For the first time in my adult life, I am sitting in my house during the last week of December having not just finished a teaching semester. Having not just stayed up until after midnight five nights in a row frantically grading essays and projects trying to finish them before break. Having not dressed up for some random holiday spirit day in the middle of all that chaos. Having a chance to breathe a little. It’s an interesting place to be, and it has me feeling all sorts of….reflective? Maybe that’s the right word. I’m looking for the right one, and this is about as close as I can get.
So, since I’ve somewhat landed on “reflective,” I want to spend some time on my first semester in the “real” world (whatever that means) living without bells, without grading, and without feeling constant stress and anxiety–and I also want to talk about why and how I ultimately arrived at my decision to leave the classroom–after all, people only ask me this question, and several others, about a billion times a week.
The most common question that people ask me, by far, is “Why did you leave teaching if you loved it so much?” So, why did I leave, you ask? In true Elyse Myers fashion (find her on TikTok; you’re welcome): I would love to tell you. I left teaching because I absolutely have a passion for supporting teachers. I love teachers; I respect teachers; almost every hero in my life, save my own mother, is a teacher. So, of course I want to support them. I wrote a whole book about it. And as I talked to people, and as I wrote, it became pretty apparent to me that literally no one was showing up for these professionals to support them in how they processed what they went through. So, yes, I left because of this.
I also left because the last two years that I spent in the classroom–literally since Covid started–were some of the most disenfranchising, disappointing years of my life. I learned that most of what I thought was true about the profession I loved wasn’t true at all. I spent those two years feeling more isolated and alone than I have ever felt in my life.
And I know that I’m not the only teacher in this country who feels this way right now.
I absolutely went through an intense grieving process. All of the love I had for my students that had nowhere to go, leaked out of my eyeballs in the form of tears–and at times, the love I have for them still steals my breath.
I told everyone I was getting a “real” job, even though school will always be what I first consider to be a “real job.” And in a sense, I did. There are no bells ringing every 50 minutes. And I can pee whenever I want to. But this real job–only really in the sense that I have an office and a desk and I have to attend a ton of meetings–has taught me so many lessons over the course of the last four months–both good and bad.
What have I learned? I learned that I miss kids so much it hurts. Like, I actually feel physical pain, my heart catches when I see them or talk to them, and sometimes I just cry when I hear from them. I learned that they were, as I suspected, the best part of my job and the biggest reason I stayed as long as I did. I don’t cry as often now as I did when I first left, but I absolutely went through an intense grieving process. All of the love I had for my students that had nowhere to go, leaked out of my eyeballs in the form of tears–and at times, the love I have for them still steals my breath, but I am coping much better.
I have also learned that there are times that this “real” job doesn’t feel so good. I scare people. I am an up-close version of something they’ve been trying to avoid: the hard things in education. But I represent that; I talk about that; I expect them to learn about it and use it to serve the audience we are serving. And they resist. Some resist so hard that it’s painful for me. I have learned, through their resistance, that being a leader is H-A-R-D. That taking a group of people through a massive organizational change with the help of those who are leading me, is one of the hardest things I’ll ever do.
Even still, I have learned, on the hardest days, my biggest and best superpower is being an empath. I have learned that modeling the behavior I expect from people by leaning IN when feelings and situations are scary, as opposed to leaning back, is the single most effective thing I have done so far.
And when people feel safe with their leader, they listen; they perform; they take risks; they better the organization they work for.
Empathy remains my single most important personal quality–and when I was a teacher, I was told that I was too emotional. That my feelings were too big or too strong. That leading with emotion was a bad thing. That I wasn’t going to get anywhere, or that I was going to lose the respect of my students or my colleagues if I kept allowing my feelings to be so evident.
Interestingly enough, I have found that leading with empathy has been one of the best choices I have ever made. It makes people feel safe with me–because they are safe with me. And when people feel safe with their leader, they listen; they perform; they take risks; they better the organization they work for. I will never stop using my superpower for good in this way–my “real” job has taught me that being an empath is a gift rather than a hindrance, and I am so thankful for that.
The second most common question people have asked is whether or not I regret leaving the classroom. Usually, most days, my answer is that no, I don’t. My logical brain and I know that this was the right move. But there are days, when leading with empathy is hard and adjusting to a whole new life makes me want to cry–or makes me actually cry–that I ache so hard for kids that if you handed me a classroom and 150 essays, I would take them. This has happened more than once.
But then I remember.
I have seen my son more in the last four months than I have ever seen him in his life. I remember that this is what my family needed, and that even though I probably won’t ever be a classroom teacher again, I have accepted that, which is hard and OK at the same time. I also know that being sad about making the right decision is OK–even on the days that I struggle to remember who or what I even am anymore. I’m terrible at being new at things, but this new thing is important, so I will keep going.
The third question people ask me is what might have convinced me to stay in the classroom. And this, friends, is the hardest question. You know why? Because. Remember when I said that I went through an intense grieving process when I left teaching? That’s true. But do you know what is also true about grief? Part of grief is anger, and so for a long time after I walked out of school for the last time, I would tell people that nothing could have convinced me to stay. This is because I was still angry–I hadn’t totally worked through that yet. But I know now that I’m not being honest when I say that. I know now that, at least for me, teaching became such a toxic relationship that in order to have stayed, big changes would have needed to occur.
When I say “toxic relationship,” people get all bent out of shape, and so I want to be clear about some things. First. I worked in a department of brilliant people, and as a whole, my district leadership was incredible. So, with all of that understood, what did I need? What would have convinced me to stay? I would have stayed for kids, except that was no longer enough. I needed a relationship that was responsive to my needs. I needed a relationship that was rooted in caring, compassionate leadership where there was value placed on my skill sets and my contributions. I needed a relationship where I felt led and valued, and where I had a leadership team that valued people and relationships over data and test scores. This would have been the ideal scenario, and it’s unfortunate that this wasn’t the experience I had that impacted me the most.
In the last two years, the world has been one massive dumpster fire–for me, this has been both personal and professional. But also for me, and for so many of you, the personal and the professional will always go hand-in-hand. I have always been and will always be a believer that people are people first and that they should be treated as such. I will always be a believer that teachers should be allowed to be humans, and that leading with empathy and compassion will always be of immeasurable value to these humans who are educating all of the other humans.
So, as I reflect on my superpowers and how they’re being used in my new role, I am so thankful that one of the ways I am encouraged to lead and serve others is with an open heart. School leaders, my support for you is endless–my love for you is without bounds. But my plea to you is that you don’t let the “pressure” of test scores, learning gaps (this is a fake societal construct–don’t get sucked in), and all the other silliness that our world tries to use to trick you into thinking that numbers matter more than people.
The key to keeping our teachers healthy is showing up for them; it is investing in them. It is showing them that we value what they do, that we appreciate and love their individual gifts, and loving on them the way they need to be loved.
Instead, as you return to school in January, what if you led with heart and compassion? What if your teachers felt how much you care about them instead of wondering? What if we focused on our workforce, the people keeping our schools in business, and building relationships with them? The key to keeping our teachers healthy is showing up for them; it is investing in them. It is showing them that we value what they do, that we appreciate and love their individual gifts, and loving on them the way they need to be loved.
As we start this next semester, in a totally inconceivable third Covid school year, in an impossibly hard climate, my call-to-action is this: live your conviction to leadership out loud. Show your people why they matter to you, to the mission of your school. Do it on purpose, and do it often. I promise, it will pay dividends. And if you have any teachers on your staff who are feeling how I was feeling? It just might be what keeps them in your buildings. Our profession literally depends on it.