Retiring from Education

It is with a heavy heart, and nervousness over the future, that I’m announcing my retirement from public education.

I have been a teacher for 17 years. It has brought me great joy, a sense of purpose, a feeling of satisfaction, some awards, and many great friends. It also contributed to me missing a fair amount of my own kids’ growing up because I couldn’t … or wouldn’t … pull back from the school kids to attend to my own, something for which I am deeply regretful.

I was 39 years old when I decided to become a high school English teacher. I had a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in liberal studies, where I focused on creative writing. I was working as the public relations director for Oklahoma City University when I began studying for the alternative certification tests because I felt like I wasn’t contributing anything worthwhile to the world.

My now ex-wife supported me in a decision to leave a secure full-time job to become a substitute teacher in the fall of 2006 after several principals told me my lack of experience was a concern. Just before Christmas break that year, I got hired to teach English at Western Heights High School beginning in January 2007.

It wasn’t easy. I was 40 years old with no experience other than substitute work. The school was on block schedule at the time, so I had groups of kids for 80 minutes. I taught a remedial 9th grade English I class, a science fiction literature class, creative writing, and non-fiction. I was in over my head, but did the best I could.

After a year and a half (and a summer workshop) I began teaching Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, and I was in love with my job. I had other classes, too, but it was the AP Lit class that brought me joy. I taught that subject for 10 years. That same year, we staged a coup and ousted the department chair. I had the highest degree in the department, so I was made the new chair, a position I held until my final year.

Most of this is in my memoir, You Want to Do What? Lessons I’ve Learned as a Teacher. What isn’t in there are most of the mistakes I made and how arrogant I became. For instance, where I needed classroom management, I substituted comedy, usually crude jokes, in an effort to hold the kids’ attention. I became the teacher who might say anything, and, while many students loved it, that was offensive to some. I came to believe I was almost irreplaceable at school because I was the English AP program, the Student Council sponsor, and the department chairman. Meanwhile, I felt unwanted at home. I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I made mistakes, both professionally and personally, and forever changed the course of my life. One of those mistakes was resigning from Western Heights in protest of how the administration handled the teacher walkout in 2018, but I was sure that I was so good that other districts would salivate over hiring me.

Since leaving Western Heights, I have not been at the same school for more than one year (actually one year and nine weeks at Epic). There are various reasons for that, some my fault and some not. I think back to the end of my machine shop career, when I left a job I’d been at for seven years and ended up bouncing from shop to shop, afraid to acknowledge that the problem was that my time in that field had simply ended. Maybe it’s the same here. There have been good moments and good kids at each stop over the last several years, but the joy has faded to the point that it’s just gone.

As I look at taking early retirement and wondering what I’ll do next (because the retirement pay sure won’t cover all the bills!), I’m trying hard to focus on the positive memories. There were the Tom for President campaigns, the AP Lit tapestries, Student Council activities, the boy who became a reader after we read The Exorcist in his English IV class. The Teacher of the Year and Mentor of the Year awards. Pranks kids played on me, like stacking all the desks in a corner and acting like reading on the floor was normal, or moving them to the walls and taping two girls together in the middle of the room while I was out for lunch. The “Avengers of Blows” at Westmoore High School still make me smile. Who would have guessed “The Little Match Girl” would have such an impact on four teenage boys? And there was going viral with my open letter in 2016, something that in the end only added to my hubris. Lots and lots of little things, memories and mementos given to me by kids over the years, will always be treasured.

Despite the fear and sadness, there is a sense of relief. Teaching is hard. It’s exhausting, and you never leave the job behind when you come home. I hope I made a positive difference in some lives. I hope some kids will remember me as their favorite teacher. I hope they learned something from me. This year, teaching middle school, has been the hardest of my career, and I don’t know if it’s the age group or my own burnout. I just know it’s time to leave.

I don’t know what’s next. I have a few months to figure it out. I hope I can find a new purpose.

2 responses to “Retiring from Education”

  1. You have been such a pivotal influence…not just on kids, but the people that have worked with you and admired your abilities over the years. The education system is losing a true treasure this year. I hope the next chapter of your book fills you will total joy.

    1. Thank you, Guin. For most of my career I poured everything I had into teaching and helping kids. There are some out there now reframing that to fit a totally false narrative … But that’s a post for another time.

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