An anonymous story as told to Todd Smekens
When you grow up with a father who was a pastor, you learn the meaning of service to your community at a very early age. In our house, my dad taught us inclusivity. Everyone was welcome and treated as equals. I didn’t have an idea what I wanted to be when I grew up because I was too busy competing in sports and learning.
My athletic endeavors and passion for learning opened up doors in college. While attending college, I got to further explore my passion for the sciences while competing in sports. I was a long distance runner and taught others about the sport. Even though I hadn’t made a decision on a career, I knew I wanted to pass along my passion for the sciences to others. A pathway toward teaching didn’t open up until graduate school when I was required to teach at the university.
I began my teaching and coaching career in Iowa and moved throughout the Midwest. While not really pertinent to my decision in leaving teaching, I did notice one recurring theme in my travels throughout the Midwest. After I became comfortable in the community, my students, parents and even administrators would be more open with me. Some of the comments I heard were inappropriate. Racism was prevalent in many of the schools. I did try to correct this behavior when I heard it from the students. Several of them would comment back, “We thought you were one of us!”
Facing racist attitudes has been a frustration for me my entire life, and it has not disappeared with a change in careers.
Because of societal changes in teaching, discipline wasn’t allowed in many schools. Students had the attitude they were in charge and knew the teachers and administrators were powerless. Sending a student to the principal’s office was really no big deal for them. It certainly wasn’t causing them to alter or improve their behaviors. It was a daily challenge with some students which was a distraction from my time with other students.
Administrators were being challenged by their superiors to meet district/school requirements and thresholds. These goals were then passed along to teachers. At times, I was being asked to give specific grades to students who didn’t deserve them, and pass others who didn’t understand the subject. It was a struggle for me ethically. I believe in setting high goals, but I also want the resource needed to achieve them. I also wasn’t asked for input on setting the goals which was very disappointing.
I enjoyed both teaching and coaching, but the personal and professional pressures were starting to mount. I began looking around at my peers. Teachers with decades of experience in the field were unhappy, and their physical bodies were showing the signs of stress. At one point, I began working with two mentors with over 20+ teaching experience each. They both looked much older than they were. I began asking myself, “Is this worth it?”. They were literally sacrificing their own health for their career. This became a nagging question that I would repeat to myself. I guess you could say that I began to doubt my career choice.
I would spend some summers preparing for the upcoming school year, and because of the regulatory demands during the school year, I found myself in the classroom long after the kids had gone home. As a parent of young kids, my time at home was precious to me. I wanted to read to my children and be their positive role model, but teaching and coaching consumed too much time. Not just the teaching, but the preparation and lesson plans. It was becoming more about the process than actually teaching the kids.
I didn’t want to spend all my time doing lesson plans–I wanted to teach kids how to work with scientific theory and experimentation. You don’t tell kids about the sciences; you let them experience it. I found my role as teacher slipping further and further away from what I envisioned it being. The administrators weren’t pushing me too hard–I wasn’t comfortable completing all the necessary documentation. It felt like I had to justify or explain why I taught in a certain manner. I’d rather they come and observe for themselves.
Early in the last school year that I taught full time, our principal came to me asking that I rework all the lesson plans I had created for the classes I was teaching. He wanted it done a specific way which contradicted how I was trained. I was being required to submit full plans every single day that included specific target goals, and what I would do if the goals were not met.
The nagging question came back and it felt like I was swimming against the current. All the challenges and obstacles in teaching were coming together. I enjoyed teaching and loved the kids. However, the racism, hours in the classroom, more time preparation, time away from my family, all were working against my passion.
Do I make the changes or walk away from teaching? Was my situation going to improve, or would it stay the same? The experienced teachers looked tired and many were retiring early.
After I made the decision to leave teaching, I worked with my principal and chose a date after he found a replacement for me for the remainder of the school year.
That was my last day of teaching in a public school. With my athletic experience, I decided to explore massage therapy and serve others by relieving their stress. I also get the opportunity to teach massage therapy to adults, so I am still using the same principles, just in a different setting. Have I given up going back into the classroom to teach kids about science?
I’m leaving the door open by substitute teaching on occasion. I’m keeping an open mind, and will be very selective. I live in a smaller community south of Muncie and will help that school district when I can. I’ve enjoyed massage therapy because it allows me to spend more time with my family and work.
Todd: Father, journalist, and entrepreneur with a passion for truth-seeking. Enjoy motorcycling the Midwest, reading, and spending quality time with my daughter. Wellness advocate with a graduate degree in organizational leadership.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.