Where it all started.

Here is the Facebook post that started it all. In hindsight, I might have worded things a little differently, but that was my truth at the time, and I’m not going to edit or gloss over the truth.

Why I’m Leaving Teaching

“What are you going to do next year?” everyone keeps asking me.

“Oh, you know, probably travel around. I’ve been meaning to take some time off and travel for a while, so I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing, but I know I want to take some time off.

It’s not that I don’t want to teach, you know - I love it, and this school and the staff are so great! I just want to take some time off.”

I’ve had this same conversation over and over again, especially within the past week, where it was officially announced that I would not be returning as a kindergarten teacher at my school. But the more I repeated it, the more uncomfortable I felt with saying it, especially as the past week got tougher and tougher.

Was I lying? Was I really, only taking time off because I wanted to travel?

Or was I actually burned out? Was I exhausted? Didn’t I feel inadequate as a teacher? Didn’t I feel like I was constantly failing? That I wasn’t cut out for this job? That, compared to everyone else, I was just crashing and burning?

I did crash and burn today, though. Today is Thursday - the Thursday of the first full week of school since the long, winter break. I cried in front of my students today. I cried through lunch today. I went home and cried on my bed. And then I went to a park and cried. Then I drove to H-E-B to get popcorn for our popcorn party tomorrow, and I cried in the parking lot some more.

Perhaps I’ve been lying to everyone. Perhaps I’ve been lying to everyone because I’m quitting my job - a job I’m leaving because I felt crushed and defeated by the very educational system I wished to change.

I feel defeated. I feel angry for the students I wasn’t able to reach. I feel guilty because perhaps I should have tried more and fought harder. I feel weak because I see so many other incredibly strong, passionate educators pushing through.

Most of all, though, I feel frustrated for teachers. Not because of the long hours, the lack of resources, or the fact that you can never, truly clock-out of your job. But because of the silence and stifling of teachers’ voices, their struggles, their needs, and their mental health.

“It is never enough”

Walk into any training, professional development, or meeting for teachers. It always begins with ice breakers about why you teach, writing a “quote” that keeps you motivated to work those long hours, inspirational stories about how teachers should always be growing and striving to be better.

I understand why this exists. When burnout comes, we do need this motivation to continue.

The problem is, the narrative around teaching - in meetings, in social media, in our minds, and in every second and action of every day - consistently revolves around the fact that teachers are never doing enough.

Content meetings revolve around changing and adding to the curriculum that we are using to make it even better to meet our students’ needs - how us as teachers will improve our teaching, make new materials and resources, and squeeze in more instruction into an already challenging 45 minute reading block for kindergarteners.

Social media - instagram, pinterest, teachers pay teachers - tells us we need to add more centers, spend $1000 on IKEA furniture, and buy, print, laminate and cut countless resources on our own dime and our own time in order to be great teachers.

And throughout our day - every interaction with every child reveals one more thing to add to our list. This student has walked in crying every day this week. Hmm, this student seems to have mastered all this content - I need to create alternative lessons to differentiate and push her. This challenging behavior is increasing - I need to make a new behavior plan. This student still doesn’t know her letters yet - I need to find time during my planning to pull him for intervention. This student hasn’t brought in a backpack in a week - I need to go to Goodwill to get one for him.

It’s overwhelming, and understandably, just part of the job. We do always need to grow. There’s always more that we can do for our students. Becoming better is undoubtedly an integral part of being an educator - it should and always be.

But it cannot be all that we are. We cannot be defined by what we are not doing. We cannot look at ourselves in the mirror and see endless to-do lists, stacks of papers to grade, dozens of lessons to internalize, goals and percentages we need to meet. We cannot solely be defined by how we need to be better.

We are not alone

Being an educator has been a huge part of my identity the past three years. Probably, at times, too much so. Depression and anxiety have played a large role in my teaching career, and most of my mental dialogue surrounding my identity as an educator has involved inadequacy and failure.

Where I’ve struggled the most, I think, is feeling like I am alone in this. That I’m the only one struggling. Loneliness only exacerbates the feeling of failure, because the only worse thing than failing, is being the only one who has failed.

But I know I’m not alone. There’s absolutely no way I could be.

Yet teachers’ voices and their health are stifled for our mission. We silence our struggles for the sake of staying “positive”. We suppress our exhaustion to keep our students motivated. We swallow pills and medicine when we’re sick so our students don’t lose an instructional day. We shrink our evenings, weekends and breaks to “get ahead”, only to find ourselves struggling to stay afloat by the next week. We are constantly stripping or hiding pieces of ourselves until we are, simply, educators - educators that are never doing enough.

Let’s change the dialogue

So let’s change the dialogue. Let’s talk about how we’re struggling. Let’s talk about who we are outside of our classroom. Let’s cry together, laugh together, and show each other that we are not defined solely by what we can do better, but by how incredibly powerful and inspirational we already are.

This is why I’m quitting teaching. I’m not defeated by this system. I have not failed. I’m simply going to find another way to make some change.

At the end of this school year, I’m packing up, getting in my car, and driving around the USA to get to know teachers around the country. If you are interested in talking, or know anyone who would like to contribute/bounce ideas around this project, please let me know!

Victoria Wang