Teacher Resignation Letters Show Why Public School Teachers (Myself Included) Quit

I became a conservative after a year teaching 4th grade at a public school in the inner city. Before that, I probably would have said I was a liberal. I wasn’t really interested in politics, but all my friends were liberals, so I figured I must be one too.

When I got my teacher’s license, the first thing I did was go looking for the most challenging teaching situation I could find. I had just completed a two-year Masters program at a prestigious teaching school in New York City and was filled with idealism, determination, and a cocky conviction that I would succeed where so many others had failed. (Think Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.) 

I was a bit of a rarity — a young, well-educated, idealistic teacher who had come to this failing school of her own accord, not through some program like Teach for America, or the New York City Teaching Fellows. Unlike teachers who, through such programs, had gone straight from college to the classroom, I had a philosophy behind me, a method of teaching, knowledge about child development and how kids learn, and a year of assistant teaching under my belt.

But it was that education and knowledge, bumping up against a failing school system that did me in. When I quit after just one year and went to teach in a private school (a fact I’m not proud of, but which I know without a doubt maintained my sanity), I did it quietly, choosing not to list for the bureaucratic and incompetent principal all the things that were wrong with her school, and the public education system in general. I’m polite (and conflict-averse) so I went quietly. But I had seen enough to know that the system was failing, and I’d developed some pretty clear notions about why.

These days, people will post pretty much anything on social media, and teacher resignation letters are no exception. A study out of Michigan State University has examined 22 of these viral letters and an interesting trend has emerged. One that speaks directly to the reasons I, too, couldn’t stay.

“I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children,” one of the letters quoted in the study proclaims. “‘Data-driven’ education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core,” reads another.

It’s not that we shouldn’t require our students to meet certain standards before advancing to the next grade level. Of course we should. And it’s not that we shouldn’t administer tests. We should do that too. There has to be a system of evaluating student progress and supporting students who are falling behind. It’s that we’re expecting all the students to acquire that information in exactly the same way.

See, you can teach a group of children from financially stable homes, with two well-educated parents, who read for pleasure outside of school, and attend a variety of stimulating after school activities, any way you want because (by and large) they’re going to pass the state mandated tests. Teachers in public schools in more affluent communities don’t have to “teach to the test.” They can offer a few periods a week of “test prep” and spend the rest of their time creating and implementing a more creative curriculum that meets the needs of their individual students. All while keeping their federal funding.

But poor students, living in unstable homes, whose parents are uneducated or just plain absent, who are being recruited into gangs and taking care of younger siblings, aren’t going to pass those tests on their own. Which is why schools like the one I taught in have become slaves to the test, implementing rigid “scripted” curricula, focusing only on “test prep” day in and day out, and stifling any attempts to cater to the specific needs of the students.

I’d been hired because of my degree from a school with a very specific teaching philosophy, but every time I tried to implement it in service of teaching my students the things they needed to know in order to pass 4th grade, I was told to stop and get with the program. But the program didn’t work. And the teachers who were achieving the best results were the more experienced ones, who weren’t afraid to close their doors and get on with teaching in the way they thought best.

It’s when I began to believe in school choice. I looked at schools that were achieving success in communities like the one I was working in and I realized that they were all charter schools. Schools that took into consideration the children’s individual situations. Schools like KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy which recognized that, in order for children in lower socio-economic areas to succeed academically, they needed a different kind of approach than their more affluent peers. One that took into account the deficits in role models, economics, nutrition, safety, etc. these children were facing.

In the conclusion to the study on teacher resignation letters, the authors write: “These letters give teachers a voice, and their arguments act as counter narratives to the public narrative that schools are failing because teachers are failing to serve the students they teach.” Teachers are failing to serve their students, but it’s because the government bureaucracy of the public education system won’t let them be successful. It chewed me up and spat me out. And it’s done the same to countless others. Don’t you think it’s time for a change?