When I left the corporate world some dozen years ago during yet another corporate merger, I thought I’d enjoy some time to “find myself” while living nicely off my severance package and unemployment. I enjoyed the first month, and was even available to babysit a friend’s daughter when she went back to work. I’d drive 20 minutes every morning to her house, get the older one off to school, and bring the little one back to my house. Most days, I’d get some laundry done, get dinner made ahead of time, play outside or at a park with the little one, maybe even run an errand or two (if she wasn’t too cranky) and then I’d drop her off home at the same time her oldest was getting out of school and her shift was ending.
Except for the early morning wake ups, since I’ve never been a morning person, my stint in faux “motherhood” was pretty easy breezy. Even lemon squeezy. It wasn’t until several years later, after the birth of twins, and at the start of a career change that I would come to know what real exhaustion was. It would take a few years to fully understand how hard motherhood really was. Especially when you throw in being a teacher.
I had agreed to “be a teacher” at the request of my former home economics teacher who had retirement on the near horizon. She had asked me about turning to teaching when I was still raking in the “big bucks” in my corporate management position. I couldn’t fathom leaving that behind to live off a teacher’s salary. A career for the sake of a large income has never been a draw for me but having grown up on the bottom half of the lower working class, financial security WAS important. To leave that security net, and a pretty plush job, albeit boring at times, was unimaginable. I smiled nicely and told her again how great of a teacher she was, having inspired me to go into the food service industry, but politely laughed off any notion of teaching.
Then there was the merger, the second one I had lived through, and the new company coming in was less than reputable, and so, I had my loophole: they had misrepresented the expectations of my job and I was able to walk away with a pretty nice severance package, even though they had essentially offered me the same job.
I thought I’d start my own catering company or something equitable once I enjoyed the time off. Instead, just a few months in to my unemployment, I got a call from my old high school asking if I had any interest in being a paraprofessional. Very long story short (more of that to come later), I ended up being a para in the Special Ed department, earning only a quarter of what I had in my previous job, and after three years, left while pregnant with twins.
Not exactly financial stability…
Although some may not have seen it this way, I was blessed to be able to stay home for the first year and half of my daughters’ lives, thanks to generosity of family and friends. I suffered sleepless nights and breast feeding twins. I thought I knew what physical, emotional and mental exhaustion was. I’d be proven wrong.
I was eventually called yet again by my old home ec teacher, this time, she was officially retiring. I submitted my resume but honestly, didn’t want to leave my girls. I actually almost threw my interview, maybe less subconsciously than I first thought, by answering the old question honestly: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I replied that I’d like to have my own cafe by then. I was told in hushed tones afterwards that maybe I should keep that part of my plan to myself. Needless to say, I still got the job. My husband was relieved as there would be a steady income again but I was already hesitant.
I have to point out that I didn’t attend university to be a teacher. I’m a trained chef and business management major. Yet I had worked with teenagers for almost 10 years as a youth leader and my three years as a para worked in my favor. Taking the teacher’s licensure test was far easier than I had been warned and within a few months, I was the master of my own classroom. I spent the last month of that summer decorating bulletin boards, discarding old supplies and getting everything just so.
For the first two to three years, I did pretty well. I still had much to learn but I had classroom management, my teaching “style”, my content and my lesson plans under control. I refused to bring work home to grade as I wanted to keep my home just that: my home. The place where I’d be cognizant of my family and spend time with them.
Somewhere along the way, the lines were blurred and the overwhelming work load that started piling on from state mandates and improvement factors and professional goals and evaluation binders and common assessments and rubrics and technology implementation took over my life. I no longer felt that when I left the school building, I could turn off that part of my day. Emails still came in from parents, students and department heads. They expected us to work when sick, enter grades with a head swimming from sinus infection meds, take only two extra days off after being released from the hospital for meningitis (most likely caught from the untreated cases of MRSA at the school) and generally be on around the clock.
As a classic introvert, just being in front of a live audience, aka my classes, was enough to make me want to crawl into bed and shut the world out at the end of the day. Add in the added pressures and constant need for “professional improvement”, and there’s no wonder there’s more and more people leaving the profession than entering it.
No one ever told me that I’d be so exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. No one ever told me that I’d be up many nights worrying if my students would get food that they need, or if they were lying about their grandmother dying to get an extra day on their projects. No one ever told me that I’d have to be on the look out for every minor scrape, signs of neglect, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, self-inflicted or perpetrated) and that if I missed something, I would be held liable.
No one ever told me that if I looked at a student the wrong way (as in, my normal face), I may set a student with mental health issues off and they’d be pissed at me for the next month. No one ever told me to look for signs of drug abuse (which look alot like a normal tired teenager who hasn’t slept the night before). And that if I got this wrong, I could be sued by their parent.
No one ever told me that teachers are no long respected, not by the students, the parents or administration. No one ever told me that I’d have to account for every moment of every day in 15 minute increments. No one ever told me that I’d have to eat my lunch, pee, make photo copies, grade papers, return emails, and a phone call all in 20 minutes. No one ever told me that the stress would get so bad, that many rely on anti depressants and anxiety medications. No one ever told me that the older my kids got, the more they’d realize that I spend less time with them, and more time having to take care of other people’s kids. No one ever told me that my immune system would become so weakened by the black mold in the old building, the constant germs being passed around the building and the sheer volume of demands on me that I’d barely be able to fight the common cold without being laid up for days on end. And no one ever told me that some days, it’s totally worth it.
But those days are far and few between and the stress keeps piling up. Even though I left the corporate world, the “real world” that I’m suppose to be preparing my students for, I’ve now been subject to the make believe, makes no sense, nothing is ever good enough world of academia. Some days, it’s just not worth it. Not the schedule, not the financial stability, not the impact on another’s life.
No one ever prepared me for the fact that the last eight years have flown by and my five year plan would never come to fruition. No one ever told me that if I didn’t make a change, and make it soon, I’d be thirty years in, my kids would be grown, and I’d have to live on only 60% of my pension. With nothing to show for it except empty bottles of pain medication and bags under my eyes.
And so, I’m telling you. Don’t make that same mistake. If you go into education, make sure you’re all in. But don’t sacrifice your family, your health or your mental well being to do so. Let the system change instead of you changing because of the messed up system. Someday, I might even return to education. But until that day, and until those changes are implemented, my time as a teacher might be coming to an earlier end than my predecessor. And that’s the worst part of all.