I Love Being a Teacher, But I Can’t Survive on Compassion

In 1998, I began my journey as an elementary teacher under the tutelage of my aunt and revered educator, Marva N. Collins. My mother was also a teacher, so I saw firsthand what it meant to be a passionate educator who is deeply committed to students. Their commitment and passion for teaching were the reasons why I chose this profession. After watching them devote time and energy to their craft, I entered the profession with enthusiasm and excitement, not knowing what the next 25 years would bring.

I wanted to become a teacher with a calming presence and a positive attitude — a teacher who could help all students succeed. Unfortunately, becoming the teacher I wanted to be has taken more energy than I thought it would.

After more than two decades in the classroom, supporting students facing intense challenges in their home lives and trying to keep up with the unrealistic expectations set by administrators, I’ve finally hit my breaking point and all the compassion I have for my students and my dedication to the field may not be enough to help me recover.

How It All Began

When I began my first position as an English language arts teacher on the north side of St. Louis, I remember walking into the building as books and computers were thrown out of the third-floor window. Next door, there was a halfway house filled with young men, some of whom were fathers to the students I would be teaching. I remember wondering, “What in the world am I committing myself to?” My four years in college studying to become an educator did not prepare me for what I encountered. I was coming to teach the masses, full of hope and determination – how quickly I had to change focus.

Once I entered the school building, a young man was being detained for his behavior. I asked the school officer if I could speak with him, and she reluctantly agreed. When I asked him his name and why he was behaving this way, he became immediately defensive, asserting that I would soon be run out of the school like the teachers before me.

I knew from watching my mother that you couldn’t put out a fire with fire, so I decided to take a gentler approach, reminding him that despite his resistance, I was there to provide support and understand his issue better. Eventually, he revealed that the teacher had asked him to read; when I asked if he knew how to read, he dropped his head while a tear rolled down his face. His admission made me emotional, but I quickly gathered myself and told him if he gave me the opportunity, I would help him learn how to read.

I could only imagine what it felt like for a 13-year-old boy to be in the eighth grade and unable to read. His behavior became an outlet for his anger but all he needed was someone to listen and acknowledge his pain. This ended up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship. For years, Eric had seen people quit and move him along without any care for his needs. I was the change and hope he needed, but I would soon learn there were so many more like him.

Unrealistic Expectations

I remember being so excited about my role as a teacher — the creativity I possessed, the influence I knew I would have, and the sheer joy I gained knowing that one day, I would be a change agent. By the end of my fifth year of teaching, though, that excitement had changed. I became inundated with demanding and unrealistic expectations and realized that one of the key ingredients to supporting my students was supportive leadership, and we didn’t have that at my school.

In fact, most of the administrators I worked with daily did not know the challenges students would come into the classroom with, much less what took place in the classroom. Most administrators were more concerned with meeting academic standards and metrics than offering holistic support to students who couldn’t meet these standards because of their personal challenges.

In my current role as a school and community engagement manager, I work with students and families facing a range of challenges — often very serious situations such as experiencing homelessness or community violence. It’s not uncommon for the trauma to follow my students into school. This kind of work makes it hard to disconnect, and the weight of my students’ personal hardships regularly follows me home at night.

Even though I knew I would have to endure classroom challenges without the support of administrators, I refused to give up despite the negative impact it had on my mental health and well-being. I know I am a capable teacher who can speak out against administrative issues and advocate for students who experience marginalization that impacts their academic performance. After all, I’ve always been a rebel, and I follow in the footsteps of my mother, who retired from teaching because she refused to conform.

I was committed to meeting my students where they were. I chose to stay and fight for them, but compassion has a cost that almost always falls to the teacher.

Staying in the Fight

To sustain in this field, you must possess a level of mental toughness and tenacity to endure. It is hard, and I, along with so many others, question whether our compassion for our students is enough to fix the state of our education system and keep us in the profession.

While I want to save my students, I know that there is only so much I can do before the weight of it all bears down on me. I was and still am in the trenches, fighting for what I believe my students and their families deserve – but this work isn’t for the faint of heart.

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