Last month, after seven years, I resigned from my job teaching high school English.
When I started teaching, I imagined I was going to be like Mr. Keating. Except a woman. Academic, iconoclastic, warm, challenging. I’d wear glasses and corduroy and teach only in the autumn, bathed in yellow light. My memory of Dead Poets Society, a movie I’d watched almost every weekend for most of tenth grade, was murky and romanticized enough that I’d managed to remember only the atmosphere and had completely forgotten key plot points. Like the suicide of one of Mr. Keating’s students, Neil.
At the school where I worked my first year teaching, the film appeared in the sophomore curriculum as a study of Romanticism and Realism in a unit about coming-of-age. I eagerly anticipated screening the film for my class, remembering how it had made me feel an intense but vague love of literature and academia. As we watched it together, though, I noticed other things that had escaped my fifteen-year-old self’s attention.
In the first exchange he has with his students, Mr. Keating grants them students permission to compare him to Abraham Lincoln. “You can either call me Mr. Keating, or, if you’re slightly more daring, ‘O Captain My Captain’,” he tells the boys on their first day, conducting class in a hallway surrounded by photographs of long-dead Welton alumni. Later, Neil comes to Mr. Keating’s faculty dorm suite seeking advice for how to deal with his father’s rigid expectations and cold demands that he give up acting and become a doctor. Neil asks about the framed photograph of a beautiful woman Mr. Keating has displayed. Mr. Keating explains that he can’t be with this woman, the love of his life. She is in London and he cannot leave Welton. Watching this scene as an adult, a teacher myself, the obvious question was, Could he not teach English in London? It’s hard to imagine a career more geographically flexible than teaching high school English. While Mr. Keating encourages his students to seize the day, he lives in his high school dorm, mythologizing the teacher he’s become.
After Neil’s suicide, the school administration convinces some of the boys in Mr. Keating’s class to come forward about the ways in which their teacher is responsible for Neil’s suicide and other dangerous and rebellious behavior recently observed on campus. Hoping to appear to have addressed the cause of Neil’s death swiftly and harshly, the administration forces Mr. Keating to resign in disgrace. As he is escorted from the classroom, his students stand on their desks, saluting him as “Captain” one final time. Even students who didn’t seem to be in his inner-circle, who never read poetry at night in the woodland cave or attended Neil’s theatrical debut as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream stand. Those few who remain seated are the boys we’ve been primed to disdain (the priggish, rule-loving conformist Cameron, for example, is the student who proudly cooperates with the administration, blaming Keating to escape censure himself).
As a student I took the standing-on-the-desks scene to be a sign of the boys’ rebelliousness. Something Holden Caulfield, another of my adolescent heroes, would have done. Yet, when I showed the movie to my own students, I thought: phonies coming in the goddamn window!
I can’t decide which interpretation Peter Weir intended. The heavy-handed allusions to various Romantic poets make Whitman’s poem the likely key. If Keating is Lincoln, he’s emancipated the boys from a life of servitude (he even tells Neil “you are not an indentured servant!”—a line that I loved so much in high school that I wrote it down and hung it on my wall, despite the fact that neither my parents nor my teachers had done anything to make me feel remotely indentured to them) and the cost is his own life. The boys, like the speaker of “O Captain My Captain,” stand to salute their fallen hero. Like servicemen, in uniform. Are we supposed to glean something megalomanical about Keating’s cultivation, like the much more overtly nefarious Jean Brodie, of a set of student admirers? Or are we meant to take Neil’s death and Keating’s dismissal as casualties of The System and the boys’ standing salute as a sign that despite the death and the dismissal, Keating has changed lives and leaves a legacy of day-seizing boys in his wake?
On March 31, 2015, the New York State Legislature voted to approve a new education budget that would tie a teacher’s evaluation even more closely to standardized test scores. Much has already been written about the problems with highly incentivized standardized tests, not the least of which involve the impossibility of fairly comparing a teacher of an AP class in a wealthy suburban district to a teacher of struggling students in a high school without adequate resources. Even in my own wealthy, safe, high-achieving district, the ways in which tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores changes the nature of teaching were both clear and alarming.
What I found even more horrifying, though perhaps not surprising, was the rhetoric around these changes. New York State Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo defended her vote in support of the bill, saying:
Those teachers that are responsible and are doing their job, those teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children they serve are going to be protected. Those that are not good, better get a job at McDonalds.
To be a good teacher is to sacrifice one’s family and one’s self? About what other professions would this claim be made? Perhaps a soldier? Or the President of the United States? Would anyone say this about her lawyer? Her dentist? Her accountant? Her state assemblywoman? Teaching is important, no doubt, and in some wonderful cases, a teacher can be the catalyst for significant and meaningful change in a student’s life. I did have such a teacher, and it was because of him that I began to see writing and reading as central to my identity, that I went to the college I did, studied literature there, and eventually became a teacher myself. But to say that the path to “being responsible” and merely “doing [one’s] job” is to sacrifice self and family is absurd.
The Mr. Keatings and LouAnne Johnsons (the teacher played by Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds) and Mr. Hollands (the music teacher who nearly destroys his family by connecting more deeply with his students than his deaf son in Mr. Holland’s Opus) represent the Good Teacher archetype, often presented as the only alternative to the Bad Teacher. The Bad Teacher archetype hides behind support from his union, reads the newspaper with his feet on the desk, lives for summers off, grades arbitrarily, and in some cases, lusts after his underage students.
When I’m asked about the factors that lead to my decision to leave teaching after my daughter was born (fellow teachers never ask this question, but instead offer affirmation), I’m tempted to point to external causes: the unchecked entitlement of parents, spineless administrators, paradoxically lowered standards in a move to ensure all teachers showed “demonstrable” progress with data, increasing demands of paperwork whose only purpose seemed to be covering the school in case of a lawsuit. I can tell stories, and risk growing consumed with rage over any one of these issues. They are real contributors to teacher burnout. But, for me at least, the real reason I knew so clearly that I wanted to leave teaching, while certainly connected to those external causes, is more complicated.
I’m not sure if teaching does demand the Keating-Johnson-Holland kind of sacrifice, but it’s become such a part of our way of validating teachers that parents expect it… students expect it… and it’s become the currency we trade in rather than financial compensation or professional respect or autonomy.
Yes, of course, there are some teachers who fit that other archetype: teachers who live for their summers off, burned-out veterans re-using the same lessons year after year, sloppy has-beens dependent on the support of their union and the job security tenure provides. But most teachers I know want to do their jobs well. Most like to imagine that they’ve changed at least some students’ lives, or at least made the hours spent in their classrooms more engaging. Teaching is by nature easier the better you are at it. If you can control a classroom, think on your feet, respond to questions with confidence, and create an excited and engaged environment, the day-to-day is pleasant and rewarding. Being the kind of lazy, disgruntled teacher that legislators often paint as the strawman in anti-union or pro-Common Core arguments would make the days, even minutes seem endless.
In most communities, teachers are compensated so poorly and afforded so little respect that in many cases the primary compensation is martyrdom.
The day before my wedding, I sat in a meeting with my department chair and two parents, furious over my refusal to round a borderline grade up. The student in question had “worked hard” in the sense that she was extremely motivated by grades, but was often absent on the days of major assignments and the conversations we had about her writing stalled out over and over again when she would push the paper back toward me and ask, frustrated and impatient, “what should I put in to get my grade up?”
These particular parents were known for this type of meeting. They’d been calling them at least once a year since their daughter was in middle school. Other teachers who walked past the office during my meeting with them later wrote me sympathetic notes that recalled their own such encounter.
The meeting began with a self-described “emotional plea” from the girl’s father. He told me his daughter felt bad about herself because his sister (who I also taught, and for whom my teaching and grading methods did not seem to be a problem) was doing better in school, and said he was sure I could imagine how hard that was on their family. When that did not result in a grade change, the father and mother began to speak together, building their case: I did not work hard enough. I did not spend enough time grading their daughter’s rewritten papers. I was lazy. In particular, they were outraged that I could only meet with their daughter for half an hour at a time after school. Part of the reason these parents felt I should change their daughter’s grade was although I’d managed to meet with her more than ten times one-on-one during the marking period, I had once been unable to meet with her immediately following class because I had to use the restroom.
Although I’d made a increased effort to save some of my emotional energy for myself and my family (I’m sure Assemblywoman Arroyo would be disappointed), during that school year, I was teaching five different courses, four of which I’d never taught before. My days were routinely filled with grading before dawn, rushing to school to meet with a student or two before the first bell of the day rang, teaching my classes, meeting with students during each free period, lunch, and after school until I rushed off to cross country practice, often changing behind the cart of hurdles in the storage shed to save time. I’d get home, cook dinner, do some reading for class, clean up, and fall asleep exhausted.
There was a time when I might have met these parents’ definition of a good teacher. During my first few years, I often stayed at school until seven, grading, helping students with a group project, providing emotional support or advice. I carried my stacks of papers around with me all weekend. I commented on my AP Language class’s blog before and after Sunday night family dinner. I lost sleep obsessing over struggling students, called parents, guidance counselors, school psychologists on the weekends.
Yet, none of this was selfless.
It made me feel important at a time when, single in a suburban area full of families, I felt profoundly lonely. Mattering that much was not just satisfying but thrilling. I used to say, with what I’m sure was somewhat grating earnestness, “I love my job,” all the time.
The resignation letter I wrote to my district’s HR department cites a desire to stay at home with my infant daughter. That’s both the easiest story to tell and the story that’s almost all true about why I left teaching. The other part of the story is that I would have left teaching years ago had it felt socially acceptable to just up and resign from a stable job I knew I did reasonably well and didn’t hate. Instead of leaving, I began to distance myself. I steeled myself against parent complaints and students who didn’t like me. I began to refer struggling students to the appropriate person—i.e., not me—and to make myself less and less emotionally available. Doing this made teaching slightly more sustainable, but it also made it less satisfying. I was no longer compensated with my martyrdom, with obsessive gratefulness of wounded teenagers or appreciation from parents with unreasonable expectations.
At first, this shift was an enormous relief. I even changed schools, feeling that a new start would allow me to feel more professional, less martyr-ish. That I could be removed from the young, inexperienced, desperate-to-connect teacher I’d been. Looking back now, though, I realize that the area between being professional and being burned out is grey.
I do know that now, when I watch my daughter sleep and think about how I’d do anything for her, how I’d stay up all night or cut off my arm or wade through excrement or summon the strength to rip apart a wall to get to her, I don’t feel the same kind of self-importance or thrill that I felt zooming in to check on a student at home or staying late to talk through a traumatic breakup. With Thea, this fierce love is not about me.