In the first of a series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins describes her own choice to leave the teaching profession.
Among the ranks of Colorado transplants, conversation inevitably includes “Where are you from? What brought you to Colorado?” Along with the opportunity to brag on my alma mater, I get to share the experience that helped shape my identity and goals. “I am from Michigan; I moved to Colorado to join Teach for America; and I left the classroom after three years.”
Most people smile, nod, and change the topic. A few enthusiastic ones share their own passion for education.
Then there are those who are disgusted, naming me one of “those people,” selfish enough to leave the classroom before 35 years have passed. Unfortunately, they say, I left the classroom 32 years before completing my job.
Unfortunately, I say, the current education system does not adequately support teachers to reach and sustain excellence. In other words, within the existing system, I could not “complete the job” I had envisioned. Despite my pride in my students’ results and my development, I was unable to close the achievement gap in my classroom, regardless of weekends worked, feedback implemented, and interventions administered. I was no longer willing to be part of a system that demanded my best but failed to support me to strategically work towards extraordinary student achievement.
During my three years of teaching in two schools in the Denver Public Schools system, my eyes were opened to another factor that contributed to me leaving the classroom. I could not, and still cannot, believe the differences between schools within a single district. One school strove for order and excellence; the other was steeped in chaos and apathy.
My own efforts in the classroom could never change the fact that children all over the district, state, and country could spend all day in school, not learning. I needed to step out of the classroom, into a role where I could work relentlessly towards equalizing the system, giving students the opportunities that all children deserve. I left the classroom, but there is no way that I could leave education. I remain committed to the kids in the system and stand firm in my decision to work to improve their outcomes in other ways.
Now, after only a few months in the education policy world, I see that realizing an equal education system is a daunting task. In the classroom, my actions could directly lead to 33 students learning at a pace that would make up for previous gaps. Outside the classroom, it takes a certain amount of tenacity and political acumen to strive towards system-level solutions that may not show immediate victories. The reforms around standards, educator evaluations, testing, and turnarounds are crucial for eventual system improvement. As a former teacher, however, I want to see action that not only measures but improves the quality of teachers.
As a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, I plan to write an ongoing blog because I want to widen the conversation around how we recruit, train, and support teachers. I want to see teacher involvement in the policy world expand, allowing educators to contribute to progressive, meaningful solutions that will dramatically improve outcomes for kids. In the coming months, I plan to raise questions, explore research, propose solutions, and encourage conversations that will promote educational equity by focusing on those who are closest to our students every single day: our teachers.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.