I’ve been an educator for 14 years, over a third of my life. When I first began, even as a lowly graduate assistant, I had near autonomy in the classroom. There were basic course guidelines, but virtually all of the design was left to my discretion, from day to day instruction to essay prompts. The rationale was that in the marketplace of ideas, effective educators would thrive and the rest would weed themselves out.
For the first couple of years, I struggled to find my stride. Like most young teachers, I thought my job was to cover as much ground as I could. Then, I figured out on my own that students learned much more if I focused on essential fundamentals and strove for quality in those basics. My real job, as I learned, was to teach people how to teach themselves.
I hope it doesn’t come across as too arrogant to say that for many years, I was a great teacher. Dozens of students came back long after my class was over, when there was no incentive to do so, and thanked me for helping them succeed in college. I’m deeply proud of the work I did and the lives I touched.
Today, I’m a shell of that person. The system has burned me out and used me up. I still try to give my best, but I simply have little left. I feel it when I try to lecture, when I grade, when I trudge out the door dreading each day. There are numerous reasons for my burn out, and I’ve written about them quite often. One of the biggest, however, is the slow erosion of autonomy.
Each semester, the state dictates more and more of what we do in the classroom. Each semester, we have less authority over what and how we teach. The trend is toward homogeneous curriculum. In theory and on the surface that sounds reasonable, but anyone who knows anything substantive about education should be able to tell you that the key to effectiveness is adaptation to specific student needs based off specific instructor strengths.
I hate hating a job I once loved. I miss leaving the house each day thrilled that I get paid to share my knowledge and passion for a subject I adore. I miss getting to work one on one with students, knowing not only their names but their specific writing deficiencies, too. I miss feeling like what I do actually matters.
Today, we as educators are stuck between bureaucracies that see us as disposable, replaceable commodities and students who see us as obstacles to success. There simply aren’t words to convey the sadness, frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal I feel over what has been done to my profession.
Part of me wants to hang on for one more year to have my retirement vested. It’s not much money, but it’s enough that I’d like to have it. Part of me wants to walk away today. All of me recognizes that I have to get out soon. My primary goal and focus has always been to write, and somehow I have to make that happen now. I’m not sure how I’ll break through the locked gate, but somehow, I must. There simply isn’t any way I can continue in this system under these conditions.