In 2018 and 2019, teachers in my state were ready to strike. Somehow, during the last three school years, we determined it would be selfish to advocate for ourselves in the face of a pandemic.
All this time, I voted, advocated and participated to make change, but as I reached the 10-year anniversary of my career in teaching—earning less than $52,000 and still another decade away from hitting $60,000—I realized I needed to get myself out before this job took all of me.
It wasn’t about the money, but the pay certainly did nothing to help soften the blow of an increasingly polarizing field and a job that constantly demands you find ways to do more with less.
I worked at an amazing school that valued me, but even the best administrators could not shield me from politics, the pandemic and everything else that teachers have carried these past few years.
After 10 years of trying, my heart was broken. I realized it was time to move on, to try to leave my mark some other way. I put in my resignation and won’t be going back.