The media is full of stories these days about why teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Their accounts resonate with me deeply. But some pandemic soul searching prompted me to make the opposition decision. Last fall, I began teaching fourth grade at a local public school in my neighborhood in Manhattan. Today, even after a grueling year, I’m convinced that the decision I made was the right one.
When I left teaching in 2012, I was convinced that I’d never go back. I’d gone into teaching after a previous career as a writer and editor, and for six years, I taught at a public school that was considered one of the best in Brooklyn. My colleagues were dedicated, hardworking and committed to the academic success and social-emotional well-being of their students. The work was also deeply rewarding. I felt good about what I was doing, and it was wonderful to help students learn and grow. I loved watching them master new skills and I enjoyed the many small moments of connection.
Still, the stress was constant and, like all teachers I know, I never felt like I was doing enough. This was the height of the Bloomberg era, and the demands for data were unrelenting. I typically left home at 7AM and stayed at school till 6PM, then worked for a few more hours at home. Planning, grading, and addressing students’ different academic levels as well as the diverse social and emotional needs of my students were all consuming. Then there were the ongoing challenges of managing my classroom and communicating with families.
After my first daughter was born in 2010, my teaching job started to feel unsustainable. Like many new working parents, my husband and I negotiated constantly over who would stay home when our daughter was sick. When our second daughter arrived, the work-life stress only ratcheted up further. By 2012 I was done. Crucially, I was not planning on leaving the workforce. I took another full-time job, this one in education publishing, right away. It was teaching that felt like the problem to me. As much as I loved the classroom and my colleagues, the heavy workload, the stress, and the ever-increasing demands made teaching seem impossible as a career.
I worked at a variety of jobs after leaving the classroom: for a big corporate publishing company, as a museum educator, and as a freelance journalist. But I missed teaching. I remembered the intense joy I’d felt teaching writing and reading aloud with my students. I didn’t feel that way working in other sectors. Five years ago, I began substitute teaching in an effort to recapture that feeling. But while I appreciated that I could leave for the day without bringing grading or planning work home, subbing still wasn’t the same as having my own classroom.
As I watched the divisions that took hold during the Trump years grow deeper during the pandemic, I was moved to think about what I could do to help my community. Much of what I loved and missed about teaching was the opportunity to form deep and trusting relationships with kids and help them practice respect and really listening to each other. In some small but important ways elementary school teachers can address divides between kids at a time when they are generally still open to working out their differences.
And so, I decided to make my way back to the classroom. This school year has held challenges of all kinds. Teaching in an integrated co-teaching class which includes special education and general education students, I often felt like a brand new teacher again. COVID tore through our classroom, requiring us to provide a remote option to students in addition to our in-person teaching. And many of our students had been remote for a year, meaning that they’ve had to get used to being back in a classroom again just as I have.
I still feel much of the same stress I felt when I taught before, and I often bring work home at night. But I am better at managing the demands of the job and keeping things in perspective. I’m also fortunate enough to be able to teach in a state and city where teachers earn a decent salary, solid benefits, including a good pension, and have the protection of a strong union. I value those things, too.
Despite the significant challenges faced by teachers and their schools right now, I’ve chosen to embrace the profession anew. I believe that teaching is a valuable, worthwhile career. We help kids learn and grow and work on relating to each other at a time when such skills have never been more essential. While I know that teaching is not for everyone, it is the right profession for me. It is my hope that teachers will be better recognized and supported throughout the country so that others will follow my lead.
Melanie Kletter teaches fourth grade in a New York City public school in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. She is also a children’s book reviewer and freelance writer and editor. Melanie worked as a journalist before getting her master’s degree in education at Teachers College. She is an avid runner, biker, and baker, and she loves reading graphic novels and listening to audiobooks with her two school-aged daughters.