Dulce-Marie Flecha spent five years in a classroom, three of them teaching some of New York City’s most disadvantaged kids. But this fall, Flecha isn’t headed back to school; she just started a job at a nonprofit earning less than she could make as a senior teacher, instead. Why’d she quit? “I’m trying to think of a good summarizing reason,” she said, “but honestly, there are more reasons to leave than there are to stay in education right now. At a certain point you kind of have to pay for your own sanity, you know?”
Flecha regularly worked 10 or even 12 hours, meaning she rarely saw her boyfriend and couldn’t see how she’d start the family she envisioned. She frequently spent her own money on supplies for her students. Even when she wasn’t technically working, Flecha stressed about meeting what seemed to be a constantly shifting set of standards, and felt pulled in all directions by parent and student expectations that varied wildly from district and school expectations. “There were a lot of different voices in [my] ear at the same time,” Flecha said. Running on “pure passion” just wasn’t sustainable.
“There’s this sort of unsaid expectation that teachers should be happy to give up so much time and money out of love for children,” Flecha said. More money and mentorship might keep some people in the profession longer, she added, but novice teachers need honest advice about the demands they will face. “I don’t think anybody told me I was going to cry under my desk.”
That’s especially true for people who don’t study education in college and instead end up in classrooms through programs like Teach for America, which allows for just several months of training instead of four years. After studying political science, Matt Brown was dispatched through the program to an inner-city New Orleans school to teach fourth grade. He lasted one year before leaving for a desk job in human resources. “I made $4,000 more and worked half as much,” he said. “Nobody cussed at me, nobody tried to choke me, I didn’t go home crying.” Nearly all of his students were low-income and he found himself trying to address myriad non-academic needs without adequate support or training. More professional development might help, he said, “but I don’t think that would have been enough to keep me there.” Brown didn’t see a clear career trajectory and work-life balance was elusive, which made imagining a rewarding future in teaching difficult. Most of the people he started teaching with left the profession, too, he said.
Raheem Jarbo, who became a teacher through a similar initiative in Philadelphia after majoring in English, taught for about nine years, but also ultimately left to pursue a rap career under the name Mega Ran. “It wasn’t the students” that prompted him to switch careers, he said, “it was the administration. I miss the students a lot.” As an African American man, he felt pressure from mentors and others to stay and serve as a role model for the young boys of color in his classroom who saw few other teachers like him, he said, but he felt stifled creatively, and navigating relationships with administrators who seemed more concerned about passing grades and test scores than learning, and with parents who either couldn’t or wouldn’t become involved, proved tricky.