By Ian McLaughlin
Across America, there are successful schools and there are failing schools. There are successful private schools, district schools, charter schools; successful schools in poor rural and urban landscapes, and successful schools in wealthy suburb and urban landscapes. Conversely, there are failing private, district, and charter schools in varying landscapes across the country (albeit disproportionately more often in areas with lower socioeconomic levels and neighborhoods of color).
For different communities and educators success might be measured by No Child Left Behind, high school graduation rates, post-secondary graduation rates, literacy, the absence of a racially predictive opportunity gap, or happy students, happy families and happy teachers ... success means something different to different people. Regardless of how you define a successful school, when teachers feel we no longer work in a successful environment, we start to ponder how much longer we can stay. But how can you make the decision to stay or to leave a failing school when you are connected to the community?
Below are the five questions I asked myself before leaving a failing school—failure in that we promised students and families we were setting students up for college, but our lack of standards and systems were really setting students up to drop out in their first post-secondary semesters.
5 Questions to Consider When Contemplating Leaving a Struggling or Failing School:
1. Does this job bring out the best in me?
People who work a 40-hour workweek and spend 8 hours a night sleeping work roughly 36% of their awake life, and in reality, how many teachers stick to a mere 40-hour workweek? If your job does not bring out the best in you, that means you are subpar over 1/3 of your awake life. You deserve to be better, and your students deserve educators at their best.
2. Do I feel happy or upset the majority of the time?
Like any relationship, a teacher’s relationship with their school comes with trials and tribulations, struggles that ultimately strengthen the relationship or break it. However, feeling bad the majority of the time is a toxic relationship.
3. Does staying in this job help or stunt my professional growth?
Teachers are forever students. We are always learning, bettering our pedagogy, growing as educators. When that growth stalls or backslides go back to question #1: are you your best self? And what do students deserve?
4. Do I have hope in the long-term outcomes?
Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Today might have been difficult. That’s ok. "Today" is often difficult in teaching. Teaching is not an easy job. But optimism can get teachers through the toughest of days. However, when your school no longer supports hope, no longer supports optimism, it can be hard to continue to bring your best self, to feel good the majority of the time, or to continue to grow as an educator and be what your students need.
5. Am I the Messiah?
This last question has only one unequivocal answer: NO. 75% of teachers report becoming a teacher because they want to make a difference—I get it, this is why I am a teacher. It feels good to have a positive impact on students' lives. That said, there is a difference between being a teacher to make a difference and being a teacher to save children (i.e., "the savior complex"). Children don't need saviors and martyrs, they need great teachers. Jump back to question #3: is your current job supporting you in being a great teacher or not?
It can be very difficult to leave students and families you have built relationships with—especially if you are leaving them in a school you believe to be failing. But a student in a failing school does not need another failing teacher. What will happen to your students if you leave? What will happen to your students if you stay and fail to be the great teacher they need? Sometimes, by staying in a failing system, we perpetuate the system. We legitimatize the system. We become the system.
There is no set of answers that indicate it is or is not the time to leave a failing school. Maybe systems will change. Maybe you can help change the system. Maybe this will help you grow. Maybe you feel successful with your students even though the systems are crashing around you. Maybe there’s no better option. Maybe it is ... time to move on?
I worked for several years in a failing school before I stopped bringing my best self to work, before I was upset more often than happy, before my growth stalled, before my predictions saw outcomes getting worse, before I realised I didn't have the power or skill or energy left to try and change things. I left a failing school to help found a new school where we still have tough times; Mondays are still difficult and Fridays are still great, but I love coming to work. I have grown more than ever before. I am hopeful for our students' long-term outcomes and my work is sustainable. I waited years to leave a failing school for good reasons, but in the end I left; I made the right choice for myself and future students. There is never an easy choice, but hopefully, these questions can help you figure out what is the right choice for you.