Why I Left Teaching
Why asking the wrong questions in education can have negative impacts on both students and teachers.
I hail from a family of educators. Both of my grandparents were career teachers, and my father has been a college professor for almost 40 years. However, I didn’t become a teacher because it was a family tradition. I became a teacher because I believe education is the greatest tool by which people can become empowered to lead lives worth living, and for us as a country to create a more beautiful society. It was in service of this goal that I decided to dedicate my life to the power of education.
As an energetic and optimistic 22-year old, I entered my Kindergarten classroom in Denver, Colorado with dreams for my students: that they would be empowered, fulfilled, and flourishing individuals. If I could teach them the knowledge, beliefs, and character that would help them create good lives and contribute to a more beautiful society, I would have succeeded as an educator. I never would have predicted that a short three years later I would wonder if I were actually doing more harm than good.
"If I could teach them the knowledge, beliefs, and character that would help them create good lives and contribute to a more beautiful society, I would have succeeded as an educator. I never would have predicted that a short three years later I would wonder if I were actually doing more harm than good."
The story of my student Alex is a good example of why I was concerned. Alex was a joyful, silly, and immensely kind 5-year old. He had many wonderful qualities: he was always the first one to comfort an upset peer; he was a beautiful artist; he was ridiculously curious about cars. Alex was also younger than his Kindergarten peers, and therefore struggled to keep up academically. While he arrived at school exuberant about learning, as his first year in the schooling system progressed, he became more withdrawn and demotivated. His sense of self worth and excitement for school were visibly dampened as he internalized more and more the messages the system (and me, his teacher) sent about his worth, which were singularly focused on one goal: his academic achievement in comparison to his peers. He tried to catch up at first, but developmentally he was not ready. So, while he entered as an enthusiastic learner, by the end of the year Alex would put his head down during reading time, throw his pencil on the floor, and come to say he hated school. It broke my heart, and made me seriously question what I believed about schooling.
As a teacher, I was told that if I wanted my students to do well in life I had to ensure they were reading on grade level. I was told that a good teacher makes sure their students pass their tests with flying colors, otherwise we were depriving them of their future opportunity. If kids didn’t read by 3rd grade, then they were more likely to drop out of school and stay in poverty, so the most important thing was to get them to pass the reading tests by all means necessary! I bought in: I loved those kids and wanted nothing more than to contribute in a positive way to their journey.
"This relentlessly narrow focus not only warped my understanding of my work and the purpose of school, but it in turn affected how my students felt valued for their worth as learners and as humans."
But in buying in, my beautiful question - How can I help empower my students to lead good lives? – became distorted and narrowed into the question of – How can I help my students perform well on their tests? Everything in the system was designed to reach these narrowed ends – the curriculum, the accountability framework, and my perceived value as an educator. This relentlessly narrow focus not only warped my understanding of my work and the purpose of school, but it in turn affected how my students felt valued for their worth as learners and as humans.
"Upon deeper reflection, I should have noticed that Alex was “at-risk” of leading a life devoid of meaning and happiness. He was at-risk of developing harmful thoughts about himself, his worth, and his self-efficacy."
This has to stop. In schools, we don’t ask the most important questions. During our parent-teacher conference, I never asked Alex’s parents, “What do you want for Alex in his life? What would be a good life for him?” I never told them, “Your child has these beautiful strengths as a human – he is kind and curious and a remarkably skilled artist.” Rather, I repeatedly told them how he was “below grade level” and “at-risk”. But I have to ask: At-risk for what? For dropping out of school? For living paycheck to paycheck? Upon deeper reflection, I should have noticed that Alex was “at-risk” of leading a life devoid of meaning and happiness. He was at-risk of developing harmful thoughts about himself, his worth, and his self-efficacy. What kind of questions should we be asking in education? Read this thought piece from my co-founder, Erin.
Yes - learning knowledge and skills in school is undoubtedly important. Alex’s ability to read will certainly impact his life potentialities. However, his academic “achievement” will not solely guarantee him a good life. In fact, if we want kids to flourish in the future, or to be complex problem solvers, or creative, or collaborative – the best way to ensure this is by giving them opportunities to practice those capacities, beliefs, and character traits daily in the classroom rather than myopically focusing on passing the test or reaching some predetermined ends of “achievement”.
I left teaching to pursue graduate degrees in education and public policy because I couldn’t figure out why my students weren’t thriving and it ate away at me. Why, despite all of my efforts, and all my love for them, did they seem farther away from those big dreams I had for them when I entered teaching?
The answer: the schooling system is not asking the right questions, nor is it designed for the right aims. So, I’d like to ask: How might we empower our children to lead good lives and work with others to create a more beautiful society? Imagine if we started our conversations about school design, policy, and research with these questions instead of “How do we make sure kids excel on their tests?”. The questions we ask shape the possible answers we dream of. Reflecting on the more beautiful questions as a country could very well change everything: the messages we send, and in effect the lives we create, for Alex and the millions of other curious, exuberant, and kind children in our schools today.