When Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan decided to leave his job as high school math teacher for a better paying position in Texas, he didn’t go quietly. Sheehan left “kicking and screaming,” warning Oklahomans that the state’s notoriously underfunded schools are teetering on the brink, even as schemes to privatize education in the state gain momentum.
In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, Alternet education editor Jennifer Berkshire talks to Sheehan and other teachers who are leaving their jobs with a bang. Think resignation letters as a form of activism delivered via blog post or video, and sending a powerful message about the state of public education. And as Michigan State University researcher Alyssa Dunn explains, these very public “I Quit” letters are a sign of the time. You can hear the whole episode here.
Have You Heard: These very public statements from teachers who are leaving the classroom are something of a trend. You argue that they’re a form of protest. Tell us more.
Alyssa Hadley Dunn: I think because so many teachers are experiencing challenging working conditions right now and so when some teachers write their resignation letters, they go viral, because people feel like they are saying what I am feeling and they are speaking for me, even if I feel like I can’t speak for myself. You hear teachers saying things like: “I feel like I have no voice when policies are handed down to me”, “I feel like I’m not as able to be creative in the classroom because my curriculum is being scripted or standardized”, and “I feel like I have to spend a lot of time teaching to the test in this era of high stakes testing and it’s not only harming my students’ learning conditions, it’s harming my working conditions.”
Have You Heard: The teachers you talked to are determined to change the system, even as they’re walking away from it.
Dunn: They feel like their hands have been tied, in terms of being the teachers that they want to be, and they feel like they’re complicit in a broken system if they stay. They’re not indicting the teachers who choose to stay, but they’re saying that “an act of activism, and an act of justice, that I can take is to leave the classroom and to tell people why I’m leaving, so that perhaps the people who stay, the administrators who stay, can use this to make changes for the better.”
Have You Heard: One of the most interesting things you found was that the letters and “I Quit” blog posts that young teachers are writing have a lot in common with teachers who are leaving the classroom after decades. Millenials often get dinged for “bailing,” but the young teachers you talked to seemed to agonize about giving up on their new careers.
Dunn: These were teachers who had really spent their whole lives thinking that they were going to be teachers and then got into the classroom and felt like it was a lot different than what they had anticipated. That was my story too. I’d wanted to be a teacher since 3rd grade. I became a high school teacher in urban schools in Atlanta and I loved my students, but I found the working conditions very challenging, because I was working in a system where it made it difficult to enact justice oriented and student focused learning. Tons of teachers do it every day, but for me, I felt like I was complicit in a system that was oppressing students, in particular students of color.
This is an edited transcript. You can hear the entire podcast here.