When Jamilah Pitts decided to switch from teaching English at a New York public school to working in administration, she felt immediately riddled by guilt. “A large part of the reason why I was able to have experiences that were vastly different from my family members and peers that I grew up with ... was the role that other educators played in my life,” she says. “And so for me, it felt really selfish and really difficult to walk away from the students in that capacity.”
However, with little time to eat lunch or even use the restroom, Pitts felt not only overwhelmed by the mental and physical demands of teaching itself, but by the unique challenges she faced as a black educator. “As a black woman teaching predominantly students of color ... it was really difficult to not carry home the burdens, the stories,” she says. “It was really difficult to turn that off and then to walk home and leave it.”
Part of the problem, says Pitts, is that she could understand so well the racism, sexism, and oppression that they were going through. “It is really difficult to teach about something and try to mitigate something while you are living it,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And then to have your students represent that back for you ... it was overwhelming in ways that I can't fully describe.” Ultimately, she felt that taking on an administrative role —where she still interacts with students — would be a better choice. But it wasn’t an easy one. “Teaching was my life's calling,” she says. “It wasn't just a job for me.”
Pitts is one of more than 50 teachers who decided to share their story of leaving the field with Yahoo Lifestyle. Her answers, some of which have been edited for clarity, are below.
Location: New York, New York
Years teaching: 6
Did you ever feel like your mental health was in jeopardy as a teacher?
Absolutely. Sleep was definitely affected. I'm very much an empath and very much struggle with anxiety. There was one point in my teaching career where in order to make it through the rest of the year I was taking antidepressants — and that's something I'm not shy about. And I won't blame the teaching profession per se because there are a lot of different things that go into mental health. But when you're in an environment that is not conducive to caring for yourself it amplifies it and it can make it worse. And for me, remaining in the classroom was a part of that.
What about physical challenges?
I am pretty sure that my bladder has changed because of teaching. Some days I had no bathroom breaks. Honestly, none. It depends on the amount of time you have in between transitions. If you are a teacher that has to teach them multiple classrooms, for example ... But there were definitely days when I would have to send an all-staff email like “I need to step out of my classroom and use the restroom. Can someone please come relieve me?” I mean, a doctor has not diagnosed this yet, but I am pretty sure that my teaching schedule impacted my bladder.
What were your main feelings about walking away?
There was just a tremendous amount of guilt and there were many moments when I did feel selfish ... teaching was my life's calling, it wasn't just a job for me. It wasn't just a career, and so it felt really, really difficult and selfish to walk away. But ultimately that was something that I had to rectify within myself. You cannot pour out if you are empty. And there were just many days when I was constantly empty and I was pouring out from an empty cup.
I think it's important to say that it was never, ever my students. The students [are] why I stayed in the work, why I decided to show up every day ... last year was my first full year out of the classroom. But definitely there's a really special and powerful exchange that comes from the classroom and day in and day out ... I think that teachers are very much in the trenches. There are a lot of things that can be improved, but there is nothing as enriching and rewarding as it is to teach.
Video: Why Teachers in America Are Leaving the Classroom
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